A year or two ago, I walked down the local high street with my openly gay younger brother. We were on our way to a party, and he was wearing skin-tight jeans and jacket adorned with feathers and sequins. I am never embarrassed to be seen with him, but on this occasion I felt uncomfortable. I noticed the stares from strangers and the sniggers from teenage boys, huddled outside the kebab shop, frightened, perhaps, by this confident display of archetypal homosexuality. As we crossed the road a woman pushing a pram stopped and gawped, 'fucking dirty queer', she shouted, shaking her head and walking away at speed, as if she couldn't bear to be near us.
It's possible that my brother wasn't bothered by this abuse - we both ignored it - but I noticed a flush of red under the surface of his skin. And I felt ashamed; he'd been abused and humiliated simply for walking down the street, and I had done nothing.
Shame is a powerful emotion. 'Shame operates through large and small acts of violence,' artist Jordan McKenzie tells me. 'For shame to flourish, you need a culture of silence and complicity'. McKenzie is developing his new project, Shame Chorus, which uses shame stories told by gay men to explore the relationship between shame and sexuality.
Researcher Bene Brown writes that, 'if you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.'
Shame Chorus is a cathartic project that aims to create the empathy necessary to stunt shame. It is a collaboration with world-renowned psychoanalyst and cultural critic Susie Orbach and the London Gay Men's Chorus (LGMC). Susie Orbach has conducted a series of psychoanalytic interviews with members of the LGMC, asking them to recall memories of feeling shamed - events that may have, in part, shaped their feelings about themselves and their sexuality. These recorded (and anonymous) interviews will be given to established, well-known and emerging composers from a range of music genres who have been commissioned to turn these memories into original songs/choral works that will then be sung by the LGMC in a collective act of catharsis, community and liberation.
'I think we're at a point in the evolution of gay rights where we need to talk about complex issues', McKenzie tells me. 'Some of the gay men I've spoken with have asked why I want to talk about shame, why I can't celebrate instead. But I think we have come so far towards equality in the last few years that now is the time that we need to confront the more difficult aspects of sex and sexuality, in a mature way.'
Still, the project is celebratory too. 'It's called Shame Chorus but really it's about the opposite: catharsis and collectivity. It happens to be about gay men, but shame affects everyone. To be shamed is such an intense emotional state, with this project I want to create a release.'
Shame Chorus will be a live concert event performed at the Freud Museum, and a range of other venues in London and across the UK in 2015. Documentary footage created throughout the project will also form a touring video installation, the Shame Chorus songs will be available to buy as downloads, with money raised from the purchase of the tracks given to fund and support the LGMC's ongoing outreach work. This innovative programme, run by volunteers within the Chorus, works in schools helping young people - through the act of singing and providing positive role models - to tackle homophobia and bullying, enabling young people to talk openly about their sexuality. The ambitious Shame Chorus project has been supported by a number of high-profile public figures, including Jo Brand, Peter Tatchell and Stephen Fry.
It's this kind of work, and the ability to speak openly about shame, fear and judgement, which will help create a society where men like my brother can walk down the street without fear of abuse.
Shame Chorus is a crowd-funded project, if you would like to help with its development you can donate here.
If you are a composer or artist and would like to be involved in realising the project please contact Jordan McKenzie firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Images: Jordan McKenzie, The GMC, Shame Logo.