Ken DeLisle celebrated his 70th birthday by renting the Park Theatre and hosting a fundraiser for the Rainbow Harmony Project. It was a hugely successful night, raising over $1,000 for DeLisle's favourite group. He was surrounded by close friends that had become like family, the community that had become like home. Folks from the choir filled the night with song. His partner of 40 years smiled by his side. But there came a moment when DeLisle let his husband's hand slip from his. He made his way to the stage for a performance that – for so many years – would have felt impossible.
As the applause gave way to anticipation, the piano trilled, and DeLisle began a Sondheim standard, the words so perfect they could have been describing DeLisle himself.
"Good times and bum times, I've seen them all. And, my dear, I'm still here." The nun looked at him and said, ”Just mouth the words kid.” Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, the son of Roman Catholic parents, singing was a big part of growing up. His family would often break into song in the car. But when DeLisle was singing in the choir in grade four, the teacher said something that would shatter the confidence of the impressionable boy. The nun looked at him and said, "Just mouth the words kid."
DeLisle as a young boy was told, when singing, just mouth the words.
For decades after that, DeLisle was embarrassed to sing. Because of the nun, he believed he couldn't sing and therefore shouldn't. He'd sing in private but never in front of a crowd.
In the summer of 1971, now a young man of 22, DeLisle came to Winnipeg to attend the University of Manitoba. The distance from his religious family meant he could explore his young gay identity. From the moment he arrived in Winnipeg, he was out to his friends. Not to his family, of course, but it was an exciting time for him. That is until he found himself having fallen in love with a straight man and the unrequited love caused him to recoil from his new pride. He decided at that time, it would be better for everyone if he was straight.
In the fall of 1972, he enrolled in behaviour modification therapy. For 2.5 years, he attended electro-shock therapy sessions to alter his ways of thinking, talking, or acting gay. A punishing, unthinkable regimen today, but at that time, DeLisle just wanted to stifle that part of himself that made him different. And for a moment, it seemed to work; he was deemed straight. But of course, it wasn't so.
It was time for DeLisle to face the fact – he was gay. That's when he came out to those around him and also to his family. The journey with his family would be difficult. His father found it particularly hard to reconcile his religion with his love for his son. Letters that passed between them at that time were filled with religious fervour from his father – and heartbreak from DeLisle.
On a path to become a minister for the United Church of Canada, DeLisle was struggling to balance his own identity with God's love. At a Roman Catholic conference in Ottawa, DeLisle met John Robertson, the man who would be by his side from there and then. "It was a Friday," DeLisle says, "and by Saturday we knew it was forever."
DeLisle would meet, fall in love with and marry (or have a witnessing with) John Robertson in 1979.
In 1979, long before marriage was legal in Canada for gays, DeLisle and Robertson had a witnessing to celebrate their love for each other. For five years after that, DeLisle’s father refused to speak to him. It would take DeLisle to raise his voice, so to speak, to begin the healing process. "I had to say to my father that there was no changing who I am, this was it, if he wanted his son in his life he would have to figure it out." At that point, his father revealed it was a matter of him fearing for his son's safety. DeLisle took that as a sign that this relationship was possible to save. And for years, they worked on it, through good times and bum times. In the end, they would make peace. If you hit a wrong note, don’t worry about it. It’s just a step to the next right one. But back in Winnipeg, something was about to happen to DeLisle that would transform his life most unexpectedly. A friend of DeLisle's performed in Rainbow Harmony Project's first concert. A night when Winnipeg's first LGBTQ2* choir broke barriers with a public concert, DeLisle, in the audience, marvelled at the courage of the group. He says, "I'd worked at Rainbow Stage, I'd directed musicals, but I never joined a choir because I thought I couldn't sing. Whenever I was singing, I felt like I was faking it."
After the concert, DeLisle joined Rainbow Harmony Project.
When he went to his first rehearsal, he was again that little boy in fourth grade, terrified that he'd have to stand in front of a group of people and sing. But it wasn't like that at all. "When I showed up," he says, "I was welcomed, given some music and a place to stand. It was refreshing to be able to sing with people that are like me. It didn't matter if I hit the wrong note or the wrong key, we just worked around it or sang through it or got guidance. But the guidance was always directed at the group. No one ever says, 'Hey – you! You're off!'"
One time, then Artistic Director, Vic Hooper, gave DeLisle some great advice that’s stuck with him to this day. He said, “If you hit a wrong note, don’t worry about it. It’s just a step to the next right one.” Over the years, DeLisle's voice got stronger and more confident. Though he was still a long way off from doing a solo, the whole time, DeLisle was working on it.
DeLisle was getting more confident with his singing abilities. He began singing duets with other members of the choir.
When Winnipeg hosted Unison, the Canadian association of LGBTQ2* choirs, DeLisle went to a workshop about four-part harmony. Of all the basses that registered for the session, he was the only one that showed up.
"I thought, oh my god, what am I going to do. I'm going to have to sing bass myself. Well, I started singing and no one complained at all. When another bass singer showed up, I coached them on where we were and what we'd learned. And just like that – I realized, 'I'm doing it.' For the first time in my life, I realized I could sing."
DeLisle was suddenly part of a community. He could trust the people around him. "Rainbow Harmony Project is a team, a community, it's a place where I don't have to defend myself, who I am, or what I do, or who I'm with. It's a place where I can finally enjoy music again. And if I'm off key – no one really cares."
In the 20 years that DeLisle's been part of Rainbow Harmony Project, he's joined them on several trips to choral festivals all over North America. He attends the weekly rehearsals because he knows they'll make him feel great after. And finally, after years of building up the confidence in himself and his abilities, DeLisle took to the stage for a solo performance.
Celebrating his 70th birthday with a fundraising event for RHP at the Park Theatre, DeLisle performed a solo performance.
This brings us back to the night of his 70th birthday, at the Park Theater, with all eyes on him. Glowing with confidence in the sparkle of the spotlight, no longer that scared little boy, but a confident, proud man. The now-Rev. Ken DeLisle ascended the stage. With his husband, Rev. John Robertson, proudly beaming at him from the crowd, his friends and community all around him, and his voice in fine form, DeLisle celebrated his birthday with a solo performance.
"I've run the gamut, A to Z. Three cheers and dammit, C'est la vie. I got through all of last year, and I'm here. Lord knows, at least I was there, and I'm here. Look who's here. I'm still here." Are you considering becoming a member of the Rainbow Harmony Project? We've been meeting virtually during COVID, but we promise we'll be meeting in person when it's safe to do so. Take a look at our options or consider donating to help ensure future generations have a choir they can be a part of.