Not long ago, Cheer Dallas, the country's first serious gymnastics-oriented, pompon-eschewing, non-drag-wearing gay cheerleading squad, had the opportunity for statewide exposure. This Week in Texas, a magazine with a huge circulation that lists events in the gay community across the Lone Star State, wanted to put a couple of the best-looking Cheer Dallas squad members on its cover.
The only hitch was they would have to appear bare-chested, showing off not their red-white-and-blue, collegiate-looking polyester uniforms, but their body-builderlike physiques.
The Cheer Dallas board considered the request, but turned it down. First of all, the board did not want to undermine the unity of the 50-plus-person squad by singling out only a few of its members as cover boys; the coverage also would not be fair, they thought, to the handful of its members who are women; but mostly, the board simply felt that beefcakes were not in keeping with the athletic, activist image Cheer Dallas has worked so hard to cultivate--an image so clean-cut and wholesome, the squad makes the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in their midriffs and plunging necklines look like showgirls.
"When people think of gay cheerleaders, they think of limp-wristed nelly guys in drag," says Ken Jorns, a Dallas interior designer, former head cheerleader at Texas Christian University, and founder of Cheer Dallas. "We're professional, all-around good American boys and girls."
Call them America's Squad.
It is dusk on a recent Sunday evening, the most serene time of the week, the time most people are winding down from the weekend and renewing themselves for the work week ahead.
At the cavernous Dallas Gymnastics Center, in the warehouse district near the intersection of Stemmons Freeway and Northwest Highway, a group of men and women have left friends, family, and quietude behind. For the next three hours they will risk life, limb, and laryngitis as they triple back-flip, toe-jump, and rah-rah their way into the night.
Most couldn't imagine a better way to spend their time. For some, cheerleading borders on an addiction. "My mom thinks I just can't give it up," says Tav Tefner, a former high-school and college cheerleader, and presently the only lesbian on the squad. A 25-year-old manager for an insurance company with a turned-up nose and a round, friendly face, Tefner has been with the group since its inception. "I think it's being part of a group, a unit," she says of her attachment to the squad, "that and the performance high, the rush you get from the crowd and the applause."
For others, like 33-year-old Kenny Edmonds, a manager at American Express who has never cheered before in his life, becoming a member of Cheer Dallas--for which he plans to try out in mid-March--would fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a cheerleader, something he was too afraid to attempt in high school or college for fear of being suspected a homosexual.
"I always loved gymnastics and dancing, and I broke more than a few light bulbs with a baton," Edmonds says.
Edmonds has been out of the closet for eight years. Tonight, as he sizes up the Cheer Dallas members as they back-flip from one end of a large mat to the other, and suspend in midair, touching hands to their widely spread feet like human wishbones, his only fear is of not being good enough to make the squad.
"I'm trying not to be intimidated," he says.
Long past the time that its members, who range in age from 21 to 48, should have hung up the proverbial pompons for good, this 3-year-old group has garnered a national reputation for gravity-defying derring-do. Some of the dangerous stunts performed by Cheer Dallas cheerleaders have been prohibited from high-school cheerleading competitions. These include three- and four-tier pyramids; the basket toss, in which a fearless cheerleader stands on the crisscrossed, interlocking hands of two squad members, is catapulted high into the air, then descends while doing a triple-back-somersault; and the gauntlet, in which a squad member is thrown 20 feet across the room by eight fellow cheerleaders as if shot from a cannon, and back-flips down to earth.
This group is so good at what it does, it came in second in last year's National Cheerleading Association's competition at Reunion Arena, behind a squad of full-time cheerleading instructors for the NCA.
While different goals have led individuals to Cheer Dallas, the squad is united by a single overriding goal. It may be a cheerleading squad without a team, but it has a mission: to raise money for, and the spirits of, a community ravaged by illness and grief. The squad's cheerleading mercenaries have raised tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS-related charities. In the coming year, they hope to do the same for victims of other incurable diseases.
