Joyce Arterberry takes her seat front and center in the Civic Auditorium in Knoxville, Tennessee. She’s driven five and a half hours from Indianapolis, Indiana with her daughter Amy to see her son, Tom Kennard, perform with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus on tour.
Getting ready backstage, Tom is excited and nervous. He’s fretting about the seats he bought for Joyce and Amy. He’s one of 250 singers on the tour and wants to make sure his mom and sister get a good view of him up there under the lights. “Do you think they can they see me?” he asks anxiously. Tom’s also wondering whether his mom will like the scarf he crocheted for her as a gift. “She picked green to go with her pea coat,” he says. He plans to present it to her after the show.
Joyce is also excited — she’s had her hair done specially for the occasion — and, similarly, a little bit nervous: It’s been many years since she last saw her 67-year-old son sing.
“They had a talent show in our grade school when Tom was in the first grade,” Joyce, who’s in her mid 80s, recalls of that last experience. “And he sang the hymn ‘Do Lord.’ I think that’s when he really decided he could sing in front of people.”
A lot has happened between mother and son in the intervening decades.
One of Tom’s earliest memories is of his mom dressing him up like a porcelain doll when he was a child, before his transition. “She always had me in these frilly dresses and frilly socks,” recalls Tom. “She was very girly.”
He wasn’t having any of it, preferring baseball and fishing to playing with kitchen sets and dolls. “I was not interested,” Tom says. “I was just kind of stereotypical boy.”
Joyce is something of a traditionalist — a churchgoer who met her husband, Bill, in high school in Indiana. They had five children together, of which Tom was the oldest. The couple was married for 67 years before Bill passed away.
So it was tough on Joyce when Tom came out as a lesbian in his 20s, and even tougher when, at age 47, he decided to take hormones and eventually undergo gender reassignment surgery. Tom sent his mom a letter to share his news when he could no longer disguise the fact that his voice was getting deeper.
“Honestly I was very shocked,” Joyce recalls. “I just couldn’t believe it because I had brought up this beautiful girl, and I had a hard time accepting it.”
She’s since come around.
The process took many years, during which she lost two of her children. One died of a heart attack at 54, and the other at 23, in a car accident. “I realized after awhile that I loved my child, and that I didn’t want to lose my child,” Joyce says of coming to terms with Tom’s new life as a man. “So it’s worked out. If he’s happy, then I’m happy.”
Making human connections is one of the reasons the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus chose to undertake its 40th anniversary season “Lavender Pen Tour” in October. The country’s biggest and oldest gay choir changed its international travel plans soon after the 2016 presidential election to instead visit five Southern states and undertake a series of concerts and outreach events in places where LGBTQ rights are in conflict with conservative Christian views.
One such state is Mississippi, where the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act took effect a couple of days after the chorus performed in Jackson, the state capital. The controversial piece of legislation gives business owners the right to refuse service to LGBTQ people due to religious views.
Nevertheless, the chorus’s concerts in Jackson and other cities on the week-long tour attracted rapturous crowds.
There are close to a thousand people in the audience at Knoxville Civic Auditorium. The mayor of Knoxville is there, and everyone seems to be having a great time. During the chorus’s two-hour set, performed in collaboration with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and Knoxville’s own gay men’s vocal ensemble, they seem openly moved by the earnest torch songs calling for acceptance and love, and laugh expansively at the hilarious and slightly risqué comedic numbers.
Once the curtain goes down, Tom rushes to the lobby to find his mom and sister, who greet him with affection and delight.
“You were so wonderful,” Joyce says.
“Thanks mom,” Tom replies. “You have to get the new album.”
“I told Amy, I need a new needle for my little record player.”
Like any mother, Joyce is worried about her child’s safety. Especially since the chorus is headed to North Carolina, where there’s an ongoing battle around whether trans people must use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate.
Not that Tom would be mistaken for a woman in the men’s restroom. He’s bald, and sings low bass in the choir. In fact, he’s brought a T-shirt with the slogan “You Can Pee Next To Me” on tour, hoping it will prompt conversations with locals about transgender rights. “We’ll see what happens,” Tom says. “Or if people even get it.”
Mostly though, Tom is just happy his mom got to see him sing — and relieved that she likes her new crocheted scarf.