Authentic or Not?: A Men’s Organization with a woman member

by cv harquail on June 5, 2008

Recently, I told you about an organizational situation that raises some interesting questions about whether the organization is being authentic. The organization, a Men’s Chorus, has up to 249 male members and 1 woman member, my neighbor Joan Garry.

I proposed that this organization is either very special or very inauthentic” how else could the organization embrace being “for men” and also embrace a woman/not man member?

I didn’t share all the pertinent information in my description of the situation, because I wanted to see what kinds of questions you readers would ask about a men’s organization that admits a woman member.But now let me tell you a little bit more (some of which was revealed in the comments of the earlier post). The organization in consideration is the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus (GMC).  Joan Garry was for 10 years the Director of GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).

I got together with Joan late last week to talk about being a female member of a men’s organization. While we didn’t have enough time to consider all of the questions you’ve raised, what we did have time to talk about was pretty interesting.Keeping in mind my standard disclaimer #3, I draw on my notes from my conversation with Joan, as well as a few direct quotes, to consider the question:

Is the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus being authentic, if it admits a woman member?

The answer? It depends.

Our conclusions about the Chorus being authentic depend on which part of the organization’s identity as a Gay, Men’s, Chorus we’re considering. And, the conclusions depend on which part of Joan’s identity — as a white, lesbian, gay rights activist, mother-partner-homemaker, daughter, and singer we’re considering.


  1. The GMC is being authentic in having Joan as a member,
  2. The GMC avoids ˜not being” authentic, and
  3. Having Joan as a member helps the GMC extend its understanding of “who it is” and what defines it.


All at the same time.

1. How is the GMC being authentic in having Joan as a member?

The GMC is being authentic, because having Joan as a member fits with an important, defining attribute of the Gay Men’s Chorus. The Gay Men’s Chorus sees itself as an organization that fights discrimination that is based on social identity. So, they don’t want to discriminate against someone who wants to be a member just because she is a woman.

  • Having a female member demonstrates that the Chorus is willing to demonstrate this part of its self-definition/identity.

The GMC being authentic in having a female member because she fits with what the organization does. The Gay Men’s Chorus creates and performs vocal music at a professional level.Joan and the organization fit, because she is an experienced, skilled singer with a lovely voice.

  • Having Joan as a member helps the Chorus do its thing.

2. How does the GMC avoid being seen as inauthentic by having Joan as a woman member?

The GMC avoids being seen as inauthentic by having Joan as a member because some of Joan’s personal characteristics allow her to fit with other elements of the Gay Men’s Chorus’ identity. So, even though all the members of the chorus know that there is a female member (and find nothing inauthentic in that), there is little public awareness of Joan contradicting the organization’s identity as a Men’s Chorus.Although as a female she is physically different from other members, Joan blends in both vocally and visually.

–Vocally, Joan’s rich alto passes for 1st tenor. Her voice blends in with and adds texture to the sound of the tenor section.

–Visually, at least during concert performances, Joan isn’t easy to identify as a woman. In her Chorus uniform (a black tuxedo), with her short hair and funky glasses, Joan looks like one of the guys.

  • [Joan happens to stand in the front row of the Chorus, because she’s shorter than most other members. I imagined that, with her in the front row, the audience would notice her and respond to the idea of a woman in the Men’s Chorus. But, Joan told me that (while she’s never actually talked to an audience member about it, she believes) people barely notice that something is slightly different about her appearance; her appearance is “quizzical”. Joan’s partner, Eileen, says that from her perspective in the audience, Joan sticks out only when the Chorus bows, because Joan is one of the few members without a bald spot! ]

(photo from

–In terms of personality, Joan also blends in with other members of her vocal section, the 1st tenors. (At weekly rehearsals, Joan’s primary interaction is with the 16 or so other 1st tenors.) Joan explained to me that first tenors are known to be more “diva-like” and demanding of attention, and that she kind of fits this stereotype.

  • Joan has several ways to fit in, that to outsiders help her and the GMC pass as ‘male’ and that to members help her to connect.