Their reputation as performers and activists is catching on. They have been asked to perform at numerous functions including the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii, the annual Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation fund-raiser, and a Central Park rally commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, the beginning of the gay-rights movement in this country.
A week does not go by when Ken Jorns doesn't get a call from another city asking how the success of Cheer Dallas can be duplicated.
"They're absolutely incredible," says Rick Cirillo, national sales manager for the gay-and-lesbian community at American Airlines, which has sponsored some of the group's fund-raisers. "There's not another group of their type in the country."
It is somehow fitting that Dallas, which gave the world the most famous group of female cheerleaders, would spawn a gay counterpart. Not only is cheerleading part of the city's culture, but it may be its most successful and well-known homegrown product.
Even before the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders jiggled their way onto the national scene, Dallas was known as the cheerleading capital of the country, thanks in large part to Lawrence Herkimer (a former Southern Methodist University cheerleader who invented the "Herkie" jump), who built a cheerleading-supply empire and created the National Cheerleading Association, which hosts week-long summer camps throughout the country.
Texas as a whole is infamous for taking cheerleading deathly seriously. Where else but in Texas could you find a mom who hired a hit man to bump off the mother of her daughter's archrival, thus distracting the rival with grief, so her daughter would have a better shot at a position on a coveted cheerleading squad?
It's hard to imagine a Dallas mother considering murder to get her child on a gay cheerleading squad (but considering the growing fame of Cheer Dallas, anything is possible).
That Dallas would beget such an upbeat, noncontroversial, good-natured assault on the AIDS crisis is also cultural. The East and West Coast gay communities gave the world ACT-UP, which takes an in-your-face, street-theater approach to raising public awareness of discrimination against gays, inadequate AIDS funding, and the plight of AIDS patients. Dallas, for its part, gave the world upbeat cheerleaders whose "Cheer for the Cure," ("Hey, crowd, Yell Cheer for the Cure...") is their signature chant.
The gay-and-lesbian community is grateful for Cheer Dallas' high-spirited approach to such a depressing issue. "Cheer Dallas has a team--the community at large," explains Richard Curtin, a member of the world-renowned Turtle Creek Chorale, whose ranks have been decimated by the HIV virus (60 of its 200 members have succumbed to AIDS) and whose AIDS fund has been the beneficiary of Cheer Dallas' fund raising.
"Cheer Dallas has come along at a crucial point," says Curtin. "They are a constant reminder that people are on our side, that there are cheerleaders for us. They offer an outlet to keep our spirits up that one day there will be a cure, one day we won't be going to memorial services every other week, that one day we won't be fund-raised to death, that one day we won't need a Cheer Dallas.
"What better persona is there than a cheerleader, who keeps your morale up even while your team is losing the game--and we are losing the game."
Four years ago this spring, Ken Jorns was approached by two friends about the upcoming Gay Games, scheduled for June 1994 in New York City. Held every four years, the Gay Games are the homosexual equivalent of the Olympics, with teams competing from around the world. Team Dallas, a group of more than 100 gay and lesbian athletes--swimmers, bowlers, etc.--were planning to compete.
Jorns' friends, who know that among the most important events in his life was the day Lawrence Herkimer himself hand-picked him to be an NCA instructor, thought it would be neat if Team Dallas had its own cheerleading squad.
Jorns thought it was a splendid idea and ran with it. For two months he talked to people in the gay community who were former cheerleaders or gymnasts. More than 50 people showed up for the first meeting of Cheer Dallas in July 1993. At the next meeting, a month later, 75 people showed up.
From the outset, the group had some very impressive credentials. Jorns lured Dallas-based choreographer Dennis Grounds, who had worked on the Macy's Day Parade, to create the squad's routines. Grounds' latest claim to fame: He plays the White Ranger in the kiddie-television-and-merchandise phenomenon Power Rangers and helps choreograph for the Power Rangers' European touring company.
Though the Gay Games were still many months off, Cheer Dallas found places to perform dress rehearsals. They debuted in late September at the Gay Pride Parade on Cedar Springs Road. The crowd, says Jorns, went wild. "Cheer Dallas hasn't slowed down since," he says.
