LGBTQ+ students find community, activism in youth chorus


Whitman freshman Brennan Connell, front, and other GenOUT members relax during a promotional photoshoot. Photo courtesy Camilla Barillas.

By Zoe Kaufmann

The beginning of GenOUT Youth Chorus rehearsals look the same as any other chorus rehearsal: teens clustered around a piano, skimming sheet music and chatting about upcoming performances. The rehearsals, held at the old Wonder Bread Factory in Northwest D.C., are concentrated yet cheerful, with a focus on uplifting and entertaining music. But the students here are united under something much bigger than just the music: they’re part of the metro area’s first chorus for LGBTQ+ and allied teens.

GenOUT is the youth outreach program of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington and is open to every LGBTQ+ teen and straight ally aged 13-18; no audition is necessary. This year, membership includes 26 singers from 17 schools around the DMV. Under the direction of conductor Paul Heins, members attend both performances and activist meetings, fusing members’ passion for music and for social advocacy.

“GenOUT is a place where young people are celebrated for who they are,” Heins said. “The community that GenOUT fosters is one of shared mission and vision: giving young people a voice and connecting that voice to community.”

For many members, GenOUT’s appeal comes from the sense of kinship it creates. The group’s tight-knit atmosphere often leads to close friendships between members, forged during car rides, rehearsals and time backstage before performances.

“You get to meet a lot of people who are like you. That’s one of the main things,” member Brennan Connell, a Whitman freshman, said. “I know that it inspires a lot of people to come out, and it inspires a lot of people to come out of their shell and want to make a difference. The idea of being surrounded by people who want to make a difference—that’s exhilarating.”

The friendships members create are a testament to the rapport of the group, students say. Blake senior Camilla Barillas said she and other members still keep in touch with GenOUT alumni who have finished high school. GenOUT vice president Becca Schaefer, a senior at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, VA, said that she found herself making friends without noticing.

“A lot of the members who go are people who don’t feel accepted in their own communities or are people having trouble themselves, so we all come together and we support each other,” Connell said. “It’s a very loving environment.”

Unlike many other LGBTQ+ youth groups, GenOUT is not solely focused on the experiences of LGBTQ+ members. Instead, such experiences provide a communal background while the music takes center stage.

“It’s not like SMYAL [Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders] or GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network]. I don’t want to disparage those things, because they are amazing, but it was something where it was about the singing and everybody there just happened to be LGBT,” Schaefer said. “Everyone there was LGBT, but everything wasn’t LGBT-centric.”

Members also appreciate the performance opportunities the chorus provides. As a partner of the Gay Men’s Chorus, the group has performed at the Lincoln Theater, the Kennedy Center and the White House, where they met President Obama. Members also attend an annual day-long retreat.

Despite the large number of shows, conferences and meetings the group attends, Connell says that the group is motivated to work for each performance individually and bring elements of their community to future audiences.

“We’re not there to fool around,” Connell said. “We want to put on a good production and we care who we’re performing for because there’s always that one person in the audience who needs to hear us.”