Phil Cynar
Renaissance City Choirs in concert

Uniquely bonded and allied by their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identity and a love of singing, women and men from the region raise their voices in concert this Sunday evening, Dec. 9, filling Oakland’s Carnegie Music Hall with seasonal song that’s as diverse as the choir itself – joyful, campy, soulful and sassy.

Jeffry Blake Johnson, D.M.A.  is artistic director of the Renaissance City Choirs (RCC), an organization now in its 27th year of providing the region’s LGBT community – as well as a number of choral music-loving heterosexual neighbors – with an outlet for artistic expression and the advancement and appreciation of sexual diversity.

Johnson has been busy – up to the tip of his conductor’s baton – with preparations for the 2012 concert, entitled “Warm by the Fire,” but he shared the following reflections to better acquaint people with the special ensembles composing the RCC and a performance that aims banish winter’s chill with song while affirming, through music, the worth and dignity of sexual minorities.

ImaginePittsburghNow: In brief, how did the Renaissance City Choirs (RCC) get its start?

Jeffry Blake Johnson: In 1985, the Renaissance City Choir/Pittsburgh Gay Chorus Inc. was established as a gay male chorus, and in 1987, it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. That same year, RCC joined the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) – an international organization with more than 180 LGBT choruses.

To celebrate the choir’s 10th anniversary, RCC hosted a 10th anniversary concert at the Benedum Center and invited nearby GALA choruses – Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, North Coast Men’s Chorus and Rochester Gay Men’s Chorus – to perform. It was also the debut performance for the Renaissance City Women’s Choir formed in January 1995.

IPN:  What does the RCC uniquely bring to the LGBT community in the Pittsburgh area, as well as to the community at large?  What does this special choir have the power to do with its music – both within the group and outside in the community?

RCC Artistic Director Jeffry Blake Johnson

JBJ: The RCC is a microcosm of American society: LGBT men and women living alongside our openly heterosexual brothers and sisters. We work for greater understanding between people of different backgrounds and identities, as well as the advancement of equality. And more simply, we work to create beautiful art and moments of music that are shared with each other and with our audiences. As a true rainbow community we work on living and cooperating in peace and respect, and we try to share those values within our own LGBT community and the wider community. As an organization, we seek to build bridges within our community and with the community at large.

IPN:  How did you land your job as artistic director of the RCC?  As a transplant to Pittsburgh what has struck a chord (pardon the pun) with you?

JBJ: Since I began living in Pittsburgh in 1996 and working at East Liberty Presbyterian Church (2000 – 2007), which is the home base of RCC, I knew about the choirs and had heard them in many concerts through the years. A friend of mine, who has friends in the choirs, mentioned that she thought the position was open and referred me to the choirs’ website where I learned all about the job opening. I went through a series of interviews with a search committee and an audition in a choir rehearsal. RCC is truly a family, and the people in the choirs very much love each other. That wonderful bond was apparent to me from the beginning. Individually, the singers are funny, wise, silly, talented and vivacious, and they bring all of those qualities to their music-making and advocacy.

Pittsburgh’s amazing diversity of communities throughout the city, and of course, it’s beautiful rolling hills, rivers and bridges struck a chord with me.

IPN:  What one thing, in your opinion, that would improve Pittsburgh for its LGBT residents?

JBJ: Marriage equality would be one of the most meaningful things for the LGBT community in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. We need this, not only for those of us who wish to be married, but as a symbol of respect to demonstrate that we are not second-class citizens in our society. There are 1,138 benefits, rights and protections provided on the basis of marital status in federal law. Until we have full marriage equality, we will be paid less, and our families will be treated as inferior in comparison with our heterosexual brothers and sisters.

IPN:  Silly question, but is everyone in the choir a bona fide LGBT individual? If not, tell us about what’s likely to be the RCC’s “one percent.”

JBJ: There are approximately 65 plus members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and allies singing with the Renaissance City Choirs. Although no one has been polled specifically, we do have a number of openly heterosexual folk singing with us. And, we love that!

IPN:  If a reader has time for just one seasonal concert, why should it yours?

JBJ: “Warm by the Fire” will provide a multi-faceted experience. Our audience will hear beautiful classic holiday music, as well as a sassy new composition from composer Jake Heggie (composer of the opera Dead Man Walking) and lyricist Mark Campbell (lyricist for the opera Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music). We’ll sing holiday tunes with the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra and enjoy the performance of the LGBTA youth performance troupe Dreams of Hope. And, for many people, one of the most anticipated traditions of the holiday season will be taking part in our annual singing of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” replete with rowdiness. If you have not experienced “The Twelve Days” with the RCC, you don’t know what fun you’re missing.

Watch a preview video of the 2012 RCC holiday concert here.

 

The “Warm by the Fire” concert begins at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9 at Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave. in Oakland (15213). Click here for more information or to purchase tickets (general admission: $25 advance,  $30 at door; premius seats: $50; students: $10.)

Pittsburgh’s got a happening LGBT community. Click here to read more about it and some of its people.

In 2011, ImaginePittsburghNow.com highlighted the sustainability of some of Pittsburgh’s most cherished holiday traditions. This year we’re calling attention to a few of our favorite seasonal things, with a bit of a twist toward greater diversity or international flair. Send your suggestions to us at Twitter.com/ImaginePgh, or Facebook.com/PittsburghRegion.

