For our Pride edition of Humans of TCGMC, we connected with alumnus Richard Long. Richard, who grew up facing racial discrimination in the 1960s south, returned home when he joined the chorus on its famous 2006 Southern Tour. There, he received an act of love so profound that it remains a key moment in TCGMC history. John Larsen, the Chair of the Board of Directors at the time the chorus planned the tour, also joins us in this interview.
Richard: The board thought the southern tour would be a good idea to expose the south to gay men. At first, I was adverse to it. I grew up in South Carolina. My words were, “Are you kidding me? A black boy in the south in the summer, a gay man…” I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t feeling too safe.
Josh: Obviously you had hesitations about participating. What convinced you to go?
Richard: First of all, the group. The board encouraged me to share my fears. And I thought, “I have to be real, I have to put it out there.” So I shared with the group, and after that, they all supported me to go. The feeling was, “If Richard will go, then we all should go.” And it was the experience of my life, save my children being born.
Josh: What was it like? Can you describe the experience?
Richard: It was a bus tour over 8 days. We landed in Nashville and sang in the Grand Ole Opry. I remember this lady saying, “Well this is a first. I ain’t never seen no gay folks on that stage!” And I said, “Honey, yes you have, you just didn’t know it.” After Nashville, we went to Jackson, Mobile, New Orleans, and Birmingham. There were about 110 singers. It was just a very unusual way to introduce gay people – gay life – to that part of the country.
Josh: And what kind of audiences did you have? Was there any pushback from the community?
Richard: After we got going, it was the most liberating thing I can think of. The press was in all the places where we went, but especially in Biloxi, where I went out on the beach. I was the feature for an article there. If I were to characterize our audience, I would say it was mainly gay men, their lovers, and their supporters. I don’t think there were inquisitive people, thinking, “Let me go see what this is about.”
One of the things we did at all the places was sing the song, “Marry Us,” where we invited people in the audience to come up with their spouses or significant others. If they would, we’d have them stand on stage and declare their love for each other. That was always heartwarming.
Josh: And this is about 7 years before marriage equality became legal nationwide.
As a fellow southerner, Richard, I can’t imagine the bravery to do something like that in 2006 of all times. Well, for years, I’ve heard about this legendary “beach moment” on the tour, where chorus members formed a tunnel and sang, “Walk Hand in Hand” to you. Can you tell me a bit about what led to that day, what happened, and what it meant to you?
Richard: During the course of talking up the event in Biloxi to the chorus, I told them all I’d been stationed there [in the Air Force]. I told them a story about not being able to walk on a beach, around 1965-1966. Especially if you were a black man with a white woman at that time… you’d take your life in your hands. I think there was a law in the books that said it couldn’t happen, but I never asked. I never tried because I didn’t want to fight mobs.
When I went to Biloxi for electronics training, I think I left the base only once because I feared for my life. I had a lot of white friends on the base, but I don’t think I ever left even to go to the library.
On the bus, the chorus guys told me, “We’ve got a surprise for you when we get to Biloxi.” And when they lined up and put out the satin walkway, I knew something was up. I knew enough to know that it was going to happen – in fact, they had the press there! There was a reporter from a local newspaper who wanted to know how it felt to come back.
Josh: And how did it feel?
Richard: Comeuppance. It all came back around to me. I’ve never been a bitter black man. I’ve only had in my life one really obvious experience where someone was trying to keep me, the black man, out of a place.
At Thanksgiving at John’s mother’s house, I think I once told her that I was 28 years old before I could go to the library where I grew up. There was so much discirmination where you knew not to cross this line, or that line. I remember a couple of times going to the lunch counter at the drugstore in the little town where I grew up. This man said, “Get out of here, boy!” So I got out of there, boy. I knew I wasn’t allowed to be there, but I was supposed to be anywhere I wanted to.
John: Dickie, it’s really fun to create space specifically to talk about your experiences. I was the Board Chair at the time we planned the southern tour, and Stan [the former TCGMC Artistic Director] and I were excited for you to go on the tour. In my excitement, I think I ran roughshod over whatever experiences you would be thinking about [during the tour], and it’s just what happens when you come from a place of privilege… I often don’t think about all the experiences other people have.
Richard: And when I walked into the water, it was almost like baptism.
John: It was so visceral in so many ways, because you don’t swim and the water was murky as hell and full of filth from Katrina. The hurricane had destroyed all the buildings on the beach, so it was this wasteland, not the pristine beach it used to be back when you couldn’t go. Maybe it was a raising-from-the-ashes kind of place. And there you were, walking into the water! And then everyone stood around you and sang.
Richard: And “Walk Hand in Hand” is such a meaningful piece, and it almost always draws people together. That particular day, I knew I was welcome and wanted.
You may have noticed by now that I am very forgiving. I don’t assume that you’re planning to do me harm. Even when I couldn’t go out on the beach, I didn’t assume that it was because they wanted to kill a n*****. I assumed it was because they were ignorant and stupid. It’s in my nature to take you at face value until you prove otherwise. And there you have it.
Josh Elmore (he/him), singer and member of our small ensemble OutLoud!, created Humans of TCGMC in 2018. He graduated from Carleton College with a B.A. in Linguistics and has since worked in sales, higher education, and, most recently, as a bilingual insurance agent (Spanish). Endlessly curious, he has dabbled in improv theater, stand-up comedy, sword fighting, the cello, and modeling for fantasy-themed photo shoots.