December 19, 2019
Mensches, movers and shakers: Melanie and Sarah Penicka-Smith
As part of our Be A Mensch campaign, we are highlighting people within the broader Australian community who are doing good, making a difference, challenging stigmas and promoting inclusivity, respect and kindness.
We sat down with Melanie and Sarah Penicka-Smith, co-founders of the Pacific Pride Choir, to learn about how they are creating positive change in the LGBTQI+ space, and what change they hope to see in the world.
SJM: What is the Pacific Pride Choir?
Melanie and Sarah: Pacific Pride Choir is a biennial touring pride choir travelling to countries where being gay is legal but not widely accepted. Anyone is welcome to join; so far our travellers have come from all over Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Germany, and Cambodia.
SJM: What are you trying to achieve through it?
Melanie and Sarah: If you can talk, you can learn to sing, so choirs are an accessible way for people of all kinds and backgrounds to find self-expression. Around the world, pride choir performances provide greater visibility for marginalised people. We were aware from our travels with the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir that LGBTQI+ communities in other countries felt strengthened by seeing us perform, and non-LGBTQI+ people felt freer to engage with us as we were both a choir and overseas visitors. We hope our visits teach us more about how other cultures do activism, gives us an opportunity to support and celebrate local activists, and provides local LGBTQI+ communities with a positive way to have their own conversations with family, friends and even governments about their own lives and needs.
SJM: Why promote equality through music?
Melanie and Sarah: Some people find protests, speeches and direct conversation threatening or uncomfortable, but we’ve learned that singing a song is a really non-threatening way to communicate a message, as well as to show people that LGBTQI+ folk are the same as everybody else.
SJM: What was the response to your recent tour in Cambodia?
Melanie and Sarah: We connected with a variety of very different communities, who all responded differently. Expats cried, and made connections with choir members who are working in similar fields, promising to keep up an exchange of contacts and ideas. Young local gay and trans people came to hear us, to have their picture taken with us, to find out how to connect with their local communities, and to tell us about their lives. Local trans craftsman Pheng Sanh responded with deep pride to us wearing his rainbow kroma. Vietnamese trans activist Thanh Ha was inspired to recommence his trans activism using art to bring trans folk, their families and friends together. Two more choirs were created as a direct result of our tour; in Vietnam, an activist organisation founded a Diversity Choir so there would be a group to sing with us when we arrived; in Cambodia, one rural community responded by discussing how to begin their own gay choir.
SJM: What is your hope the choir will achieve?
Melanie and Sarah: We hope each tour will have a similar local impact, but also grow a global network of like-minded people supporting each other through their work. We also hope that those who travel with us will be inspired to find a project of their own to bring people together in other ways and other places.
SJM: What is your hope for the future?
Melanie and Sarah: That we never lose sight of the fact that making a difference to one person is still making a difference.