Founded by Jon Reed Sims, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band Celebrates Forty Years of Making a Joyous Gay Noise
by Hank Trout
Photography by Michael Kerner
There’s not a lot that I remember from my very first Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco in 1981—after all, it was thirty-seven years ago, and yes, it was still called the Gay Pride Parade! But I do remember that the 1981 Parade was the first time I saw and heard the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps. When the Band marched before me, playing “San Francisco,” I knew that I had come home, never to roam again, as the song promises. Like the Parade itself, the Band has grown and changed its name—the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band—but they have never stopped making a joyous noise in the forty years since their founding in 1978.
There was also no way for any of us to know that, a mere three years after the 1981 Parade, the Band’s drum major and the founder of the SFLGFB would die of AIDS-related complications.
Jon Reed Sims (1947–1984) was graduated from Indiana University and then moved to Chicago where he taught music to junior high school students. Frustrated with the job—he wanted students who were as serious about music as he was—he followed a friend to San Francisco and began teaching school in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. Nancy Corporon, Jon’s longtime friend and the Artistic Director of the Band 1990–1996, told A&U, “I’ll never forget how he described San Francisco after he had visited: ‘It’s hard to explain but this is a city where I belong in a way I’ve never belonged my entire life.’ Jon had not yet come out to me. But somehow I knew that this very special man had found his place in the world.”
Although Jon espoused no political agenda—Jon’s sister, Judy Sims Billings, told A&U, “Shortly after he started the band, Jon said to me, ‘I’m not trying to make a political statement, I just want to get people together to have fun making music’”—a little historical context is called for here. The late 1970s were marked by a handful of advancements for the LGBT community—e.g., the passage of LGBT-protective civil rights ordinances in cities around the country—but they were also marred by extreme prejudice and outright hatred, the most famous example being Florida orange queen Anita Bryant and her disgusting crusade against LGBT rights in Dade County, Florida, which set off similar backlash against LGBT rights around the country. Thus, any act of getting queer folks together was indeed a political act, even if it was just getting together musicians who “march to a different drummer” to have fun making music. For four decades now, the non-political-but-visible SFLGFB, the city’s “Ambassadors of Joy” (honored in 2017 by the Board of Supervisors as the City’s “official band”) have played and marched through many of our most exuberant celebrations as well as our darkest days.
The Band’s reach and influence has expanded far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. “Jon once said that the pinnacle of success for his dream would be to play a concert in the Rose Garden at the White House,” Nancy Corporon told A&U. They haven’t done that yet, but they have performed at Presidential inaugurations (for Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997) and marched in the official inauguration parades for Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013. The Band has also performed, along with other band members from the Lesbian and Gay Band Association (a national organization of LGBT bands from around the country), at every Gay Games, taking the Band as far as The Netherlands, Germany, Australia, and this year in Paris, and again in four years in Hong Kong. Further, the Band has performed at all three major LGBT marches on Washington, D.C. In 1987, they performed in a concert called “Let Freedom Ring” at the DAR Constitution Hall. (Again, historical context: the concert, performed at the height of the AIDS crisis, was delayed because ushers at the venue insisted upon wearing rubber gloves.) They performed again, in 1993, at the Warner Theatre in D.C., in a pre-March on Washington concert. And they performed throughout the day on the main stage at the 2000 Millennium March, sharing the stage with Ellen DeGeneres, Judith Light [A&U, July 2007], Madonna, RuPaul, Sir Ian McKellen [A&U, October 1998] and other luminaries (and allies) from the LGBT community.
A&U Contributing Photographer Michael L. Kerner has been a member of the Band since 2014. “I joined the band in the spring of 2014 because I wanted to start playing my sax again. I hadn’t played since high school and I missed performing. One day after the Chinese New Year’s Parade, I saw a friend’s post about marching with the Band. I sent him a message and asked him what I needed to do to join. He said to ‘just show up.’ So I did—it had been over twenty years since I had played.”
For Michael, though, the Band is more than just an opportunity to play his tenor sax again. “It’s political for me in that, in some small way, I’m doing something as part of the gay community—honoring the Pulse nightclub victims, or protesting this administration at the Women’s March, or supporting my trans friends at the Trans March. Whatever we’re doing, we’re fulfilling our mission that Jon Sims gave us from the beginning: To carry the message through music, which, for me, is a pretty awesome way to be gay.”
Sims’s legacy also includes founding the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the first openly gay choral group in America, also celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. The Chorus’s first official concert took place on December 20, 1978; however, the SFGMC’s first public performance occurred on November 27, at an impromptu memorial at San Francisco City Hall for Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, assassinated earlier that day by former Supervisor Dan White, to a crowd estimated at 25,000 to 40,000 mourners who had marched to City Hall from Castro Street for a candlelight vigil. In years since, the Chorus has been hailed for its excellence, performing in venues as far-flung as Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Town Hall in Sydney, Australia, often with iconic guest artists such as Holly Near, Carol Channing, Michael Feinstein [A&U, July 1996], Sir Ian McKellen, Alan Cumming [A&U, January 2004], Kristin Chenoweth, Joan Rivers [A&U, October 1996], Barbara Cook, and Patti LuPone. They have recorded some three dozen CDs of choral, classical, and pop music, including I Am Harvey Milk (October 2013), which the Chorus commissioned in 2011 and for which they won the thirteenth annual Independent Music Award for Best Soundtrack/Cast Recording. With over 300 members, SFGMC continues to garner accolades from around the world.
Of course, like all the rest of the San Francisco LGBT community, both musical groups were grievously affected by the AIDS epidemic. Sims himself died from AIDS-related causes in 1984. On its website, the SFGLFB honors the 300 musicians, twirlers, flag bearers, tappers, singers and board members who contributed their time and talents to the Band and who “have marched on.” Similarly, the SFGMC honors, again, over 300 members who have passed away, many due to AIDS—known as the Chorus’s “Fifth Section.” On April 14, 2018, the Band and the Chorus joined forces for a 40th Anniversary “Then & Now” Concert (see the video tribute from the concert at the link below) celebrating Jon’s, the Band’s and the Chorus’s legacies.
“I know that Jon would be so happy and excited to know that the Band continues to thrive,” Ms. Billings told A&U, “and that so many people, around the world, find such joy in the Band and Chorus he developed.”
Nancy Corporon again: “It’s hard to believe that Jon provokes so much emotion in me all these years after his death. Hard to believe and yet wonderful…Jon was brave, hopeful, and gifted, and he gave others like me the courage to live that hope, and to lead others to it,” Ms. Corporon continued. “He was my musical and moral true north. He made it essential and possible for me to bring my musical talent and my commitment to my LGBT community together in one meaningful package. I loved Jon. Losing him from my life still hurts.”
Michael Kerner elaborated further for me when I asked him, “What is the importance of the Band for you?”
“They’re part of my family. It definitely wasn’t safe for me to be out during high school in a small farming community, and certainly not at home, so each time we play at a school assembly or a ribbon cutting or a Fourth of July parade, I get to be okay with being gay and being visible in a way that I didn’t have when I was young. And I get a lot of love.”
Looking back at that first Gay Pride Parade that I attended in San Francisco, maybe that’s why I remember the Band and not much else—the sheer exuberance of the Band members and twirlers and drum major, their obvious love for the music and for their community, their reveling in the love the crowd lavished on them. Perhaps that is Jon Sims’s most enduring and important legacy—community and family gathering together to make a joyous gay noise!
For more information on the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Band, check their website: http://sflgfb.townalive.com.
Information on the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus can be found at www.sfgmc.org.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.