It’s a Wednesday night at the Christ United Methodist Church, and a small gathering of the One Voice Choir has halted in the middle of singing “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” Conductor Bryan Horn drops his right hand, and it’s as if he’s turned down a dial—the choir sinks deeper into the song’s refrain, “But I’m strong.” It’s a short transition in the song, but a crucial point to hit just right. As each choir member sings “But I’m strong,” Horn moves his hand deftly through the air, pulling each member—from the Mormon mom with the gay son, to the gay members who are long-since excommunicated or adrift from the faith they grew up in—a little closer to harmony.
Horn deftly conducts and commands his choir, though not through sternness. With his cargo shorts, flip-flops and goofy mannerisms, Horn is about as intimidating as a teddy bear. The choir instead responds to Horn’s experience—not only his impressive résumé as a former member of the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but also his experience living a life split between being a gay man and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While Horn gave up the faith in 2008, he didn’t give up the music.
Now, Horn conducts a choir of as many as 25 members who run the gamut of Utah’s LGBT community. Many are former church members now rejected because they are gay or transgender. A few choir members are currently homeless after having been turned out by their families because of their sexual orientation or identity.
On April 20, the One Voice Choir will perform its debut concert at the Christ United Methodist Church. While Horn works on the musical talents of his ragtag choir, he also hopes that the choir can bring the state’s divided gay and straight communities together with the equalizing force of music.
“Unfortunately, the gay and straight communities here in Utah are still very bitter,” Horn says. “The walls are coming down, but it’s going to take years, decades, maybe a century, who knows—but we’re doing our own little part to bring those walls down.”
The choir formed in August 2012, originally in cooperation with the straight allies of the group Mormons Building Bridges. Horn later amicably parted ways with Mormons Building Bridges and devoted himself to building up the unique LGBT choir, which now practices every week at the Christ United Methodist Church.
The group’s debut could not come at a more contentious time for Utah or the nation. Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is deliberating on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the infamous 2008 California ballot proposition forbidding same-sex marriage in the state. The court will also debate the merits of the Defense of Marriage Act.
While progressive pundits are cautiously optimistic that the court will rule in favor of equal rights for LGBT citizens, in Utah, some worry that a victory in the nation’s highest courts could cause a reactionary backlash at the state Legislature. In the 2013 legislative session, a bill that would extend housing and workplace nondiscrimination protections to LGBT Utahns made historic progress but was still beaten back.
Still, the future of the discrimination bill depends on more than just Utah leaders’ reaction to a Supreme Court ruling. Activists have said its success also hinges on Utahns better understanding their LGBT neighbors and fellow citizens.
That’s one area where Horn sees the choir as helping to get all Utahns reading from the same hymnbook.
“By coming together through music, which is a universal language, we can kind of break down barriers,” Horn says.
Rexene Pitcher is a 64-year-old straight ally who has a son who is gay and lives in California. She says the choir offered her a second “calling” of sorts—she also teaches youth Sunday school in her LDS ward.
“The first night I was here, there was just such a positive energy,” Pitcher says. “I thought this is one way I can stand as an ally to LGBT people, whom I have found to be nothing but awesome and loving.”
Pitcher says she knew her son was different from a very early age. When he came out after his mission, she was deeply saddened because she knew the hardships he would face. Her son left the faith, but Pitcher sees in him the difference between church-going and spiritual.
“He’s very spiritual,” Pitcher says. “He’s my go-to guy when I need counsel. He’s just an awesome human being.”
Mark Packer, a 60-year-old “very gay” member of the choir, is in love with the groundbreaking nature of the choir. While he hasn’t been a church member since his excommunication in 1999, Packer says he can’t separate the music of his former faith from who he is now. Some of his favorite songs in the choir’s current repertoire include “Lord, I Would Follow Thee,” and “Amazing Grace.” Packer likewise couldn’t cut out his Mormon-ness, even if he wanted to.
“At my excommunication court way back when, I told them, ‘These are my people,’ ” Packer says of his ward members. “No matter what they’ve been led to believe about the gay issue, most of them are really good people just trying to do the best they can. The Mormons are my people.”
Besides improving relations among the LGBT and straight communities, one of the other missions of the choir is to offer hope to LGBT individuals who have been rejected by their families because of their sexual identity or orientation. Horn believes that music offered to the right person at the right time can be the moment of joy or hope that brings them away from feelings of isolation or perhaps suicide. The song “Homeward Bound,” written by Marta Keen and arranged by Mack Wilberg, was the final song Horn sang as a member of the church, and one that lifted him up in a tumultuous time of his life. The song’s lyrics include the lines “Set me free to find my calling/ and I’ll return to you somehow.”
Like other members of the choir, Horn is gripped by a giddy combination of anxiety and excitement for the debut concert, which will be covered by local media and watched by numerous local politicos and others. He hopes the One Voice Choir can do its part to drown out the contentious politics of the day and focus people on a shared love of music and the music of love.
“Music should make you smile it, should make you happy—everything else is just notes on a page,” Horn says.
ONE VOICE CHOIR
Christ United Methodist Church
2375 E. 3300 South
Saturday, April 20