NYC Gay Men’s Chorus Shrouded in Accusations of Racism

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Johnathan Gibbs elaborated on the mistreatment he has faced during his time as a member of New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
Amanda Villarosa

Big Apple Performing Arts (BAPA), the company that runs the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus (NYCGMC), has decided to reinstate an ousted member with probation after investigating claims that he was booted for calling out racism in the organization. The internal uproar marked just one of multiple allegations of racism within the group dating back several years.

Johnathan Gibbs, a longtime chorus member, discovered he was terminated in a group-wide email in June after leaders alleged he violated the organization’s social media policy that warns against “disparaging” the group online. In a since-deleted Facebook post from May, Gibbs wrote, “I guess white supremacy is stronger than fraternal bonds.” Gibbs was reacting to a revelation that a former chorus member — who was also Gibbs’ fraternity brother — allegedly shared a screenshot of a question Gibbs asked during a discussion about diversity and inclusion. 

Gibbs’ Facebook post prompted reaction from several members, including one who jumped to Gibbs’ defense.

“I can’t believe he betrayed you,” the person wrote.

Gibbs, who is Asian and Black, told Gay City News he believes he was targeted for calling out racism within the organization.

“I didn’t find out about my termination until the chorus found out about my termination. Who sends out a mass email to the entire group — the entire organization — to say that we terminated one member?” Gibbs said. “They had done it before, but it’s when it was a known issue. Apparently, I was a known issue, and what was the issue? Speaking up for Black and Brown individuals.” 

Gibbs appealed his termination, leading to an appeal discussion on July 14 during which a board member asked Gibbs, “Do you think calling someone a white supremacist is a slur?” 

“No,” he responded. 

In clarifying on his comments, Gibbs ripped the board for asking that question. 

“I wasn’t calling him a white supremacist,” Gibbs told Gay City News. “It’s talking about the institution of white supremacy and the actions that would lead someone who knows what I’ve been going through in the chorus, someone that I have confided in… instead of believing me and my whole experience, he said ‘let’s pass this onto the board.'”

On July 22, BAPA’s Board of Directors voted to restore Gibbs’ membership in the chorus. While Gibbs has regained his membership, he voiced criticism about a “probation” attached to his reinstatement. Gibbs said the chorus appears open to negotiating the new terms of his position. During the meeting, BAPA also asked Gibbs to help with diversity and inclusion efforts.  

“I’m trying to imagine any other person who ever fought for anything in history getting what they want but the institution telling them, ‘but you’re in trouble now, like you have to watch what you say,'” Gibbs said. 

The events leading up to Gibbs’ termination-turned-reinstatement started last year when GALA Choruses hosted a series of diversity and inclusion panels in the wake of the racial unrest that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. During one of the sessions, Gibbs probed NYCGMC leadership in a message on how they would implement new changes. However, Gibbs said a GALA Choruses facilitator allegedly misconstrued his words and told others that he actually said, “How can you facilitate change to hire a new executive director?”

When NYCGMC found out about that, a new controversy emerged. A board official subsequently brought Gibbs and another member in for a private meeting, he said.

“I went off on them for 34 minutes for not doing their homework,” Gibbs recalled. “For once again upholding this witch hunt that has been happening to me for all the years I’ve been in the chorus, always believing someone else, always thinking I’m up to no good.”

He added, “But it was someone that read my question incorrectly that caused all of this to take off in the first place.”

A spokesperson for GALA Choruses declined to respond to the allegations.

Johnathan Gibbs (left) with fellow NYCGMC member Damon Epps.Johnathan Gibbs

The controversy surrounding Gibbs’ position comes as other chorus members are also shedding light on issues of racism within the organization. Chorus members who spoke to Gay City News on the condition of anonymity alleged that white singers in the group do not face the same level of scrutiny as people of color, with white members getting more lenient resolutions and more time to defend themselves.

