Thirty years ago, a small group of women held the first living room rehearsal of what would end up being a long-lasting ensemble for queer women to celebrate their community by raising their voices in harmony: Soromundi Lesbian Chorus of Eugene.
“We’re a lesbian chorus, but we welcome any woman who wants to sing under that banner,” Kate Barry says. She’s been singing with the group for 24 years and currently serves as the board president. “We’re an inclusive space; we have members who identify as non-binary, for example.”
Soromundi rehearsals won’t quite fit into a living room anymore — over the past 30 years, nearly 1,500 people have been involved with the chorus, with about 80-90 women actively participating today. And, due to social distancing measures, 90 people packed into a rehearsal space together is a thing of the past. So, as has happened to everyone, Soromundi’s 2020 plans have been put on hold.
To celebrate more than a quarter century of singing as a visible expression of lesbian pride, Soromundi had planned an out-of-town Envision 2020 Tour as well as a CD recording of Soromundi’s Greatest Hits. The group was going to workshop and perform with Voices Lesbian A Cappella Chorus, the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco and the Mendocino Women’s Choir. But, as the tour was set for the end of March, when the seriousness of COVID-19 became clear, the director and the board decided to postpone the tour and the CD recording until a safer time for the group to be together again.
“We’re a pretty resilient group, so everybody is prepared to work with what we can do when we can do it,” Barry says. “But it was obviously a loss for everybody.”
The chorus faced another huge letdown when it was announced that Eugene Pride would not be happening in August due to COVID-19 restrictions. Normally the group has an information booth at Pride, and this year they were planning to sing. Eugene’s Pride is historically held in August, while most other Pride celebrations are in June.
“It’s particularly so sad for Pride because, at this point, we all want to express our support for social justice,” Barry says. “Pride would have been a perfect venue to do that. It’s a lost opportunity for community connection and community celebration.”
Chorus members are constantly interacting with and educating communities about inclusivity. Music Director Lisa Hellemn says that in the past the group has gotten grants to travel to rural areas in Oregon so locals can join the choir for a day.
“These interactive workshops build bridges and allow people to be allies in whatever way they want to,” Hellemn says. Hellemn saw the chorus perform for the first time during the now-defunct Eugene Celebration a year after it formed, and decided she wanted to lend a hand as a supporter and an accompanist. She became the music director in 1993 and has been leading the group ever since.
Once chorus members stopped holding in-person rehearsals, they began holding social meetings and smaller rehearsals over Zoom. Hellemn says she wanted to make sure everyone had support, and that elderly members of the group had people to get groceries for them.
“There are people in our group who have great social networks, but there are others who feel very isolated, misrepresented and misunderstood,” Hellemn says. “There are still people in our group who can’t perform because they’re worried about their work status and people knowing.”
Hellemn says that two years ago, Soromundi was invited by another group to sing with them in a church. But once the church venue found out that Soromundi was a lesbian chorus, they refused to let them perform.
“There’s still a lot of that even though we’re a pretty progressive community,” Hellemn says.
Chorus membership is open to anyone who identifies as lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgender, cisgender or non-binary. While the group honors its history and identity as the Soromundi Lesbian Chorus of Eugene, anyone who is over 18 and identifies as a woman is welcome to join.
“It’s kind of old school to label ourselves as lesbians because we’re not all lesbians,” Hellemn says. “But as long as it’s relevant and people are getting turned down and reacting to that label, we’re still using it to raise awareness.”
Find out more about the Soromundi Lesbian Chorus of Eugene at Soromundi.org.