Commentary

Celebrating the legacy of Jon Reed Sims, originator of the gay men’s chorus

June 24, 2021 12:15 am

Jon Reed Sims is in the back row, seventh from the right, in Smith Center High School’s class of 1965. Mike Isom is in the third row, sixth from the left. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector).

By C.J. Janovy

Jon Reed Sims was born in Smith Center, Kansas, in May 1947. When he died, in July 1984, it made news in San Francisco.

A newspaper there showed then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein giving Sims a key to the city. The caption said he was “a favorite” of the woman who is now a long-serving U.S. senator.

“He Spawned a World of Music; Jon Sims is Dead at Age 37,” read the headline.

Sims was one of the early casualties of AIDS. But before he died far too young, he created something that lives on — loudly, joyfully and powerfully.

Jon Reed Sims’ death in 1984 made news in San Francisco.

In 1978, Sims founded the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band, igniting an international cultural phenomenon: there are now gay men’s choruses and bands throughout the world, including in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Northern Ohio.

A few years ago, wanting to know more about this son of Smith Center who’s revered in San Francisco but forgotten in Kansas, I tracked down his sister, Judith Sims Billings, who lives in Nebraska. She sent me a history she’d written for the San Francisco Bay Times, a gay newspaper.

Sims was born on a farm near Lebanon and the family later moved to a farm closer to Smith Center. Jon started taking piano lessons when he was 6, and named his 4-H livestock after composers.

“The fact that he was practically the only male in the county who took sewing and cooking in 4-H didn’t seem to bother Jon, and Mother just acted like it was the most normal thing,” Billings wrote. “Our parents encouraged us to do anything we wanted to, seeing no real boundaries. Jon won first place at the Kansas State Fair for his sugar cookies.”

He took up the cornet to play in the Smith Center High School band, then learned to play the tuba because the band needed one and ultimately found his “calling” with the French horn.

“Jon was kind and considerate of everyone and always spoke to and helped these older women he’d met through our grandmothers,” Billings recalled. “This was the same generation of women who taught him to knit and crochet when he was in grade school.”

Sims started college at Fort Hays State University, then transferred to Wichita State University to study French horn and composition.

“He was a very flamboyant drum major at both universities,” Billings wrote.

Her brother went on to grad school at Indiana University, then taught junior high music in Chicago before moving to San Francisco.

“It was a time of Anita Bryant and much prejudice towards the community,” she wrote. “Jon told me he was not interested in making a political statement — he just wanted to get people together to have fun making music.”

But for oppressed communities, having fun and making music is inherently political.

  The morning of June 25, 1978, Sims blew a whistle, threw his drum major’s mace in the air and literally kicked off the Band with a leap. Seventy musicians in red visors, white tees and blue jeans followed him onto Market Street playing “California, Here I Come!” A roar rose up from the crowd as they passed. The crowd knew a radical act when they saw one. Sims and the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band & Twirling Corps stepped out of the closet and into a tableau of Americana to march down “Main Street” for their city’s parade.   – San Francisco Bay Times

Sims didn’t come out to the family until after their mother died in 1975, Billings wrote: “We are not sure if she knew, but Mother always said, ‘Jon marches to a different drummer.’ ”

Billings said her family was always proud of Sims, “but none of us realized the impact he would have. I continue to be amazed and proud of the impact of his vision.”

It’s hard to think about Sims without thinking of another gay Kansan who made an indelible mark on the world. Gilbert Baker, who designed the rainbow flag, was born in Chanute and grew up in Parsons. He got the hell out as soon as he could. In recent years, his classmates in the Parsons High School class of 1969 have worked to memorialize his legacy.

I took a Pride Month drive out to Smith Center, where the woman who answered the phone at the high school contacted someone whose dad graduated with Sims in the class of 1965.

Mike Isom spent his career as a history teacher and guidance counselor in nearby Kensington.

Jon Reed Sims’ senior picture in the 1965 Smith Center Centrian. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

Looking through old annuals, Isom pointed out every photo of the young handsome Sims in the 1965 Centrian: Sims in the band, the chorus, the boys’ octet, the glee club, the horn trio, the mixed ensemble, the all-school play, the yearbook staff, the national honor society, the service organizations.

“He was accepted,” Isom said of Sims.

Though they ran in different crowds, Isom described Sims as happy and carefree, remembering how, one night, 14 people crammed into Sims’ big car — “I think it was a 1949 Plymouth or something like that,” Isom said — to get into the drive-in movie on dollar night.

“There might have been other people who thought he might be gay — I may use that term now, but not back then we wouldn’t use it,” Isom said, noting that the meanings of words had changed over the years. “And we just thought it was strange that he liked to hang around the girls. But he was musically inclined.”

Based on the “prophesies” students wrote to imagine their futures, Sims was self-aware enough to make a joke about what his future held:

Students at Smith Center High School wrote “Prophecies” about their future for the 1965 annual, The Centrian. Jon Reed Sims appeared to make a self-aware joke. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

Isom didn’t remember how he heard about Sims’ founding of the gay men’s chorus.

“I thought that was an accomplishment,” he said. “And I had heard that he was sort of big in the movement out there.”

Isom said he didn’t know how much support there’d be for a plaque or some other kind of memorial to Sims.

“I would assume that if people knew his accomplishments, they might be willing to do that,” he said. “And also, there are people that would be totally against — you know what I’m saying?”

He was saying that this part of Kansas is mighty conservative.

But LGBTQ people do live in Smith Center, just like we live everywhere. Knowing they’re in a place that produced someone who made such a great contribution to our culture might brighten their world a bit.

Besides, there already is a memorial to Sims. It’s a headstone at the Fairview Cemetery, alongside his mother Marie Belle and his father Delmar, who died in 1980.

On the hot afternoon I paid my respects, the only sounds were the wind and a couple of lonesome meadowlarks. It felt too quiet a resting place for someone who spent his life making big, beautiful music.

But maybe it’s quiet enough for Jon Reed Sims’ spirit to hear all the joyful sounds he brought to life, still reverberating out in the world.

Jon Reed Sims’ headstone is in Fairview Cemetery at Smith Center, Kansas. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. Before joining the States Newsroom’s Kansas Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.

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