On a sunny corner in the heart of Denver sits the First Baptist Church. This church, which is directly across the street from the state capitol’s south steps, has long been a place that prides itself on welcoming individuals of all walks of life into its congregation.
In 1962, Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King preached here, and inclusivity is written into the values of this church, which describes its community as intentional, bridge-building, welcoming, graceful, healing, and healthy. Multiple members of the current staff are part of the LGBTQ community.
Those who stop by First Baptist on a Sunday afternoon will be able to see the welcoming attitude of this church firsthand, as around 35 seniors from the LGBTQ community fill the building with music during their weekly practice. They are the Sage Singers, the first-ever chorus in the country specifically for LGBTQ seniors.
I had the opportunity to stop by a Sage Singers rehearsal in late October of last year. It was a warm, sunny day, and the church was lit up with natural light seeping through the windows.
The weather reflected the mood of the group, as everyone was in great spirits, clearly incredibly happy to be there. That day, there were only 20 singers practicing two different songs for their upcoming performance, a small-scale event that took place in December.
Among the singers that day was Judith Nelson. Although making Sage Singers a reality required the efforts of many individuals, creating this group was Nelson’s idea. She and her partner, Carol White, have been involved in the LGBTQ choir scene for decades, and White has founded four local choruses. For Nelson, music just became part of life, something that is as natural as waking up in the morning and going to bed at night.
She first got the idea for starting Sage Singers after watching the documentary Young at Heart, which details the story of a Boston-based singing group completely comprised of older people. After watching that movie, she realized that a similar group was needed, but specifically for LGBTQ seniors. Through this chorus, she hopes to give voice to this group of people who have endured a lot of silence.
“Our generation of older LGBT people have seen a lot in our lives,” Nelson explained. “Many of us had to be closeted for so many years, because you might lose your job or you might get kicked out of where you live. I thinks it’s a pretty special generation, and their life experiences are incredible. They need to be celebrated and need a place to stand up and say, ‘This is who I am, and this is my story.’”
Nelson firmly believes that a chorus is an excellent place to find this voice to tell and rejoice in one’s story. “There’s no better way to celebrate something than by singing.”
Kevin Crowe, the young conductor of Sage Singers, agrees.
“It’s so important for the rest of us, the younger generations, to hear their stories, because we live in a time when people are recording everything. The individuals in this choir grew up in a time when none of this was recorded, none of it was even talked about, so their memories are what we have of our community over the last 50 years,” he said.
Through Sage Singers, both Nelson and Crowe hope that the members of this community will find more ways to share their past experiences while they also celebrate who and where they are today.
For decades, choruses have served this role within the LGBTQ community. The appeal lies in the creation of safe space and camaraderie through a template that, by nature, means one cannot hide who one is—if one joins a chorus for gay men, it’s hard to deny that they themselves are gay.
“It’s all the best parts of activism together—the solidarity, the security, but also the public face,” Crowe explained.
Choruses have also served the LGBTQ community through some of their toughest times. During the AIDS epidemic, members of the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus remember singing at a different funeral every week, while gay individuals from Beijing were able to be open and proud for a short period of time while performing at the most recent Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses Festival, more commonly referred to as GALA.
In this same way, Sage Singers now serves its members, who carry a legacy of hardship that is rooted in all they have lived through.
“There’s definitely a sense among older singers in GALA choruses of survival, that they have survived together, and that this has been a rock for people for a really long time—a place of safety and security,” Crowe said.
The sense of survival that he sees in GALA singers applies to his group as well, who are all in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, which means they all lived through the AIDS crisis. Having gone through such a traumatic event has bonded older LGBTQ individuals, something that Crowe finds apparent in his older singers.
For Nelson, giving voice to the present was just as important as giving voice to the past when she founded Sage Singers. She has thought about aging a lot, as she is well-endowed in years herself, and found it to be a frustratingly taboo subject.
“It’s kind of closeted. People don’t talk about it much and don’t want to talk about it much, and I think it’s important to talk about it,” she said. Sage Singers is very much a chorus that not only celebrates differences, but celebrates differences at any age.
Since I visited the Sage Singers, they have continued to grow. They now have almost 40 members and multiple performances in the works. As a new group, they are easing their way into having full-blown shows. For this reason, the Sage Singers’ next two performances will take place during Sine Nomine concerts, another LGBTQ choir housed at First Baptist Church. These concerts will take place May 4 and 5. They are also planning a performance at Pride in June, and, more long-term, hope to perform at the next GALA festival, which will take place in Minneapolis in July 2020.
Those who want to learn more or join Sage Singers should go to their website, sagesingers.org. They are still accepting members and, although this is a senior LGBTQ chorus, are happy to include enthusiastic allies and individuals under 50. Practices occur every Sunday between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. and are accessible to those with disabilities.