Christy Zurcher loves music with a passion that has been nurtured since she was a child. It has been an unparalleled force of empowerment, community and expression for her. She also believes 10 is a nice round number ( her number of years in her capacity as a director ) and respects the concept of time as a precious commodity.
It was then understandable why July 27 was to be a bittersweet moment in Zurcher's life as she took to the lawn of Northeastern Illinois University to lead the Lakeside Pride Freedom Band one last time.
Joining Zurcher were approximately 35 of the 191 musicians who have marched with her throughout her decade-long tenure as director. She's kept track of them all, even as they went onto other projects or moved away entirely. In June, they came back in unprecedented numbers to march with and so mark her last Pride Parade in a position that meant so much more to Zurcher than the sum of all the rehearsals, organization, campaigning for funds and the annual three-plus mile journey through the streets of Lakeview celebrating LGBTQ freedom. Rock and blues musician Edgar Winter once acknowledged the raw power of music to bring people together and so it has been the catalyst to a community for Zurcher, eliminating the divisiveness that has often separated the letters L, G, B and T.
Zurcher was born to evangelical protestant missionaries in the small town of Berne, Indiana. In 1978, they left for the island of Haiti whereat the age of 4she learned how to play the piano by watching her mother at the keyboard and repeating the notes by ear.
With political turmoil and horrific violence choking the island in 1987, Zurcher and her family returned to Berne. She was 12 years oldunprepared for both life in the United States or the sudden freedom she discovered in a school that had an instrumental program. "As a seventh-grader, I got to try a bunch of different instruments," she said. "The band director said I had an aptitude for the clarinet and I picked it up and marched in the band."
Not only that, but Zurcher also mastered the saxophone, the bass drum and "pretty much anything I could get my hands on."
In high school, Zurcher had a romantic affair with her best friend. "I felt bad about the whole thing," she recalled. "I prayed and tried to figure out what was going on with me." A few years later Zurcher was attending Lake Forest College, while her friend was enrolled at a Christian university not far from Zurcher's campus. During a weekend visit there in 1996, the two were discovered by a roommate and Zurcher's friend was expelled. "She was so afraid of her parents that she tried to commit suicide," Zurcher said. "Her father called me and told me I was 'evil' and 'vile' and that he was going to call everyone I knew and tell them what I had done to his little girl."
Zurcher instead got on the phone herself, starting with her parents who wereby thenliving in Hawaii. "I told them they were about to get a phone call," she said. "So I explained what happened." They were supportive at the time and defended Zurcher when her friend's father eventually called them. "They told him to mind his own business, to take care of his own family and that we had no secrets," Zurcher said.
Not long afterward, Zurcher received a letter from her mother. "She told me she couldn't grieve for me more if I had died," Zurcher said. "Over the years I reconciled with myself and decided that this was who I was and I didn't care what a religious person thought about it. I told my parents that if they couldn't deal with itthen we couldn't be a family. They said that they loved me and nothing was going to change that."
They have since reached an understanding. Her parents often visit Zurcher, and her partner and Zurcher acknowledge that they helped to forge both her strength of character and her love of music.
Zurcher found comfort and allies in musican art that she believes to be a most deeply personal and intimate form of expression. "I find it impossible to perform music and be false," she said. "I don't see how you can make music with your peers when you feel like there's something you have to hide. To come to a city where there were LGBT musical organizations was a dream come true for me."
In fact, the first open lesbian she ever met was her music instructor at Lake Forest College, Dr. Kristina Boergera woman who became a role model. "Your Christian upbringing tells you that if you're LGBT you have to be miserable, because it will catch up with you," Zurcher said. "Yet here was this woman who was out and happy. Both she and my aunt were my support system initially."
After graduation, Zurcher joined the Artemis Singersa lesbian, feminist chorus in Chicago. Sitting behind her in the alto section was Carolyn Kasprowicz, an aspiring teacher of mathematics who was to become Zurcher's partner of 11 years. On March 14, 2015or the first five digits of Pi the couple intend to marry. "She has been the single most important support person for me, not only in my life but in the band." Zurcher said.