Phil Cynar

June is the month for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) to celebrate nationwide in cities large and small. The recent Pittsburgh Pride 2012 festivities brought together more than 81,000 people for 10 days of celebrating the diversity that makes our region an inviting place for a weekend or a lifetime.

To recognize the importance of LGBT people to the region’s economy and quality of life, ImaginePittsburghNow.com is spotlighting some members of the community who are proud to talk about why Pittsburgh is their destination of choice for living and working. This is part one of a three-part series. To read the other profiles, click here.

Joshua Stewart is vice president, diversity and inclusion manager at The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. He grew up in White Oak, graduating from McKeesport Area School District in 2000. He earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Pittsburgh, and is pursuing a Diversity Management Certification from Cornell University.

Josh Stewart

IPN:  What kept you in Pittsburgh?

STEWART:  Almost 11 years ago I met Chuck, the love of my life and now “husband.” We both were born and raised in southwestern Pennsylvania and have strong family ties in the region. Together we have built our life here, including our careers, our home in Baldwin and our five-year-old Collie-Shepherd, Murphy. Soon we hope to adopt a child via the Children’s Home of Pittsburgh.

Although we both love to travel, the history, the people, the community and our family reminds us that Pittsburgh is our true home and where we want to grow our family.

IPN:  What does your job entail day to day?

STEWART:  My primary role is to lead diversity and inclusion training and education initiatives for the organization and to provide oversight for the company’s 13 diversity and inclusion councils. I collaborate with business leaders across the company to strengthen their awareness around these initiatives, educate and coach employees on core concepts and best practices, and connect all employees with the strategy. Together with PNC’s chief diversity officer, the team develops, communicates and supports the diversity and inclusion strategy – the delivery of which allows us to create an atmosphere where we can celebrate and leverage both our collective strengths and our individual uniqueness.

I also hold the position of president of “PNC Proud-Pittsburgh,” the company’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies (LGBTA) Employee Business Resource Group. PNC Proud-Pittsburgh is a group of 150 employees who focus on LGBTA initiatives for the southwestern Pennsylvania market.

IPN:  What do you do for fun?

STEWART:  My partner and I enjoy attending theater, going to arts festivals and checking out other cultural events around the city. We especially love trying new restaurants in the area. While I definitely have my favorites (shout-out: Pointe Brugge, Cure, La Tavola, Smiling Banana Leaf, Square Café and MANY more…), I’m always on the lookout for a new spot!

Although I’m partial to vacationing in big cities, (New York, San Fran, D.C.), one of my favorite day trips is to head to Ohiopyle, to relax and explore the river and trails. Chuck grew up nearby and took me there early in our relationship. What an amazing place right in our backyard! I also bike along the many trails around the city, and hope to bike the rail trail to  D.C. in the near future.

IPN:  How welcome – or less than welcome, if that’s the case – do you feel as an LGBT person in Pittsburgh, both as a professional and as resident?

STEWART:  I have found Pittsburgh to be a place that fosters a welcoming environment for the LGBT community.

I have been “out” in the workplace at PNC since my very first day a little over nine years ago. Prior to joining the diversity and inclusion team I worked in various roles within PNC’s Consumer Lending business, starting originally in the call center. This career path may seem surprising, but along the way I have been surrounded by welcoming, encouraging and engaging managers and colleagues who recognized the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. My colleagues both supported my bringing my entire self to work, including being an “out” member of the LGBT community and also supported my sincere interests in advocating for diversity and inclusion at PNC. In this environment I was given opportunities to connect professional aspirations with personal passions through programs like the LGBTA Employee Business Resource Group, which eventually led to my current role on the diversity and inclusion team.

It is important to acknowledge that not every workplace interaction I’ve had has been as welcoming and inclusive as it could be. But there is always an opportunity to learn and share. I remind myself to always “meet people where they are.” Only when we do this respectfully can we begin to change hearts and minds.

On a personal level, coming out to my family was a very difficult experience. Although it was a long journey, my family is now fully accepting of me and my partner, and I think we’re a stronger family as a result.

As a gay resident, I have always found Pittsburgh to be a welcoming city in general. It may not have the same status as cities with larger LGBT populations, but the strong sense of community creates a welcoming environment. Pittsburgh has the community resources (Persad, Pittsburgh AIDS task Force and others) and opportunities of a larger city – including a first-rate annual Pride celebration — but retains the family-oriented, tight-knit community feeling of a small town or city. I believe the LGBT community in Pittsburgh is just at the beginning of an exciting journey.

IPN:  What advice would you give to employers, civic leaders and fellow Pittsburghers about how make our region and our workplaces more inclusive?

STEWART:  This question is one that I’m asked and ask nearly every day as a diversity and inclusion professional. While there is no single answer, here are two thoughts:

Inclusion is a dialogue. To be more inclusive with our neighbors, employees, coworkers and constituents, we must ask questions and be willing to share individual experiences. Inclusion depends on open and respectful communication. In turn, help those in your life, professionally and personally, understand how you wish to be included

Uncover and share your own diversity. Diversity is the presence of differences that make each one of us unique; everyone is diverse. Uncovering, understanding and sharing the many facets our own diversity – LGBT and otherwise – will help you to connect with others who are similar, appreciate those who are different and begin more inclusive dialogues with your co-workers, constituents and neighbors in the Pittsburgh region.