In the land of their birth, Caldwell says, “They couldn’t be out at all – their love was a death sentence, literally.”
Since resettling in Seattle, Nayyef and Btoo have been able to marry.
Another couple that arrived in Seattle only late last year also has provided inspiration to the chorus. Jassem hails from Tunisia, Mado from Syria. The two first met in Qatar, where they’d fled after each of them had received death threats from members of their own families once their sexual identity was discovered.
But homosexuality is illegal also in Qatar, so over the next few years, with the assistance of agencies with an alphabet soup’s worth of acronyms – UNHCR, ORAM, KAOS GL – Jassem and Mado sought asylum in a place where their sexual identity was not reviled.
They were sent to Turkey, where they hoped they’d be safer. But they’d been assigned resettlement in a town near the Black Sea that was primarily Muslim, and in two and a half years they had to change houses 16 times after repeatedly being targeted and attacked.
And then, after years of waiting, they were suddenly granted admission to the United States. They were the first LGBTQ Muslim asylum seekers to be admitted to the United States since Donald Trump was inaugurated.
Upon their arrival in Seattle, Jassem and Mado were welcomed by Chorus members who assisted them with housing and furniture and job contacts, giving them a real community to land in.
English is Jassem’s fourth language, but he is remarkably proficient in such a short time here.
“I love it here – it’s a good place,” he says jubilantly. “It’s a new country that believes in every single person. Here nobody judges anybody. Everybody keeps smiling. I’m sleeping in peace. We are free to live.”
Which brings to mind another one of the songs made possible by the NEA grant. “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” is a reworking of Irving Berlin’s original musical setting of poet Emma Lazarus’s famous lines inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
The lines “Yearning to breathe free… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…” are clearly as pertinent now as they were when they were originally written in 1883.
The fifth piece in this body of new works is by singer-songwriter Bonnie McKee. McKee grew up in Seattle, identifies as bisexual, and has gone on to write or collaborate on bestselling songs sung by Katy Perry, Cher, Adam Lambert and others. Her contribution to this program is “Love You in the Light,” a great melody with uplifting lyrics and an unforgettable hook. It’s likely to become an enduring anthem for the LGBTQ community.
Now just a couple of weeks away from show time, the Chorus is also rehearsing a range of greatest hits by queer artists, ranging from Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” to Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Half of the “Love Beyond Borders” program will feature those familiar tunes and the other half will be devoted to this profound new song cycle.
Caldwell reflects on the upcoming concert. “I love music, but there are things in the world that matter more than music, so my take on it is, whenever possible music should be placed in the service of humanity and peace.
“We’re trying to create a place where LGBTQ can celebrate and be celebrated.”
The Seattle Men’s Chorus will perform its Love Beyond Borders concert on Friday, March 20 at 8 PM, and Saturday, March 21 at 2 PM, at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. It will reprise the performance at the GALA Festival 2020 in Minneapolis in July.