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Miami Gay Men's Chorus sets sights on expansion

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Miami Gay Men's Chorus. Photo by Steve Rothaus / Miami Herald Staff

By SARAH LARIMER
Associated Press

When Craig Fashbaugh was dying, he decided to spend his last years in South Florida.

When doctors told him that he still had time, Fashbaugh, a salt-and-pepper bass, decided to sing.

About 20 years after an HIV diagnosis, Fashbaugh is on stage with about 80 other men, belting out holiday carols to an audience of 400. As founder of the Miami Gay Men's Chorus, he says the group is looking to build its reputation as a premier South Florida chorus - and an organization brimming with both acceptance and talent.

"I just have to remember that we need to be patient," said Anthony Cabrera, the group's artistic director. "We're actually pretty far along, as far as choruses come, that have been around for 10 years."

The chorus opened its holiday show, "Miss Twinkleton's School for Sensitive Boys Presents The Nutcracker: Men In Tights," on a recent night in South Florida, drawing laughs and cheers for "Gone With The Wind" and "Project Runway" jokes. There were marching soldiers and, yes, even sugar plum fairies. The performers were theatrical and clever, and above all easy to listen to. The audience's applause was not just for the message of tolerance, but also because the chorus was quite good - with strong, spirited voices that could make muggy Miami Beach feel like the North Pole.

147_2"The Miami Gay Men's Chorus is, in one way or another, Miss Twinkleton's School for Sensitive Boys. It's a place where everyone's accepted," Cabrera said. "The gay community sometimes tends to be very critical of itself ... It can be divisive within itself sometimes, like any other group. But this group is open to anyone, everyone. You come here, and you have a good time."

On the stage that night, there was joy and cheer, dancing and lighthearted fun. During a year that saw California voters cast ballots in favor of outlawing same-sex marriage and the passage of Amendment 2, which bans same-sex marriage in Florida, that has not always been easy to come by.

"I can certainly tell you that that postelection week was pretty devastating," Cabrera said. "On a personal level, it was difficult for me to come in here and conduct, knowing that I live in a state where my partner would not be recognized as our daughter's father.

"But you kind of look past that and understand that as a chorus, you have a responsibility, because the people that are paying to come and see your concert, sometimes they'll come and see you. But people who go to concerts go because they need to," he said.

During the holiday show, there was just one reference to Amendment 2. It is a quick, wry line that received a fewer chuckles than an earlier joke about former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Chorus board member Gregory Crosby said that after Florida's amendment passed, group members discussed taking a more political stance, but decided against it because of its nonprofit status. He declined to comment further.

Gay choruses are certainly nothing new. The international association of gay and lesbian choruses, GALA, boasts more than 100 members and about 130 groups performed at Miami's Arsht Center for the Performing Arts during a July festival. As Miami's chorus reached its 10-season mark, members said they were now looking to choruses such as the 180-member Heartland Men's Chorus in Kansas City and the Texas-based Turtle Creek Chorale, which has more than 200 singing members, as inspiration.

"I could see that we ... could become perhaps the premier chorus in the Arsht Center and we would do larger works," Fashbaugh said. "Because our repertoire and our abilities are going to be incredible."

The Miami chorus' first gig 10 years ago came during the holidays on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, a pedestrian thoroughfare now filled with swank eateries and posh shops. It was raining, and less than 30 men sang.

More than 100 stopped to sing along.

"Even though it was raining, people stopped, took the sheets and sang," said Fashbaugh, 53. "They just couldn't believe that we were doing some sort of Christmas thing on Miami Beach."

The chorus was Fashbaugh's brainchild, hatched after he moved from Chicago to South Florida. It was Fashbaugh who presented the idea to city officials, who were just pleased to have an event on raucous South Beach that didn't require ambulances on the scene. He also consulted a lawyer to set up the group's nonprofit status.

"A lot of guys came down to South Beach, they thought they were going to die. That's what we were told back then," he said. "I got into some good doctor's office and some new medicines came out and they said, 'Guess what? You're going to live.' And I was rather thankful for that."

That's why Fashbaugh decided to form a chorus - as a way to give back to his new community. Organizers did not turn away a willing participant. They found a home for their rehearsals at a local Catholic church. And, with membership now at about 100 voices, organizers said they hope to eventually be seen as not only the voice of gay South Florida, but of all of South Florida.

"It's message is that whatever perception people have about our community, about the only thing that we're involved in is partying and all that other stuff - that dark side of life that people associate with us, they see a group of guys that actually get together just for the sake of singing," Anthony said. "I think that visually, and that representation for community, really puts the gay and lesbian community in a positive light."

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