A few hundred LGBTQ concert-band and jazz musicians came to town this past week, so I was expecting a pretty good show on Saturday night.
It was the grand finale of the Gay and Lesbian Band Association‘s annual conference. Given the fact that the national organization’s confab was in Kansas City this year, hosted by our town’s Mid America Freedom Band, I wasn’t surprised that its theme was “There’s No Place Like Home” (great title!).
What did surprise me: Learning of another Kansan who left the state, moved to San Francisco and made a lasting contribution to American culture. (The most famous of these is rainbow-flag creator Gilbert Baker, originally from Chanute, Kansas.)
During the program on Saturday — which included not only stirring performances of familiar favorites such as Harold Arlen’s “The Wizard of Oz,” Kansas City native John Kander’s “Cabaret” and Carmen Dragon’s arrangement of “America the Beautiful” but also challenging pieces by regional contemporary composers — GLBA president Cliff Norris, a tuba player from Atlanta, came on stage to present the winner of this year’s Pillar of Pride Award, which the organization bestows each year to recognize extraordinary accomplishments.
This year the honor was posthumous, in honor of a man from Smith Center, Kansas.
Norris has given me permission to post his speech, which is a history lesson for all LGBTQ people and all Kansans:
“Following the Stonewall Riots, the LGBTQ community experienced a surge of awareness due to its new courage and openness. Cities across the country started enacting non-discrimination laws, and states were considering them as well. However, forward advances in civil rights are often followed by a backlash.
“Our scene is set in San Francisco, 1978, at the height of Anita Bryant’s campaign against gay rights. The city’s residents had just elected their first openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk. But the state was facing the Briggs Ballot Initiative that would ban LGBT teachers from the classroom.
“One man proposed a radical appropriation of mainstream culture – the formation of was then called a Gay and Lesbian Marching Band to march in the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. That June, a block of 70 musicians, led by this skinny music teacher from Smith Center Kansas, turned onto Market Street, playing “California Here I Come,” leading Harvey Milk in the parade.
“The leader of the band was Jon Reed Sims.
“The band was such a success that this one-time project turned into an ongoing enterprise, the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Freedom Band, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Bands in Houston and Los Angeles formed shortly afterward, then the band movement spread across the country, leading to the formation of LGBA in Chicago in 1982.
“Jon Sims had more plans in 1978. What better way to spread acceptance than through a chorus? He set about forming the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus that fall. They had only reached their third rehearsal when Harvey Milk was assassinated. The chorus made its debut on the steps of City Hall singing for the masses gathered to assemble in mourning. Soon after, Gay Men’s Choruses and LGBT Choruses began to form, and today there are over 190 choruses in countries around the world.
“Jon Sims succumbed to AIDS in 1985. His obituary in the San Francisco Examiner was one of the first to list this cause of death. So little was known about AIDS at that time that his obituary included an explanation of the disease. Even in death, Jon Sims expanded awareness, acceptance, and understanding.
“The early members of the San Francisco Band used to joke about Sims’ Kansas heritage, saying that marching behind him was like following Dorothy down the yellow brick road. However, as people who have found a welcoming place in the space he created, we can say ‘There’s No Place Like Home.’
“From those of us who are today entrusted with his legacy in Bands across the world, it is our honor to present this Pillar of Pride award to Jon Reed Sims.”
Accepting the award in honor of Jon Reed Sims was Doug Litwin, president of the San Francisco Freedom Band.
I’ve been to Sims’ hometown of Smith Center, pop. 1,583, which has hooked its claim-to-fame wagon to another cultural phenomenon. It’s the place where a troubled doctor holed up in a cabin in the 1870s and wrote the lyrics to “Home on the Range.” Based on my limited amount of time there, I’m not sure how quick the people of Smith Center would be to memorialize the native son who started the gay band and chorus movement. But next time I go there, I’ll see if I can find anyone who knows anything about him.
Until then, the most complete story of his contribution lives on the website for the Jon Sims Endowment Fund for the Performing Arts, which provides financial support to LGBT arts organizations. The site has a bio written for the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, which begins:
Jon Reed Sims was born in 1947 in Smith Center, Kansas — the geographic center of the nation’s 48 contiguous states. However from an early age, relatives said Sims showed more sophistication and musical ability than most residents of the small wheat farming town.
Sims went on to study music composition at Wichita State University, earned a master’s at Indiana University and then moved to San Francisco — just in time to begin making history.
One week after Sims’ death, more than 1,500 people attended a service at Grace Cathedral to remember the gifted musician. Attendees wore rainbow-colored armbands and entered under a rainbow archway of balloons. The service made the front page of the Examiner the next day…. Sims’ cultural impact is very much evident throughout San Francisco and the world.
Looking for a photograph of Sims led me to the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society’s searchable database of obituaries from the Bay Area Reporter, where the just the website’s wallpaper can crush the heart of anyone who remembers those days of endless pictures of beautiful young men.
I could spend all of this Memorial Day scrolling through those archives. But instead, in honor of all those guys, and with gratitude for the legacy of Jon Reed Sims of Smith Center, Kansas, I’ll just post these:
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.