3. How does having Joan as a member help the GMC extend its understanding of  “who it is” and what defines it?

Having Joan specifically, as their female member, makes it possible for the GMC to extend its organizational identity in an interesting way — by extending its understanding of what it means to be a “gay”organization.

As a lesbian, Joan shares the meta- social identity of the Chorus, because she is a member of the same non-dominant social category as the gay men (i.e., homosexuals, as compared with heterosexuals). So, as a lesbian, Joan can be understood as being “gay”.

Also, Joan explained to me that her professional position as a long-time spokesperson for Gay and Lesbian rights, and the fact that other Chorus members see her as an advocate for their collective rights, raise their awareness of the Chorus as an organization promoting Gay rights. This is a mission is shared by all Chorus members, both the gay men and the lesbian woman.

An additional benefit for the Chorus is that Joan’s presence can remind the organization of the alliance between gay men and lesbians in the fight against discrimination. For Joan personally-politically, her being in the chorus is “a way to be in the gay community in a different way”.

So, for the Chorus, being authentic in having a female member is different from being authentic in having a lesbian member.

  • I asked Joan if she thought that she would have been as welcome in the Chorus if she’d been a straight woman. She replied that, for her, it’s hard to imagine being drawn to sing in a gay chorus, and to have that shared social orientation that feels so important to me”.(But I can say from my own experience, as a straight woman who sang in a predominantly lesbian choir, I was perfectly happy to share the social justice/ gay rights orientation of that choir. Which only goes to suggest that a value-based identity connection can help people work around a bio/social identity disconnect. But more on that another time.)

What about not fitting in?

I was able to ask Joan whether there any ways in which she felt as though she didn’t fit into the Chorus’ “Gay Men’s” identity. Were there ever situations in which she felt awkward or uncomfortable as a member?

As it happens, the one situation in which Joan occasionally feels uncomfortable is when the Chorus takes a break in the middle of rehearsal. Those 20 minutes are sometimes uncomfortable for her, because this is a time when a different element of the Chorus’s identity and purpose come out. As Joan explained, many of the guys come to the choir to meet other guys.The secondary purpose of the organization, which is for gay men to meet, develop friendships, and perhaps find romantic relationships with other gay men, is a purpose that Joan can’t easily contribute to.

And the question everybody asks: How did Joan become a member of the Gay Men’s Chorus in the first place?

The partner of one of Joan’s colleagues at GLAAD was the executive director of the GMC. One day during her last few months at GLAAD, Joan joked to her colleague that soon, as a stay at home mom, she’d have a lot of time on her hands. So, maybe she should join the Gay Men’s Chorus?Just as she said this jokingly, Joan realized that she was in fact interested in singing in the Chorus.There is neither a lesbian chorus nor a women’s chorus in New York City, so a woman who wants to sing with a chorus has few options beyond a church choir.

On Joan’s part, becoming a member wasn’t intended to be a political statement.And, although the Men’s Chorus with a woman member is a funny story that can get Joan and the Chorus some press attention (like this blog post for example), becoming a member wasn’t “a publicity stunt”. Had there been any animosity or any concern about her auditioning for the chorus she would have withdrawn.

As Joan explained, “I didn’t want to change the tone and tenor of the chorus.”
[pun unintended but still enjoyable…].

Her motivation was simple. Said Joan:
‘I just wanted to sing.”

So what do you think? Is the Gay Men’s Chorus being authentic, or not?

{ 1 comment }

Mary Jo Hatch June 7, 2008 at 12:44 pm

The question for me is authentic with respect to what? The label of Gay Men’s Chorus, even if self-selected, is not the same thing as an identity. In my way of thinking about identity, an organizational identity is formed in the conversation that occurs between members of an organization (especially in regard to their beliefs about themselves as an organization), and the images fed to them about themselves by others. If the issue on the table for this organization is about being gay men who sing, then it would seem odd to include a woman. But if, as you point out, the issue is singing in a community that is part of the wider homosexual subculture in the US, then it seems reasonable to allow a female to join. This raises an important point, having included a woman, the organization’s identity has shifted, even if only slightly. Therefore the question is not whether the identity is authentic, but what the authentic identity is and whether the name of the choir reflects this identity authentically now that it includes a woman.

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