When I went to Wichita’s annual Pride rally and march in September 2014, I’d only been working in radio for a few months. Over decades as a print reporter, I’d often interviewed sources using a tiny Olympus tape recorder, but for most of my journalism career I’d never known all of the other important ways in which sound tells stories.
But when I heard a young man start singing the National Anthem to kick off the afternoon’s festivities at the Mid-America All Indian Center, I knew enough to dig out my iPhone as quickly as I could and hit “record” on the voice memo app. I missed the first couple of lines, but the rest of it’s here:
I’d never heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Pride event, and I was surprised by how much it moved me. I’m one of those Americans who struggles with forced patriotism, especially when my government has been so hostile to the idea of liberty and justice for certain people. This especially bothers me at sporting events, which is where most of us hear our National Anthem and peer pressure forces most of us to stand. And I’d rather it was something besides poetic images of bombs bursting in air that made us feel so proud to be Americans.
But I recognized the significance of hearing it at an event celebrating communities who have traditionally been denied full freedom. I didn’t write about this moment in No Place Like Home, but I held that thought for four years, knowing I’d someday figure out who this young man was.
A couple of weeks ago, what Chy F. Billings, III had to say about the National Anthem might actually make me put my hand over my heart the next time I’m at a game.
Originally from Wilkesboro, North Carolina (pop. 3,554), Billings started singing in his middle-school choir, where a teacher noticed his potential and suggested voice lessons. He moved to Kansas for college at Wichita State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in voice performance and, in 2015, a master’s in opera performance.
Wichita State might not be known as a beacon for opera performers but probably should be. The great Joyce DiDonato is an alum; and Billings was able to study with Samuel Ramey and Alan Held. After graduation, Billings and his husband moved to Toledo, Ohio, where his husband earned a master’s in music education at Bowling Green. The two ended up back in Wichita, where his husband is a school band director and Billings sings at University Congregational Church and Church of the Blessed Sacrament and other venues, and, as a school paraprofessional, works with kids who have special needs.
“I have always been fortunate to sing for sporting events or festivals back in my hometown,” Billings said of his history with anthem. In high school he was in ROTC and the color guard, where he learned firsthand how physically challenging the entire ritual is.
“I remember my first experience when I was in ROTC, singing it at a football game with the color guard present,” he said. “My ROTC teacher said, ‘Speed it up.’ As the singer, you have to be considerate if the color guard is present. They can’t stand up there for too long if they’re doing Queen Anne Salute, which is a strenuous formation. The song is supposed to be about a minute and 52 seconds if it’s done straight through, with no elaborate ornamentation or crazy runs.”
Everyone knows the song is difficult even without flourishes.
“It spans an octave and a fifth,” Billings noted. “It’s very range-y. It’s definitely a challenge to sing, and most of the time it’s done a cappella. You’re very exposed. Regardless of what you’re singing, when you’re singing without musical accompaniment you’re naked in front of an audience. All you have is your voice. It’s nerve-racking.”
I was moved by Billings’ interpretation of the song, which is directly opposite from mine.
“It not only stands for our country and how our Stars and Stripes came to be,” he said, “it’s also a testament to us as LGBTQ people. Our flags are still there. We all have battles we have to fight, we all have bombs that get put in our way, we all have these trials, these wars, internal, external, whatever they may be. We have to remember there needs to be a part of us that stands true to what we believe, something that needs to be admired and can be admired.”
There’s always a reason to be proud, Billings said.
“If it’s your identity, anything about you that makes you unique, there’s always something worth being shown. I want the National Anthem to have that message anytime someone hears it, whether it’s at a sporting event, a NASCAR race or an LGBTQ event.”
After all, Billings has direct experience in how far our nation has come.
“My grandfather is a Southern Baptist preacher,” Billings said. Finding out he was gay upset his grandfather at first, Billings said, but he’s starting to come around.
“At Christmas, my mother pulled me aside and said when my grandfather went to lunch with his fellow pastors, they were saying not-OK things about lesbians a couple of tables down. He said, ‘My grandson is one of them, and they don’t get any better than that.’ He’s slowly understanding that not only is this something I can’t change, it’s something I embrace. And it doesn’t change the person they’ve known for 27 years. I’m still their only grandson, the same little boy who used to fall asleep on grandma’s recliner watching ‘Jeopardy.’”
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.