Dear Dad: A Song that Traveled 5,413 Miles

by Eric Lane Barnes, Director of Music

Several people asked about the song I sang at the 11:00 service on October 13. Rev. Furrer’s talk titled “Love Is As Love Does” was about Coming Out Day; the song seemed to fit the theme pretty perfectly. The song was called “Dear Dad” and it’s from “Fairy Tales,” a show I wrote in 1995 that had numerous productions in Chicago and across the country, ending up Off-Off Broadway and, for a hot minute, Off Broadway. It also played at the West End of London at The Drill Hall. The show is a collection of 21 songs, in which characters eventually assert themselves over the evening. “Dear Dad” is sung by the character Matthew, who later dies of HIV complications (during the song “A Hummingbird.”) Here are the words to the song:

Dear Dad
Hi, how are you? I hope you and Mom are fine.
I’m more or less just writing to say ‘hey.’
Thank you for the birthday card and the pictures from the picnic.
And well, there’s something else I want to say.
And well, there’s something else I need to say…

Dear Dad, Hi, how are you? I hope you and Mom are well.
Just saying ‘hi’. There’s not a lot to say.
This morning I was shooting hoops with a couple of the guys.
You know, lots of famous sports figures are gay…

Dear Dad, Hi, how are you? I hope you and Mom are fine.
You know Plato, Judy Holliday, Elton John and Gertrude Stein?

Dear Dad, did you know scientists have identified a gene…
Dear Dad, it’s coming out day! Hallelujah! I’m a queen!
Dear Dad, here’s the number of a local P-FLAG meeting…
Dear Dad, just so you know, I won’t be doing any breeding…

Dear Dad, I’m in the papers…
Dear Dad, I’m in love…
Dear Dad, this is the first thing that I’ve ever been sure of…

Dear Dad, I’m a faggot…
Dear Dad, I am proud…
Dear Dad, why am I scared to tell the truth, for crying out loud?

Dear Dad
You told me something long ago I always will remember.
You said my happiness is always up to me.
As a kid I never knew
if what you said was false or true.
But now I’m an adult, and I agree.

Life doesn’t come to us in paint-by-number ways.
Love has no mathematics in her voice.
I didn’t ever plan
to fall in love with another man.
It’s something over which I’ve had no choice.

We met five years ago,
that day in May when we had snow.
And we’ve been together ever since.
I’m not going to embarrass you
with sentimental details.
But Dad, he really does remind me of a prince.

I can’t lie any more
and God, it feels so much better,
Although I’m kind of scared of what I’ve just begun.
Just remember who I was
right before you read this letter.
I was then, and I remain, your loving son.

When my parents saw “Fairy Tales” in Chicago my dad said after the show, “I can see how someone would be really moved by the ‘Dear Dad’ song.” I smiled and said, “Someone … like you, Dad?” He grinned – he’s never been too straightforward with expressing his emotions.

Both my parents have always been incredibly accepting of me, and they both love Paul like a second son. My dad even once said, “I wish my relationship with your mother was more like your relationship with Paul.” Mighty high praise from a Republican raised in West Virginia.

In November of 2012, I got an email from someone in Beijing, asking if he might be able to sing the song ‘Dear Dad’ with his chorus. I wrote back, very curious how he had heard the song, and what sort of chorus he worked with. His name was Roy (his English moniker at least) and he had seen a show I had presented with my group Captain Smartypants a month before in which we sang the song. ‘I would have loved to have met you,’ I said. Roy said he felt too shy, and planned to email me when he’d returned to China from his business trip. Roy was part of a small LGBT chorus in Beijing called The Shining Jazzy Chorus. I was amazed there were any LGBT choruses in China at all.

He and I struck up an email correspondence. I of course granted permission for his chorus to perform “Dear Dad” and we began talking about LGBT life in China and the US. Roy had been to the States a few times on business, and had a certain amount of awareness of how different the climate was between the two countries.