There were also allegations of sexual harassment, including lewd comments about the butt size of a member of color and his partner’s genitals. Gay City News could not corroborate those claims. 

Two years ago, a chorus member who was drunk at a non-chorus function allegedly repeatedly used the N-word while other chorus members were present, according to members familiar with the incident.

“I don’t see what the problem is with saying N***er,” the chorus member allegedly said. “If I want to name my dog N***er. I will name my dog N***er.”

After that incident, a gay chorus member of color — who is being referred to in this story as “Member One” because he spoke on the condition of anonymity — said he did not feel safe in the group.

“I would have panic attacks having to sit next to him,” said Member One, who uses “he” and “they” pronouns. 

Members went on to file a grievance against the chorus member who allegedly hurled racial slurs. A year later, leadership terminated him from the group “with the option for him to audition at a future open call,” according to an email obtained by Gay City News. 

“Any future audition would be contingent on his being able to show, in a substantial way, his clear understanding of how the things we say can and do affect others and the consequences they may have,” leaders wrote in an email at the time.

From January 2019 to May 2019, leadership also investigated a couple of other members’ racist social media posts, but the administration asked that members speak with the alleged perpetrators privately.

“It is always our first course of action to recommend that Chorus members discuss matters between themselves before any further steps are taken,” officials said, according to an email obtained by Gay City News. “First contact resolution between those involved is usually the swiftest and most effective course of action. Should you wish to discuss this further, we would be happy to meet with you.”

The apparent pattern of racism within the group, however, seems to go back even further. When chorus members suggested the choir sing K-pop or Filipino choral music for a 2016 concert, a member allegedly said, “No, thanks, I had enough Jai Ho,” referring to the Indian pop song from Slum Dog Millionaire. In another instance, a choir member allegedly said, “Japanese people can’t say ‘R.'” Members have also argued whether they should censor an anti-Asian slur from a David Bowie song.

A white chorus member who also spoke to Gay City News on the condition of anonymity — named Member Two in this story — was at the rehearsal where choir members allegedly debated using an anti-Asian slur. He said this showed that members were content with gaslighting members of color.

“The response from some of the members in the chorus was to ask the Asian members of the chorus to justify it in front of 300 chorus members,” said Member Two, who has been on leave from the chorus due to racism in the choir. “It showed me that we were, as an organization, comfortable with people not believing, not respecting, not acknowledging the pain, discomfort… of members.”

BAPA’s Board of Directors declined to respond to Gay City News’ requests for comment about Gibbs’ situation or about the other allegations.

“We are not in a position to comment at this time,” the group said in an email on July 14. The group again declined comment when contacted after Gibbs was reinstated.

Member One — who was not satisfied with that response — believes the chorus is only reinstating Gibbs to avoid criticism amid a history of racist allegations.

“If the board understood that they made a mistake, then why is he on probation?” Member One asked. “They’re worried about all of the fallout and obvious pushback from so many members who are claiming racism. They didn’t learn anything from this.” 

They added, “How do you make a safe space for BIPOC in the organization if you won’t actually take measures against those who oppress them?” 

Prior to the investigation into Gibbs, Member One said the chorus asked leaders to create a restorative justice committee within 30 days of their meeting on June 24, but that deadline came and went. Member One said officials eventually organized a last-minute call to discuss the group, but it was poorly attended. In the end, Member One believes white members are treated better because they bring in more ticket sales.

“At the end of the day, BIPOC within this organization want to make it a safe and inclusive space because we believe in the mission of this organization,” they said, noting the advocacy work of the group during HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

Gibbs, meanwhile, said he is critical of the organization because he believes they can improve on racial justice — and that he should not have to leave if he is not doing anything wrong.

“The chorus represents my queerness and my love for choral music,” he said. “That should be a space where I’m welcomed into and allowed to thrive like everybody else. It does not say that it is a racist organization or upholds these racist or institutionalized racists [practices]. Those things should not be allowed to stay. I should be allowed to stay.”

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