by Allecia Vermillion
San Francisco Museum and Historical Society Summer 2009
Jon Reed Sims was born in 1947 in Smith Center, Kansas—the geographic center of the nation’s 48 contiguous states. However from an early age, relatives said Sims showed more sophistication and musical ability than most residents of the small wheat farming town.
After studying music composition at Wichita State University and earning a masters degree in music at Indiana University, Sims moved to San Francisco to be a music teacher. He taught high school band in Daly City, but ultimately devoted himself full-time to developing gay and lesbian musical groups throughout the Bay Area.
Sims is best known for founding the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band (now called the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band) and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. In 1978, he decided the local Gay Freedom Day parade could use more music. He posted fliers around town, ultimately gathering together a few wind and percussion instrumentalists to form a marching band.
What was supposed to be a summertime-only effort morphed into a permanent fixture. Today, the marching band claims to be the world’s first openly, publicly identified gay cultural art group.
Band members would joke about Sims’ Kansas heritage, calling him Dorothy and likening their marching to following him down the yellow brick road.
Sims’ lesbian and gay chorus group ultimately spawned a variety of musical offshoots, including a concert band, jazz band, swing choir, string orchestra, ragtime ensemble, even a trombone ensemble. Every group shared Sims’ founding commitment to promote gay and lesbian culture.
Thanks to Sims, hundreds of gay men and women across the Bay Area found mainstream acceptance through the universality of music.
The groups he founded earned a variety of accolades and spawned similar organizations across the country. In 1981, the Gay Men’s Chorus embarked on a nationally acclaimed tour of the country. The former band teacher from America’s heartland had become the patriarch of a large-scale movement that helped dispel prejudice and bring gays and lesbians into the mainstream through their musical talents.
However Sims’ musicians contributed more than music to the city. He formed the gay marching band in 1978, at the height of Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell’s anti-gay movement. California was hotly debating Proposition 6, which would have banned gays and lesbians from working in public schools. That same year, the Gay Men’s Chorus made its debut performance at a candlelight vigil at City Hall after the assassinations of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
In a 1982 newspaper interview, Sims said he was burned out, suffering exhaustion-related symptoms he compared with hepatitis. Two years later, in January 1984 he was diagnosed with a little-known disease called AIDS. He died six months later, on July 16.
One week after Sims’ death, more than 1,500 people attended a service at Grace Cathedral to remember the gifted musician. Attendees wore rainbow-colored armbands and entered under a rainbow archway of balloons. The service made the front page of the Examiner the next day.
When Sims died, so little was known about AIDS that his obituary in the San Francisco Examiner included a definition of the disease. At that time, AIDS had claimed the lives of 200 men in San Francisco, and 2000 nationwide. Sims’ death expanded awareness of an often-misunderstood disease that would go on to ravage San Francisco’s Francisco’s gay community.
As one friend said in Sims’ newspaper obituary, he gave gays “an alternative to the baths and the bars.” Sims’ cultural impact was evident at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts, which closed in November 2006. The center once located at 11th and Mission in the South of Market neighborhood was named in his honor and was dedicated to education and cultural arts among the city’s gay, lesbian, and transgender community.
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