At one point in our email correspondence, we devised a plan for me to come to Beijing and work with the Shining Jazzy Chorus. I raised funds through a ProjectsUSA page, and went the following summer to Beijing for two weeks. It was an unimaginably wonderful trip. The people I met in the chorus were exceedingly warm and friendly. Some of them spoke English, but most needed to rely on a translator.

I learned quite a few things about LGBT life in China. One is that while it was no longer illegal to be publicly gay in China, the government still made it extremely difficult to present things with gay content in public. The chorus was used to that, however, and had several work-arounds for when a government official would cancel a concert at the last minute due to a ‘clerical error’ or a missing page from a rider to a contract. They always had a second venue lined up, and would alert their followers on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) and simply proceed to plan B.

While in Beijing on this trip, I worked with the chorus in planning an auction, holding a rehearsal retreat, planning and performing a concert, and even meeting with US ambassador to China Gary Locke, with whom I’d had some connections through a mutual friend. I also helped them find a consistent rehearsal space, and talked with them about changing their name to something a little more universally clear. (“Shining” and “Jazzy” in Mandarin sound like words that have to do with “prism” and “rainbow” but these references were lost on most English speakers.)

Most of the time with the members of the chorus and I was spent simply talking, and sharing experiences and stories. I found there were lots of things that had never gotten through the media firewall in China. For instance, when I mentioned ‘Stonewall,’ they had no idea what I was talking about. ‘Stonewall Riots? New York, 1969? The beginning of the gay rights movement in the US?’ Nope – they’d never heard of this. I gave them a necessarily quick overview of the Stonewall Riots and how things had formed for LGBT rights in the US since then, including the formation of gay (and then lesbian, and then mixed) choruses pretty quickly on the heels of the riots. After this one of the members said quietly, ‘I wish we had a Stonewall moment in China.’ And, for once in my life I said the right thing at the right moment: ‘I think you are the Stonewall moment in China.’

Before I left my wonderful new friends I asked them if they would like to attend the GALA Chorus Festival in Denver in 2016. They were thrilled at the thought. Over the next few years I led an effort to raise funds through LGBT choruses across the US, and worked connections I had at the embassy to get Beijing Queer Chorus visas approved. (They had changed their name by this point)

The BQC’s appearances at the festival in Denver was life-changing. Several chorus members called their families back in China and came out to them – they were so overtaken with the overwhelming amount of love and support they felt in Denver with 7,000 loving choral friends. Last March, the Beijing Queer Chorus performed at East Shore Unitarian Church along with my then vocal groups Sensible Shoes and Captain Smartypants. Those of you who were there will remember what an exciting, beautiful evening of song and love the concert was. I am thrilled to announce the Beijing Queer Chorus will return to East Shore on the evening of June 28, 2020 in preparation for returning to the GALA Festival, which happens in Minneapolis this next July.

Roy played the song “Dear Dad” for his father as he came out to him as a gay man. It was a difficult moment – the older Chinese generation does not understand what being gay means, and sees it largely through a very filtered worldview that has been (incorrectly) curated by the Chinese government. But Roy said the song helped a great deal – it was able to say in music what he found it difficult to say in words.

I am grateful I have been surrounded by music all my life, and have found so many wonderful opportunities to create and share music as my profession. I’ve had the great fortune to work in some very large venues with audiences of thousands of people. I have also been lucky to have worked with numerous celebrities in my career. But when it comes down to it, it is always the person-to-person connections that mean the most. The fact that the song “Dear Dad” was able to connect me with a chorus I’d never heard of in China was amazing. But the fact a struggling young man found it helpful to use this song to have a more authentic relationship with his father: that is priceless, and truly humbling.

To many of us in the progressive and liberal Pacific Northwest, being LGBT is no more a big deal than it is to be left handed. But that is not always the case even here. And it is certainly not the case in many locales across our country and in other countries across the world. My belief – and my experience – is the more authentically we live our lives, the deeper we are able to touch one another, and achieve our purpose on this earth, which I believe is, in the words of William Blake, “… to learn to endure the beams of love.”