It was sometime around 1994. Paul Sherwood, a thirty-something French-Canadian Winnipegger, had come home from playing volleyball with the local gay team. Having a shower, he started singing KC & the Sunshine Band’s That’s the Way I Like It. Shower singers may be really great or really not-so-great, but clearly, they love singing. It's true, being part of the gay volleyball team was an excellent way to travel the country and meet people. But, his other love was music, and in Winnipeg there wasn't anywhere to sing and be gay. Singing in the shower was like singing in a closet.
When Sherwood was young, he'd had a typical French-Canadian upbringing. He had learned to play the accordion – which was hardly rock-n-roll – but he loved feeling musical, even at a young age. Eventually, he would join a French choir, and that's where he started to nurture his love of singing. Sherwood immediately understood that singing about French-Canadian culture preserved their heritage and captured the way they live and love in their own language. I remembered what singing meant for French-Canadian heritage. I wanted to feel the same way about being gay. In 1993, Sherwood started the decade-long process of coming out. "I was a bit political about it. When I came out, I wasn't going to hide anymore. I was going to be out," he says. "I wasn't a big bar person; I was looking for alternate activities. So, I got involved in sports – volleyball and floor hockey, and met someone through that and went off to Calgary with him." He would be in Calgary for less than a year, but in that time, he would join a local gay and lesbian choir – the now-disbanded Rocky Mountain Singers. "There was no hesitation," he says, "I got involved in the chorus because I remembered what singing meant for my French-Canadian pride. I wanted to feel the same way singing about being gay." When his brief relationship ended, Sherwood returned to Winnipeg, leaving the chorus behind. While he still played volleyball and travelled with LGBTQ2* teams, there was a part of his identity that wasn't satisfied. He rued the fact that Winnipeg didn't have a gay and lesbian chorus. Five or six years later, in 1999, while flipping through a copy of Swerve magazine, he spotted the ad for the Rainbow Harmony Project's first meeting. He went – and he's been with Winnipeg's LGBTQ2* chorus ever since. "When the choir was formed, there was no sign out front that said, 'Hey! There's a gay choir practicing here.' Depending on your work or family life, you might have some close gay friends, and you might go to parties with people you knew," Sherwood recalls about the risks of being perceived to be gay in the late '90s. "But many people weren't out in the wider sphere. In fact, some were even deathly afraid that people might find out."
Sherwood has long believed that you're reconciling who you are with who you want to be when you come out. To be able to sing, and sing about who he is, and sing with others like himself, that’s who Sherwood really wanted to be.
"I think it's a great medium for political, social consciousness, and getting your message out. It's exuberant to perform songs that matter to you, that you can attach a feeling that matters to, whether it's joy, love or sadness. There's lots of pride in affirming your identity through song."
In 2004, RHP attended the GALA festival in Montreal. GALA is the global association for gay and lesbian choirs. Their festivals are attended by thousands of people, with performances from dozens of choirs. There can be small groups with only a few members and ensembles that are just starting up. There can be large groups and even some professional-level groups. There are choirs from Australia, France, and even China. At a GALA festival, everyone gets a standing ovation. It’s what I had yearned for. I could finally proclaim who I am without any reserve. I could sing about being gay. That first year, Sherwood remembers hearing a youth LGBTQ2* chorus singing that brought everyone to tears. A straight ally that was next to him in the audience was surprised by the emotion unleashed by the group’s performance. Sherwood explained to them it was because so many people in the audience could relate to the youngsters’ pain and their yearning for a better tomorrow. It connected them to something universal about being LGBTQ2*. When RHP performed to the international audience, Sherwood recalls it was the ultimate act of affirmation. "It's what I had always yearned for," he says, "I could finally proclaim who I am without any reserve. I could sing about being gay. I was on stage. There was an audience. I knew then, we are not alone. We are not isolated. It's not just us here in Winnipeg, there are people like us all across the country. All around the world." He hopes that LGBTQ2* choirs will always be part of the community's social scene in Winnipeg and in every community. He knows that this chorus builds connections in a way that’s not just about social justice, but also a way that can be sensual or even domestic. It may educate an audience – but it also entertains them. And it has resulted in a multitude of new and enduring friendships amongst choristers. “Not every LGBTQ2* person lives in Winnipeg, and some folks who do come from Winnipeg may one day live in a rural or isolated community, or in a less gay-friendly nation,” says Sherwood. "That's why it's important that we work to build – not just a better world for Winnipeggers, but that we build it better for everyone everywhere."
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