As her choral group rehearses, Elizaveta Kishchukova seems to be brimming with confidence.
The conductor warns the singers that it’s hard to articulate every syllable of a wordy verse. He asks, “How many people think they got 80 percent?” Most nod noncommittally. But Kishchukova pipes up: “More.”
“Ninety percent?” conductor C. Paul Heins asks.
“More,” she says.
“One hundred percent?”
It’s hard to tell under the blazing stage lights, but the lanky 18-year-old, who goes by Liza, is grinning.
Then that confidence fades. Heins asks the singers about a lyric in a Christina Aguilera song: “Every day is so wonderful. Then suddenly, it’s hard to breathe. Now and then, I get insecure from all the pain. I’m so ashamed.”
“I’ve had those times,” Kishchukova says.
“Anything you feel comfortable sharing?” Heins asks. Kishchukova mutters no.
This is a room full of singers where many others quickly say that they, too, have felt the kind of shame, insecurity or pain that might make it hard to breathe. It’s GenOUT, a new chorus for LGBT teenagers founded by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington.
For 34 years, the men’s singing group has been creating community and promoting acceptance through song. Now, the men are striving to offer the same experience to youths ages 12 to 21.
“One of the things that I think is the most important is to bring together people in a safe space, where they can be themselves, and actually give them a voice,” Heins said. “Not only in singing, but a voice to speak to whatever issues are of concern to them right now.”
Those concerns have morphed rapidly from the days when Heins and most of the adult members of the Gay Men’s Chorus were that age.
These men have seen legal protections and the nation’s attitudes toward homosexuality vastly transformed.
It’s gotten better. Much better. But the teens are quick to tell the adults, in the breaks between humming scales and chatting about the meaning of Broadway lyrics, that better isn’t good enough.
“My school, we’re pretty good. We’re pretty on the up and up with tolerance. There’s not overt bullying or beating people up or anything,” Margaret Nicholson, 16, said. She said she has been supported by her family and friends since she came out as bisexual. “But people don’t understand an offhand comment can be really hurtful. People see a well-dressed guy and they’re like, ‘You look homosexual.’ ”
Heins said he has heard teens talk about taunting from their peers and a lack of support from their relatives in the programs that the Gay Men’s Chorus runs at high schools. It was those discussions that inspired the teen-
The teen group’s first two rehearsals attracted 10 singers. The plan is modest: for the youths to sing two songs with the adults at a concert in May.
But Heins, one of two conductors for the teenagers, has big dreams. Someday, he hopes, the group will perform at the White House.
Meantime, he is satisfied when a complicated warm-up exercise is completed flawlessly. When he sees smiling faces at the end of a run-through of a new song. When the teenagers feel free to speak their minds.
“We want to know what kids are feeling and how things are going and provide positive role models for them,” he said. “We have folks from the GMCW who are there to help, to let them know that if they’re going through a period of darkness, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Kishchukova was looking for just that sort of space. She has known she was attracted to other girls since she was very young, she said. But as a child in Russia, coming out was a terrifying idea.
She told only two people that she was lesbian. One, a girl she had a crush on, said she reciprocated those feelings and became Kishchukova’s first, covert girlfriend.
“I gave her this song I liked,” Kishchukova says, ducking so her dark blond bangs hide her eyes as she grins bashfully over the memory. “I said there was one line in the song — something about love. It was really nice.”
Kishchukova said her mother seemed to guess what was going on. Twice, her mom pointed out a girl whom Kishchukova secretly had a crush on and teased, “Are you going to give her flowers?” But given the anti-gay climate in Moscow, Kishchukova was sure she would never come out as lesbian.
Then, her family left Russia for Rockville in September 2013. In her new school, she saw LGBT-friendly rainbow flags taped on teachers’ doorways. She once giggled in surprise and delight to see two girls kiss in the hallway.
Talking openly about her sexuality to her parents, however, still seemed terrifying. She watched every YouTube video she could find of children coming out to their parents. She planned the exact words she would use, then rethought them again and again.
After a little more than a year in the United States, she went to her school’s LGBT club. Then she came out to her friends. One ticked her off by saying, “You’re too cute for [a] lesbian,” but most were kind. And soon after, she picked up a flier about the GenOUT chorus.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I want to visit this place,’” she said. After an hour-and-a-half commute by bus and Metro, on a Saturday morning when she didn’t tell her parents where she was headed, she was at her first rehearsal.
The warm-ups were familiar from her experience singing in school chorus, and Heins praised her specifically during the first song the group tried. “You know what I heard Liza do that was really smart? She took a breath right after measure 23,” he said. He told the whole group to mark that spot in their sheet music so they could imitate her technique.
A few days later, the rehearsal was still on her mind. She had felt comfortable being out there. Sitting in a Starbucks in Rockville, she saw two men, leaning close to each other, who appeared to be on a date. She pointed them out with pleasure, thinking she always wanted to feel secure being herself in public as they seemed to be.
She had imagined the words she would use to speak to her parents for more than a year, but that afternoon she considered them yet again.
She said she didn’t like the sound of the Russian word for lesbian. “I think I will just say, ‘I’m untraditional. I like girls,’ ” she declared.
Then she glanced toward the two men, and reconsidered. “This is, like, not enough. They can just say, ‘Yeah, your friends are really cool.’ I need to make it clear.”
And what would her grandparents, who watch so much Russian television that disparages gay people, think of her announcement? What about her 11-year-old sister? “I’m not sure it will be easy for her to get, because she’s, like, so into boys,” Kishchukova said. “She’s talking about boys all the time, since some boy in kindergarten.”
But she was through waiting for a moment when she would be sure. She left the Starbucks, took the bus home and found her parents in the living room.
In Russian, she told them, “I want to tell you something, but it mustn’t change the way you think and feel about me.” Then she continued. “I have untraditional sexual orientation. I prefer girls.”
Her father’s first words, she said, were, “We’ve kind of known.”
How, she asked? “Well, we are parents, you know.”
Her sister cried, mostly out of surprise, she said. And her parents raised the possibility that maybe it was just a phase. But they also talked for hours, supportively, about how people come to understand their own unique identities.
“I just found some courage in me,” she wrote in an e-mail afterward. “Then there was this long discussion with dad about love and different things, like trust and openness, that aren’t really about my orientation, but are important.”
She wrote that night, “I feel so better now.” She punctuated it with a smiley face.
The GenOUT chorus, she wrote, gave her a chance to “see how it goes, and how much am I ready.”
“I think a lot of people turn to LGBT communities in those moment, when they seek for . . . courage to open up.”
She e-mailed Heins to tell him what a powerful role the new singing group had already played in her life.
It was one of those moments he had talked to her about — the quiet ones that take your breath away.