Two melodic soprano voices echoed through the packed theater. Each note, pitch and crescendo was composed to tell a story of queer love overcoming injustice.
Ana Miranda and Michelle Ford Knott, dressed in black, faced the audience at Chicago's Center on Halsted as they performed "Two Years, Two Months," a song about two men who fled persecution in North Africa for being gay.
"I lost my job and my home. I was forced to pretend to be straight," they sang. The lyrics flowed in parallel circles, their words chasing one another in a chaotic whirlwind of sound: "I was in shelters. There was no safety from the violence. I hid my true self."
A sudden and aggressive thump from the accompanying guitarplayed by the song's composer, Carlos Jacquez Gonzalezinterrupted the opera singers. Changing from slapping the body of his guitar to strumming seamlessly, he created a tense and emotional atmosphere as the song continued unfolding.
"I think music can be very powerful because it's a way of reaching people at their core, rather than people putting on blinders [toward] someone talking about [social injustice]," Gonzalez said. "If I'm going to do a social justice piece, then I don't want it just to be floating in the artistic realm. I want it to be able to actually help people."
The piece is a two-part classical composition that follows Omar and Muhammad's (pseudonyms) escape from anti-LGBTQ+ persecution in North Africa, and how they found love along the way. It debuted at the "When I am Free" benefit concert as part of the Chicago 5 Lives campaign on Dec. 3 for the Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian not-for-profit that helps LGBTQ+ people escape persecution through an international network of resources, advocates and on-the-ground members.
For this article, Dane Bland, the director of development and communication at Rainbow Railroad, spoke on behalf of Omar and Muhammad due to safety concerns.
Toward the end of 2019, both men, who did not know each other, contacted the Rainbow Railroad to locate resources in their North African country. Both men had experienced extreme discrimination and persecution, and were forced to flee.
Omar and Muhammad's love story began when the organization paired them because the latter didn't speak English while the former did. Pairing them together made their escape more likely, Bland said.
Their first attempt to leave wasn't until early 2021 because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. However, it was unsuccessful, and the men went their separate ways but remained in contact, said Bland. They were successfully relocated to Western Europe a couple of months later and are now thinking of their future together.
Omar and Muhammad's story is just one of thousands about people who Rainbow Railroad has helped.
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersect Association, there are 69 countries where being LGBTQ+ is criminalized. Coming out could mean being exposed to discrimination, incarceration and, in extreme cases, execution.
"It's a global epidemic and it's something that we can address on lots of different levels," said Bruce Koff, the vice chair of the organization's board of directors. "What Rainbow Railroad tries to do is to function sort of as emergency transport, like an ambulance, getting people who are in imminent danger out of danger and into a place of safety."
Since its founding in 2006, the Rainbow Railroad has helped more than 1,600 people.
The benefit concert was the beginning of Rainbow Railroad's end-of-the-year fundraising campaign, Chicago 5 Lives. It featured a night of classical music performed by local artists whose lives have intersected with immigration at some point in their lives. The goal is to raise enough money to save five people (approximately $10,000 per person) as part of the organization's bigger donation campaign to save 60 lives in 60 dayscalled "60 in 60."
By the end of the night, they had already raised $25,000.
"I think [music] can be amazingly expressive," Koff said. "Art, in general, conveys what we can't always convey in words."
Koff reached out to Gonzalez about performing at the benefit concert after watching his master's projectthe immigrant mass.
Throughout Gonzalez's graduate schooling, he composed the music for a Latin mass to tell the true stories of immigrants in detention camps. His goal was to juxtapose the role of religion and government to the lack of empathy and dehumanization of immigrants.
Koff wanted him to just perform at the concert because he felt Gonzalez could connect with the immigrant experience through his music and first-generation Mexican-American identity.
However, Gonzalez felt that this invitation would be a good opportunity to bring awareness to international LGBTQ+ persecution through song.
"I think in the classical community, there are people who don't necessarily come from the same background as I do. And they have a little bit more say, socially, and they have a little bit more sway financially," he said.
Gonzalez asked Koff if he could interview a client and use their story to compose a classical piece, and was then connected with Omar and Muhammad. He spoke to the couple via email and knew right away that this was the story he wanted to share with the world.
"I'd like it to communicate something of hope, and what better way to communicate that than to people who kind of just found comfort in each other through difficult times," he said. "It's just very human and very intimate, and I really connected with that idea."
The piece took Gonzalez a week and a half to write, the fastest he's ever composed music.
The song is two parts to represent the time it took for Omar and Muhammad to get out of their country and how long it took for them to fall in love and find safety"Two Years. Two Months."
He said that the first half sounds experimental and jarring with "weird sounds" to represent the persecution they experienced and the difficulties of their journey. However, the second half is a "kind of love song," flowy and hopeful.
Gonzalez hopes his piece brings awareness to the injustices LGBTQ+ experiences worldwide.
"I honestly think that people don't know that this is happening, or they're turning a blind eye to it," he said. "I want to force people to look and listen."
To learn more about Rainbow Railroad's work, see www.rainbowrailroad.org/about. To read more about the "When I Am Free" benefit concert, see www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Local-benefit-concert-celebrates-love-and-freedom-/71895.html . To donate to Chicago 5 Lives, see donate.rainbowrailroad.org/team/391543.