It was during a 1999 Pride Parade that Zurcher first saw the Lakeside Pride Freedom Bandan organization that was to become her musical home and family. After a recovery from back surgery, Zurcher joined the band in 2003. The following year, she was asked if she wanted to become its director.
One of her primary goals was to ensure greater visibility and recognition for the band in the community. "I couldn't believe that people didn't know who we were," she said. "I had to get the word out about an organization that was a lifesaver for me. The LGBT community is very diverse but not necessarily held together. But music is something that can unify them."
Between rehearsals in a parking lot behind Northside College Preparatory School, Zurcher ensured that the band marched at the Memorial Day parade alongside the American Veterans for Equal Rights ( AVER ) as much as possible. "The first year we marched with them, we went past the reviewing stand and ABC-7 didn't announce who they were," she remembered. "The folks on the stand didn't honor or salute them. They acted like they weren't even there. But over the last ten years all that has changed. Now the Generals on the stand and the Mayor salute them. I have been extremely proud to be the band marching behind our LGBT veterans."
Under Zurcher's leadership, the Freedom Band has played concerts in Chicago's parks, as a pep band for Chicago Force football games and was an integral part of the opening ceremonies for the Chicago Gay Games in 2006. They have marched in Pride parades in cities such as Gary, Indiana and Milwaukee, Wisconsin and also traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, and Lansing, Michigan. It was also during her watch that the Freedom Band's parent organization, Lakeside Pride Music Ensembles, was inducted into the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
Howeverwith the Chicago parade in particularZurcher has sometimes struggled as the meaning of the event becomes lost in beads, alcohol and ever more outrageous floats. "I was really frustrated for a while," she said. "The younger folks think that Pride is just a big party and they don't know how much it matters."
She did some research on the Stonewall riots before addressing the younger members of Lakeside Pride. "I told these kids to try to imagine what it must have been like to be thereto be thrown against a wall by cops and ordered to strip so they could determine who was male and who was female," Zurcher recalled. "I then told them to imagine the kind of courage it took one year later for these folks to go out in public and march down the street and say 'we don't have to take this from you. You cannot treat us like this. We deserve to be treated with respect.' That is the Pride parade. I don't want us to take it or our freedom for granted. It could all go away in the blink of an eye."
The past 10 years has taken a great deal of Zurcher's time and energy. Organizing and chasing people down for rehearsals, lobbying Lakeside Pride for new uniforms, finding music, volunteers and transportation began to make Zurcher less like a musician and more like a project manager. "I want to get back to feeling like a musician," she said. "I love the band and I want to go out while I still feel good about it. I think people in volunteer organizations can sometimes get burned out."
So Zurcher has passed the baton to someone who will bring a new energy to the band. "I've taken it from 40 some members marching in Pride to 65," she said. "We've stabilized and do classy performances and events. We look good. We sound good. I'm proud of what I've accomplished with them, but maybe someone else can take it to the next level."
Meanwhile, Zurcher intends to spend a year enjoying a relaxing summer with Kasprowicz before she begins teaching in the fall. She might even see the parade as a member of the audience, beaming as she watches the Freedom Band march past in the brand new uniforms she helped to secure for them. "After that year, I'll come back to the band as a member," she said. "My goal is to march with a different instrument each year until I've played them all."
For Zurcher, there is a solidarity in that breed of musician who is prepared to don a uniform, carry an instrument and march rain or shine, staving off potholes and dehydration. "My dearest and longest standing friendships have been band people," she said. "We travel long distances together in busses, we are out there in the hot sun. They are the people you work and sweat with and you make beautiful music together. There are still members of this band who were the founders of it. That is how much we love it and love each other. It has been an immense honor to be with them."
Perhaps in the future there will be no need for an LGBTQ marching band. As much as she loves the Freedom Band, if that day comes Zurcher will see it as progress. "Right now we need to have a separate, musical organization for gay people." she said. "On some level, you think we won't have achieved full equality until such an organization doesn't have to exist anymore and you can just go to play music because you love playing music."