Emotions of shame felt within the LGBTQ community are being explored through psychotherapy and music in a new project presented by the London Gay Men’s Chorus, Europe’s largest gay choir. Led by British artist Jordan McKenzie, in partnership with the Freud Museum in London, "Shame Chorus" is an hour-long performance of 12 songs that have been composed based on recorded therapy sessions with Chorus members.
Looking at topics of shame and sexuality, each song reflects an interview with an individual person, where issues surrounding childhood, bullying, mental health and coming out are discussed in a one-on-one psychoanalysis lasting approximately an hour. The sessions were transcribed anonymously and sent to a diverse range of composers, including Billy Bragg and Jessica Curry, producing an eclectic mix of both musical style and creative interpretation of the subject.
“Some composers relied quite heavily on the words that were taken from the interview,” McKenzie said. “Some used it as a springboard to explore the topic of shame. It’s really about them bringing their unique approach to the song writing and composition, using the interviews as source material for the work.”
While having premiered "Shame Chorus" earlier this month at the B-Side arts festival in southwest England, the project has taken some time to develop, as McKenzie told NBC OUT, “Nobody really wants to talk about these kinds of emotions, feelings and experiences. Shame is something that thrives on silence, isolation and loneliness.”
Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, who conducted the interviews, agrees. “Issues of shame are extremely painful and often a way of managing hurt and feelings of humiliation, being misunderstood or not belonging.”
Identifying as LGBTQ can often be met with stigma and discrimination, resulting in mental health problems and substance abuse, to which rates of self-harm and suicidal thoughts exceed national levels among 16-25 year-olds in England, according to a 2014 report by social research project Youth Chances.
“Once you share your experiences, there’s this tremendous boost,” Orbach said. “You’re not alone in it. There’s something structural about how you come to feel the way you do, and I think that really helped the men who participated in this and hopefully the audience who listens to it.”
Taking cues from Sigmund Freud’s "talking cure" –- the basis for psychoanalysis where patients talk freely in order to understand themselves better –- Orbach listened while members of the London Gay Men’s Chorus spoke about growing up, family relations and what joining the Chorus meant to them.
Steven Smith, a 29-year-old singer-songwriter and Chorus member, was one of them.
“Doing the interview itself was quite an experience; it was cathartic, and I didn’t know what I would be talking about,” he said. “There’s quite a lot of ways in which people experience shame. I think we speak around it a lot but maybe don’t give it that name. It’s a big part of coming out, or the thing that stops people from coming out, so speaking about that seemed like a natural place to start.”
Smith, who joined the Chorus at the beginning of last year, wrote his own song as part of the production. Titled "Leaving," the track is a pop number paired with some contemporary classical elements, dealing with subjects related to change and his experience of moving to London from Scotland.
“I had to create links between all the different topics that I spoke about, and the strongest one was this idea of change and leaving either physical places or emotional states,” he said. “I struggled quite a bit when I moved to London and didn’t have the best start. Joining the Chorus, actually, completely changed things for me. I had all these new faces and made new friends and just felt part of a community again. It does combine with the concept of shame I guess, leaving shame behind and finding that change which helps you move on.”
Established in 1991, the London Gay Men’s Chorus is a charity with more than 200 voluntary members. Much like "Shame Chorus," the group partakes in youth outreach programs, battling homophobia through song.
“One of the things that we’ve tried to bring to the fore is this idea of community,” McKenzie said. “I’ve realized that the London Gay Men’s Chorus is so important to all its members. It’s not just people who sing together, but it’s a community, a kind of brotherhood that I think has helped some people through some difficult times.”
McKenzie hopes the result of the project is something that many can relate to.
“Although the testimonies are from gay men, we deliberately had a whole variety of composers to show that shame is a universal emotion and a universal subject, which is personal to everyone,” he said.