Shortly after the parade, they were asked to kick off the Life Walk, the largest citywide AIDS fund-raiser. As Cheer Dallas' reputation began to spread, the group received the distinct honor of being invited to participate in the opening ceremonies, and closing festivities at Yankee Stadium, for the Gay Games.
To help defray the costs of traveling to New York, Cheer Dallas held two fund-raisers, both of which have since become annual events: a New Year's Eve party and a fund-raiser at the Dallas World Aquarium, the proceeds from both of which benefit community organizations engaged in the battle against AIDS.
Cheer Dallas was the darling of the Gay Games, says Phil Johnson, a board member of Team Dallas and self-described "No. 1 fan" of Cheer Dallas. "They were magnificent. We were the only team with their own cheerleading squad. Not only are they talented athletes, they're so outgoing, energetic, and happy, everyone loves to be around them."
The squad members weren't sure how to maintain the momentum they had built after the Gay Games. Then one of them came up with a new direction. Cheer Dallas would cheer for the cure.
They unveiled their new cheer, with placards that read, "Cheer for the Cure," at the Central Park rally. They were one of 50 groups to perform.
The weekly Cheer Dallas practices typically begin with something called "groundbreaking," a sort of encounter session where members get to talk about anything that's bothering them. It helps the group to build trust--an important ingredient for a group whose activities consist of throwing each other 20 feet in the air.
"There's no 'I' in team," explains squad member Marc Morin.
Groundbreaking also serves another purpose: It promotes bonding. For many of its members, Cheer Dallas is like a surrogate family, a place wherein to share their pain.
"These guys are like my best friends," says Raymond Lopez, who was kicked out of his house at 16 for being gay. "They never say anything negative--except maybe about your hair."
Tonight, the group is excited to see Billy Quercia, who had taken a hiatus from the squad several months ago to deal with depression. A former Atlanta Falcons cheerleader and Mr. Gay Texas, Quercia was having trouble at his job as a computer programmer. He says his bosses were trying to get rid of him because they found out he was gay.
"I worked my ass off there and then they just started writing me up for nothing," he tells the group. He finally quit his job a month ago and got a new job working in the design district "where I can be who I am," he says.
Jim McCoy of Mesquite tells the group how he came from a redneck background that made him ashamed to admit he was gay. He played football for seven years--during which he secretly choreographed his sister's drill-team routines--and was engaged to a woman for five years.
"I tried to be as masculine as possible," he says.
For some members, Cheer Dallas is a family affair.
Two serious relationships have developed which have lasted for more than a year.
Lauree Yates, a 25-year-old body builder and college student, joined Cheer Dallas a year ago in solidarity with her brother, Tom, who is a year older and her best friend.
"I wanted to do something to help the gay community, and to help the straight community change their beliefs about gays," says Lauree, presently the only straight member of the squad. "They're not just a bunch of flamers, but people who care."
Ken Jorns' nickname is "mama." The guys affectionately call him that because he has done an exceptional job of shepherding the growth of Cheer Dallas, his baby; and he is older and wiser than they are, someone to whom they feel they can turn.
Jorns, 45, the son of a prominent Fort Worth physician, grew up in an era "when it was wrong to be gay." He thought he could get over being gay, so he married. It was a union that lasted nine years, until Jorns couldn't lie to his wife or himself any longer.
Even after he came out, Jorns had his share of heartache. After his marriage dissolved, Jorns fell head-over-heels in love with a man whom he trusted implicitly. Early in their relationship, they decided to get tested for HIV. They went separately for tests and Jorns tested negative and his lover told him he was negative, too.
Their relationship had disintegrated during three years. Shortly after they decided to split up, Jorns' ex-lover had a series of illnesses he couldn't shake. Jorns took him to his father, the physician, for tests and learned his former lover had full-blown AIDS.
Jorns took care of his ex for several months. "When he got pretty again he left," Jorns says. "He didn't need me anymore." The man died a few months later.
