S.F. Gay Men’s Chorus Finds a Permanent Home After 45 Years

The Pansy L. Chan and Terrence D. Chan National Queer Arts Center, located in S.F.’s Mission District (Courtesy of SFGMC)

Although the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, forged in the aftermath of the assassination of supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone, has existed for 45 years, it has never truly had a home. Late last year, that all changed in a big way.

“We’re the only gay men’s chorus in the world to own our own building. And that means a lot not just for the community and the space we’re able to provide for our own membership, but also for other organizations that have queer accessibility as part of their mission,” artistic director Jacob Stensberg says about the four-story, 23,000-square-foot, 1930s art deco building, located in the Mission District.

Stensberg says the building now has a completely renovated first floor with full ADA accessibility (even on the stage), a new art gallery, state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems and, on the third floor, space for 40 to 120 people to have rehearsals, dinners and special events that is also available to the community at large.

“When I look for events to go to, I’ve always looked for a building like ours that I know will have queer-friendly programming and it will be relevant, it will be entertaining, it will be something that I believe will make a difference,” says Stensberg, who moved to the Bay Area for the job almost two years ago.

And with the new center come some big ideas, including initiatives launching next year like a tour to Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota, which are seeing “obscene amounts of anti-trans legislation,” and a project called Memory Keepers, which will be a platform for queer elders to give their first-person narrative of the activist history of San Francisco. “One of the threats to our community is the simple act of forgetting, forgetting the history, forgetting where we’ve come from and forgetting the giants whose shoulders we stand on,” Stensberg says about the importance of the project.

There is also an effort to bring the school outreach that SFGMC singers have been doing on their own time in-house, now that they can present more robust programs at the center. “We have a curriculum that we share with children that uses storytelling and song to help give kids the strength to live authentically and be themselves in spaces that are safe to do so,” says Stensberg.

The three-year campaign to acquire and renovate the building, formerly the Bahá’í Center, got its start when the previous owners decided to sell — but they wanted the building to remain a community center and offered it to the chorus first. Jumping at the chance, the SFGMC started requesting donations from the community and also received help from numerous city and state leaders including then-supervisor Matt Haney, who was able to secure $250,000.

And when it came time name to the center, only one honoree made sense: it had to be chorus founding member Terrence Chan. “He is a magical man who was present at the very first rehearsal on October 30, 1978. He was present at the first performance, which was only five weeks later on November 27, on the steps of city hall for the candlelight vigil [for Milk and Moscone],” Stensberg says. And “when the conversation of what would having a home look like, he and his partner, Edward Sell, were ready to make a commitment that they knew could help launch the chorus into its next 45 years.”

San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus
Photo by Stefan Cohen