Pride and Intention: Texas’s Historic Gay Men’s Chorus Turtle Creek Chorale Finishes Season Strong

In 1980, Dallas was having its moment. Due largely to the eponymous hit TV show of the time, the city was depicted as the home of filthy rich oil barons and glamorous debutantes with hair as big as Texas. It wasn’t a completely accurate portrayal (though not completely inaccurate, either), but at least the infatuation with the Ewings helped to remove the shadow of the JFK assassination 17 years earlier.

Incidentally, 1980 was also when Dallas hosted its first official gay pride parade. The Turtle Creek Chorale was born that same year, founded by a small group of gay men in the city who simply wanted a place to sing together. (The name referred to the Dallas neighborhood where one of the founding members lived.) Oddly, the city notorious for the assassination of a progressive president in the 60s was finally becoming progressive. But it didn’t happen overnight.

“This was the early 80s and to call yourself a gay men’s chorus was adding a lot of social weight,” says Sean Mikel Baugh, the Charles Longcope Jr. Artistic Director and Conductor of the Turtle Creek Chorale, noting that some chorus members were afraid to have their names listed in the concert programs during those early years. There were others who could not be seen on video. “In Texas, it was a time (when) you could still be fired for being an ‘out’ gay person.”

As the social stigma surrounding the gay community decreased through the decades, membership increased. Forty-three years later, the Turtle Creek Chorale is the state’s largest predominantly gay men’s chorus, comprised of approximately 240 dues-paying members. They’ve sung in spaces as large as Carnegie Hall, as small as East Texas churches, and have a European tour on the horizon. They’re the most recorded male chorus in the world.

The group is halfway through its current season, which continues in September with their first-ever collaboration with the full Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Baugh describes Sing for Our Lives as a program centered around suicide awareness and anti-shame. “It’s all music based on the ideas of shedding shame, no matter who you are,” he says. Expect the show to include pop favorites by Katy Perry and Coldplay, plus the premiere of five new pieces by women, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC composers.

Their November concert, Border Songs, explores issues around immigration, especially in Texas. “We’re going to share stories, both musical and narrative, from members of our choruses that are either undocumented or have immigration stories,” Baugh says. Approximately half the program will be sung in Spanish at Holy Trinity Catholic Church on Oak Lawn, which has a large Hispanic congregation. “We’re hoping to reach out to the Hispanic community, especially at this concert…. Lots of great stories, so it should be a really powerful event.”

The chorale’s 2023 season wraps up with their annual holiday concert this December when they bring in Irish singer/songwriter Chloe Agnew, former member of the Celtic music group, Celtic Woman. She’ll be joined by a full orchestra, chorus, and Five Second Rule, a high-energy fusion of Celtic, rock, and roots music.

The Turtle Creek Chorale has never shied away from social issues in their programming, and their first concert of the 2024 season (set for late spring/early summer) is sure to resonate with audiences. Inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem, I, too, sing America, Baugh describes it as “A patriotic concert from the viewpoint of ostracized Americans: LGBT people, immigrants or people of color, women… People who have often had to fight for their rights in America don’t often get to call America their home. It’s going to be from their point of view.”

In December 2024, they’ll conclude the season with Wonder, intended to be a concert looking at what the holidays mean through the eyes of kids.

When Sean Baugh joined the Turtle Creek Chorale as a singer 16 years ago, he never imagined he’d someday be Artistic Director. He’d nearly given up on making use of his master’s degree in conducting from SMU and instead took a corporate marketing job. However, he found himself craving a musical outlet and wanted the opportunity to sing for Timothy Seelig, the beloved outgoing conductor of 20 years. Now in his tenth year as Artistic Director, his passion for curating meaningful, community-oriented programming is obvious. “We just do it all with intention,” he says. “We do the silliness with intention, and we do the serious with intention.”