About Jon Sims

The Jon Sims Endowment Fund (JSEF) for the Performing Arts is named for the pioneer of all openly LGBT performing arts organizations, Jon Sims. Here is an excellent bio of Mr. Sims.

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 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 2,000 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 is very much evident throughout San Francisco and the world.

More about Jon Sims, courtesy of Heidi Beeler...

In June 1978, a block of 70 musicians led by a skinny music teacher in jeans swung onto Market Street playing “California, Here I Come.” The crowds along the length of the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade went wild as they passed by. They knew a radical act when they saw one. Jon Sims and the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band & Twirling Corps stepped out of the closet and into a tableau of Americana by marching down “Main Street” in their community’s parade. The headlines that year were filled with stories of Anita Bryant campaigning against gay rights, and in California, the Briggs Ballot Initiative threatened to ban gay teachers from California classrooms. At a time when losing your job or your children for being gay was a given, and gay rights and repeal initiatives appeared on ballots across the continent, a gay marching band was heady stuff. Behind them, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official, rode in an open convertible plastered with his motto, “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” and the band answered with a musical flourish.

Jon Sims, the founder of that group, had long had the dream of performing in a gay-oriented musical organization after suffering through the “macho” environment of straight musical organizations. As a gay man, he felt totally out of place. “I can see I wasn’t making the kind of music I was capable of because the social and personal barriers I had to deal with just being a Gay person.”

From the moment the Band turned onto Market Street, gay musical history was made. The Band was an immediate success, the members decided to continue to perform throughout the year, and soon the Band was appearing at virtually every Gay Community event in town. At its first “straight” event, the San Francisco St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the Band won “Best Civilian Band” and fast became an important part of San Francisco’s musical life, performing at Davies Symphony Hall, headlining at Bread & Roses with Robin Williams, opening for Sylvester, and playing for Francis Ford Coppola’s birthday bash.

As the first openly gay music organization in the world, the Band helped to trigger an explosion of gay performing arts groups, in the Bay Area and across the country. The success of his Band encouraged Jon Sims to found the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, Varsity Drag (later succeeded by City Swing), Lambda Pro Musica Orchestra, a Lesbian Chorus, the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco and several other musical organizations. The Band & Twirling Corps was soon joined by the San Francisco Tap Troupe, the Guard (later known as the San Francisco FLAG Corps) and a performance support group, the Aides-de-Camp (renamed the Guild after the word “AIDS” took on a horrific new meaning).

Following the creation of the San Francisco Band, lesbian/gay bands quickly sprang up in Los Angeles, New York City, Houston, Chicago, and other cities across the continent. Today, there are more than 25 bands in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe in the Lesbian and Gay Band Association (LGBA). In September 1982, these bands formed LGBA which has supported the formation of new bands and performed en masse at such milestone events as an electrifying first concert at the Hollywood Bowl (1984), the ‘87, ’93, and 2000 marches on Washington, Gay Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, and Presidential Inaugural celebrations for Bill Clinton (twice) and Barack Obama (twice).