Proud to think pink: The Pink Singers at 40

This article, published in our last concert programme, was co-written by Hsien Chew and Chris Scales from our Archive and Communities teams to reflect on 40 years of the choir’s history of music-making and activism:

Brian Kennedy, our founder

Brian Kennedy would have been proud: 40 years is, by any measure, an achievement. In the early eighties Brian led efforts to build inclusive community spaces for LGBTQ+ people in London, including the ground-breaking London Lesbian and Gay Centre. He also had a vision to create a community choir, the first mixed lesbian and gay choir in Europe. On 7th April 1983, 29 people showed up to our very first rehearsal at the Oval House in Kennington. The press reported that the new choir members were equally divided between wanting to sing ‘political’, ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ music. This captures what the choir has always been about: a powerful combination of music-making and LGBTQ+ activism. The balance of celebration and politics – enjoying ourselves while standing up for what we believe in – is something that defines us to this day.

Having brought together a bunch of intrepid singers, we had to come up with a name, and the members decided on The Pink Singers; not pink to make the boys wink, but pink as in gay rights. Pink was the colour of the badges enforced on homosexual prisoners in the nazi concentration camps, and the pink triangle became a rallying symbol for the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s, along with the Labrys doubleaxe and many others, long before Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag became popular in the UK. Today we march under multiple banners and our representation grows more inclusive each year, but we have stuck with our name as a unifying term that remembers Brian’s inclusive vision for our community. Not to mention “the Pink Singers” stuck because we were out and loud!

Section 28 protest, May 2000

Although a London-based choir, the Pink Singers have always been international in our politics and reach. Our first musical director Mark Bunyan was persuaded to lead the choir by author Armistead Maupin, a central figure in founding the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and at our first rehearsal we listened to recordings of the Australian Gay Liberation Choir and Portland Gay Men’s Choir for inspiration. Over the following decades we have travelled all over Europe and the world, taking part in festivals and marching in solidarity with our international siblings. In our time the Pink Singers have marched and sung on countless platforms from the main stage at Pride to protests outside the Houses of Parliament. We have added our voices to the path of a more equitable world, from the equalization of the age of consent, to the removal of the evil Section 28, to the introduction of civil partnerships and marriage equality.

Society has also changed around us and, superficially at least, it seems that acceptance of this plurality is now upon us. Our understanding, however, of our shared humanity, of the diversity of our sexual orientation and our gender identities and expression has also broadened and deepened; many members of our community are being left behind. Bi visibility and trans rights, for instance, have become an ever increasing focus for the choir. In addition, we are more aware of the concept of intersectionality and how attributes such as race, age, gender and disability can compound the experiences of those within an already marginalized community.

Cass and Philip interviewed by Vic Parsons at Trans Pride London, 2022

It is a gradual and ongoing process, but the Pink Singers increasingly reflects this plurality in its makeup. Despite the LGBT+ umbrella term, this diversity is a surprising rarity in our community which has a tendency to segmentation. The Pink Singers takes great pride in being a mixed sexuality, mixed gender, multicultural, inter-generational space, but, even with the love of music and performance bringing us together, fostering unity requires constant vigilance.

We initially feared that the pandemic would be an existential crisis for the choir, but, reassuringly, the Pinkies valued our community even more when its loss seemed imminent. We used the enforced break from singing to gather online and reflect on how we could stand better together. Black Lives Matter, for instance, made us rethink our approach to racial diversity, and we have made foundational changes to how the choir works, from membership to music selection, in order to ensure all minority voices are heard. We also used the opportunity to tell each other stories of our own experiences. This has enriched our understanding of each other, from personal histories of the AIDS crisis and the loss of loved ones, to finding a new chosen family in the ballroom scene of Manchester, to LGBT+ education in schools and how LGBT+ and religious identities coexist. Many of these conversations are available on our YouTube channel.

The empathy we have for each other has also made us conscious of the privileges we have here in the UK compared to our LGBT+ family elsewhere across the world. In 2017, we collaborated with Rainbow Voices Mumbai, a choir based in India, to highlight the injustice of colonial era laws criminalizing homosexuality which persisted there, despite having been repealed in England half a century prior. We jointly ran an educational programme for our members, to learn about the challenges facing the LGBT+ communities in both countries, and sang in concerts and marched in Prides in Mumbai and London to show solidarity with each other. To much shared celebration, India decriminalised homosexuality in 2019. This year sees the first challenges in court to legalise marriage equality there.

Pinkies and Rainbow Voices at Mumbai Pride, 2017

Over the pandemic we also worked with LGBT+ choirs in St. Petersburg and Warsaw, where our seminars covered topics as diverse as the antigay purge in Chechnya, the LGBT free zones in Poland and conversion therapy in the U.K., as well as our shared joy of singing. This culminated in the Pink Singers travelling to Warsaw last year to perform with Chor Voces Gaudii and march at Warsaw Pride. We were joined by half the members of Queer Essence choir who sought refuge in Poland in the wake of the war in Ukraine, the other half remaining in Kharkiv to defend their city. Our demonstration of solidarity meant a lot to all of us.

Sadly, our founder Brian Kennedy passed away in 1990 and never got to see the fruits of the seed that he planted. Could he have imagined that the people who gathered that afternoon in 1983 would blossom into a family of over 100 singers on stage today, representing a community of thousands of Pink Singers through the years and across the globe? We think he would be so proud.

Hsien & Chris