Boosting Inclusion Through Music That Matters

June 14, 2024

Des Moines Gay Men's Chorus 2023 Holiday Concert. Source: Facebook

When the Des Moines Men’s Chorus reformed in 2001, they added “Gay” to the title to become the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus (DMGMC).

It’s hard to fathom how recently using the word “gay” freely was considered taboo.

“Gay wasn’t really a thing you could say in a name. It was pretty groundbreaking,” said DMGMC Artistic Director and Conductor Eric Shepard.

But from the very beginning, DMGMC has dedicated itself to using its collective voice to shine a bright light on the LGBTQ+ community in Des Moines. There’s nothing taboo around being who you are; it’s loudly and proudly celebrated through “music that matters,” as stated in DMGMC’s purpose.

“You can’t be what you don’t see,” Eric said. “We want to be that beacon of hope for the next generation.”

Eric Shepard

Making Voices Heard

DMGMC is a chorus of 80+ singers of all genders and sexualities who sing in the tenor and bass ranges. You don’t have to audition to join.

The only requirement? A commitment to cultivating inclusion for all.

“Every single one of us has felt excluded. Nobody wants to feel that way, and nobody deserves to feel that way,” Eric said. “No matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love—if you sing in the tenor or bass range, you’re welcome to join us.”

The group’s vision is “a world where unconditional acceptance is woven into our common humanity.” Eric is intentional about infusing every moment of rehearsal and performance with the chance to show someone else how loved and valued they are. It’s apparent in the camaraderie built between performers as they stand next to someone they’ve never met before at practice or join the 20+-year tradition of heading to The Blazing Saddle after.

Eric believes music helps us say all the things words don’t allow. He previously taught music education for eight years before leaving to pursue work as a diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner. He joined DMGMC’s board of directors right around the time former Artistic Director Dr. Rebecca Gruber stepped down.

He guest conducted the chorus’s 20th anniversary concert, falling back in love with teaching music and throwing his name in the ring to become the new artistic director.

He’s been able to combine his musical expertise with his skillset as a DEI practitioner to build a safe haven for LGBTQ+ folks and their allies.

“When someone tells me about a change they’ve gone through because of the space we’ve created? It’s pretty amazing,” Eric says.

He believes that change is catalyzed by the conversations started through song. Music connects the hearts and the minds and triggers conversations and reflections on how we can better include everyone.

And when the young LGBTQ+ folks in the audience see a group of people like them using their voices to share a message and shine a light, they’re reminded that they, too, will have a place to feel welcomed and included. They’re shown a future where they don’t have to be quiet about who they are and who they love.

“Singing a song allows us to be a beacon of hope for the unheard voices of the next generation,” Eric said. “We’re showing up for the people that need us.”

Sing Gay Every Day

As artistic director, Eric chooses the music for the season with DMGMC’s values clear in his mind: to create musical excellence, cultivate inclusion, champion our common humanity, and care for one another.

Their work is part of a longstanding tradition of LGBTQ+ choruses. Eric cites the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, widely considered the first gay chorus in the world, as inspiration for how choruses like these can move the civil rights movement in the LGBTQ+ space forward.

The chorus typically performs three concerts a year. They partner with Hoyt Sherman Place to perform a holiday concert in December. They take a mission-driven approach to their March concert, focusing on LGBTQ+ activism. And June’s concert is all about pride.

“In June, it’s our ‘say gay every day, rainbows, all the glitter’ show,” Eric said.

Eric plans each concert around an idea or a theme related to the LGBTQ+ community. The last holiday concert incorporated individual LGBTQ+ storytellers. This month, they’re debuting two pieces they commissioned from LGBTQ+ composers.

They recently performed a concert of Kelly Clarkson songs titled “We All Need an Idol,” giving a nod to the importance of role models in the LGBTQ+ community. It landed them the opportunity to be featured on the Kelly Clarkson Show.

Eric and Liz Cooney, DMGMC's Board President, appearing on the Kelly Clarkson Show

For Eric and the DMGMC members, that visibility is key to showing people what is possible for the LGBTQ+ community and their allies in Des Moines—space to be free to be themselves and know they’ll be wholly loved and accepted.

“We stand as a visual representation of the old adage that ‘it gets better,’” Eric said. “It really does get better. Is life easy? Gosh, no. It’s a journey. But when we stand strong together, and be the change we’ve been waiting for, great things can happen.”

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.