Jorns has consistently tested negative for HIV--a fact he chalks up to clean living. He doesn't smoke or do drugs and has never gotten drunk.
Only one or two members of Cheer Dallas have tested positive for the disease. Jorns hopes it stays that way.
Jorns hasn't had a Mr. Right in his life since the death of his ex-lover, so he has instead thrown himself into his work and Cheer Dallas. He envisions someday holding cheerleading camps, creating marketable merchandise like the Dallas Cowboys offer, and half-jokingly dreams of going on world tour with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
For the immediate future there's the Gay Games in Amsterdam next summer for which to prepare. Jorns is hoping corporations that have sponsored Cheer Dallas in the past--such as Budweiser, Coca Cola, and American Airlines--will help underwrite the trip.
Jorns also wants to attract more straights and people of color and women--straight or lesbian--to Cheer Dallas. "They weigh less and will make us more collegiate," Jorns explains.
The other squad members agree. "Tell women we'll compliment them and tell them how to dress," says Morin.
Jorns hopes to branch out, performing at a larger assortment of venues, particularly children's hospitals. "We want to bring happiness and excitement and life to children who don't really have a life," Jorns says.
Whether his efforts with the broader community will be enthusiastically embraced remains to be seen. Some Cheer Dallas members have their doubts, especially after what happened with Bryan's House.
In early December, the Cheer Dallas board was deciding who would be the beneficiaries of their annual New Year's Eve fund-raiser. A classy event held at the Dallas Garden Center in Fair Park, the party would raise about $18,000. In keeping with its goal of helping children, the board decided to donate part of the money to Bryan's House, a residential and day-care facility for children who suffer from HIV and AIDS. .
Jorns delivered the good news to the development director of Bryan's House. The offer of financial help was turned down. Jorns says he was told that Bryan's House prefers fund-raisers that are more "family-oriented," such as the annual Brian Jensen golf tournament. "'A New Year's Eve party with drinking is not something you'd take kids to,' we were told. I didn't read anything more into it," says Jorns.
Sheryl Reid, development director of Bryan's House, says Bryan's House receives "numerous requests on certain activities using our good name and reputation.
"Some we can do, some we can't," Reid says. "The development committee decided this wasn't a fit for us. We would like to work with them in other ways."
Some Cheer Dallas members think Jorns was nave. They believe they were rebuffed because they are primarily a gay organization. Still, true to form, even the skeptical members want to give Bryan's House the benefit of the doubt.
"We certainly wouldn't want to say anything negative about another organization," says Keith Willard, a Cheer Dallas member.
During the last year or two, Cheer Dallas has become closely aligned with the Turtle Creek Chorale. The squad cheered for a fund-raiser at the Meyerson symphony hall two years ago. Cheer Dallas' next performance, at the end of March, will be during the Miss Big Thicket pageant, a fund-raising event for the Turtle Creek Chorale AIDS fund, which benefits any volunteer member of a Dallas singing group who has been affected by AIDS.
Perhaps the most moving program the two groups collaborated on was World AIDS Day at Market Hall, where the AIDS quilt was displayed.
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In honor of Cheer Dallas' signature Cheer for the Cure, a local composer named Stan Graner wrote a song by the same name for the Chorale to sing:
I felt the need to speak, so lifting up my voice
I tried to shout above the blaring horde
But standing by myself
amidst the mounting noise
I knew my single shout would be ignored.
Yet people here are dying, so how
to make it known
That now's the time for acting,
the battle lines are drawn,
won't you join me in my song? And we'll...
Cheer for the cure,
in numbers there is strength
to reach an unenlightened world
Cheer and be heard, for when
we cheer together there is
healing in the sound,
Cheer for the cure so we'll be sure
that a cure will be found.
As the Chorale sang, Cheer Dallas performed their stunts and movements in slow motion--their athleticism blurring into dance--the squad members moving toward each other and finally becoming one group by song's end, mirroring what they'd like to see in Dallas.
When the performance was over, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. The squad had cheered them to tears.