Three days after its members were involved in a tragic accident at a Florida Pride event, the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus remains “in shock,” its president Justin Knight has told The Daily Beast.
On Saturday, members of the chorus were preparing to march in the Stonewall Pride Parade in Wilton Manors, FL. One of their number, Fred Johnson Jr. who had ailments preventing him from marching, was set to drive in the parade in a white pickup truck. But Johnson, 77, seemingly lost control of the vehicle, striking fellow chorus members James “Jim” Fahy, 75, Gerry Vroegh, 67, and chorus director Gary Keating, 69. Fahy was killed, the other two men were released from the hospital and are not severely injured, said Knight. Vroegh “has bruises and is sore,” he added.
“We are feeling what we need to do is to take care of our fellow family members, our fellow brothers,” Knight said.
“As the vehicle began to move forward in anticipation for the start of the parade, the vehicle accelerated unexpectedly, striking two pedestrians,” Fort Lauderdale police have reported. “After striking the pedestrians, the driver continued across all lanes of traffic, ultimately crashing into the fence of a business on the west side of the street.” In a statement Monday, police said they were still gathering evidence, but so far the tragic event appeared to be a “terrible accident.”
Now, Knight and the close-knit choir are counting the cost of the tragedy, both grieving for Fahy and also offering their support and love to Johnson. Nobody in the choir believes, Knight says, that Johnson intended to injure anyone; indeed, Knight tells The Daily Beast that Johnson is welcome to return to the choir if and when he feels able.
Referring to Johnson, Vroegh, and Keating, Knight said, “We are trying to take care of them physically and emotionally, as well as grieve the loss of Jim. So, it’s a lot to process and be feeling at the same time.”
Asked if Johnson would be welcomed back to the chorus, Knight said, “Yes. It’s very important to me, because it was an accident and I know Fred, and I know that he believes in forgiveness—and if this was anyone else Fred would forgive them. No good comes out of holding on to animosity towards him.”
As The Daily Beast previously reported, in a statement Johnson expressed his “sincere regrets to all those who were impacted by this tragic event,” adding, “This was a horrible accident… I love my Chorus family and the community, and would never do anything to intentionally harm anyone. Please know that I hold my fellow Chorus member, Jim Fahy, in my heart forever and offer my condolences to his friends and family.”
Fort Lauderdale police did not respond to an inquiry asking if charges would be brought against Johnson. Knight does not know either, but says he hopes Johnson is not charged.
Knight sounds shattered. He says he personally feels “in shock and overwhelmed.” He wasn’t there the day of the incident, but knows Fahy’s friends and colleagues from the choir stayed with him until the arrival of the emergency responders who were near the scene, as they were already in attendance for the Pride parade.
Knight said he learned about an hour later what Johnson had allegedly done, but for that first hour—like many—had “feared the worst” of a possible anti-LGBTQ or terror attack, “but didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to wait until we knew all the facts.”
Recalling Fahy, who sang as a bass in the chorus, Knight told The Daily Beast, “The best way I can describe him was that he was a sweet and kind gentle man. He really was a ‘gentleman’ in the truest sense of the word. He was single, very socially active, he had tons of friends. They would go to dinner, go out, and have fun. Even at this age, he still worked in the cruise industry. And he was a Christian, so he had a strong faith, and he loved Christmas specifically. He always loved the Christmas music we sang at our Christmas concerts. His faith was very important to him.
“A lot of people don’t necessarily connect the LGBTQ community with faith, but it was very important for Jim. At our most recent holiday shows he read the Christmas story from the Bible to the audience.”
Johnson is also “very religious,” said Knight, “He is an Episcopalian pastor and a very loving, longtime member of the chorus for over 10 years. He is a very lovely, loving person. He wouldn’t say a mean word about anybody. I have spoken with him. He is distraught, but he knows that it was an accident and he is truly sorry about it and all the trauma that it has caused. He knew Jim very well, and I know that he will miss him. We are trying to take care of Fred because he’s going to have to live with this for the rest of his life. He has people around him. We’re all looking in on him, and making sure he’s OK.”
Of what happened in the pickup truck, Knight said, “I don’t know if he (Johnson) knows.”
This reporter asked how the choir would deal with what had happened, given that one of its members was responsible for the death, albeit apparently accidentally, of another member.
“We’re figuring that out,” said Knight. “We’ve never really had to go through something like this before. But we are a family, so like any other family we will have an honest dialogue about it.”
Other organizations have already offered the chorus access to free counseling services, Knight said. “We will take them up on that, and offer their services to our family, to our members, for whatever they need. We’ll support our members either ourselves, or find the resources we need to support them however they need. I believe we’ll get through this. It’s not going to be easy, but we have each other.”
This reporter asked if the chorus’ members would welcome Johnson back, or if that would be too difficult for at least some of them.
“I can’t imagine there is anyone who does not understand what happened,” said Knight. “Everyone in the chorus knows Fred very well and knows that this was just an accident. I can’t fathom anyone who would have ill will against Fred long-term for this. Horrific as it is, it really was just an accident. That’s what I believe, and I know that is what all of our members will feel.” Knight said he thought members of the chorus were “feeling pretty much the same: a combination of numb and disbelief. It’s just something you never think will happen.”
“It’s so hard to wrap my mind around it,” Knight said of Saturday’s tragedy. “I’ve been so busy dealing with all the practicalities, press, and well-wishes we’ve received that I haven’t had time to process it and grieve. I’m making sure everyone else is taken care of. I have a wonderful husband [who asked to remain nameless]. He’s really amazing, and has been helping and supporting me ever since it happened.”
The Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus, which was founded in 1986, usually ranges from 25 to 35 members. Knight said it was the first gay performing arts organization in Florida, and one of the first gay choruses in the U.S. It’s been various sizes over the years, he said, but was smaller now because of South Florida having three gay choruses: Fort Lauderdale’s, the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida, and the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus.
The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted the Fort Lauderdale chorus’ usual concert schedule, but Knight said typically they rehearse every week, and have three major concerts a year, as well as performing in the community at Christmas tree lightings and nursing homes. Last week, before the tragic events of Saturday, at an art exhibit showcasing AIDS-era memorabilia in Coral Gables, the chorus sang in front of around 40 AIDS quilt panels.
One of the songs was “Love Don’t Need a Reason,” written by Peter Allen, Michael Callen, and Marsha Malamet. Callen’s website says that Allen first sang it in 1987 at AIDS Walk New York, and then Callen sang it on many occasions before his death in 1993. The Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus perform it regularly, and at Coral Gables sang it under Callen’s patch of quilt.
“One of the lines is, ‘What we don’t have is time,’” said Knight. “And that’s true.”
The chorus was “still figuring out” when it would reunite to sing again. “We’ve been dealing with everything else,” said Knight. “We don’t have time to determine that yet.” However, they will “absolutely” sing at a celebration of life for Fahy that is currently being planned. Knight asked the chorus’ fans and public to keep an eye on the chorus’ website for details of it. A memorial fund had not yet been started “because we’re not yet sure of Jim’s final wishes or what’s going to be required,” said Knight. “If we need to, we will ask for assistance.”
For Knight, music can be a vital conduit to all kinds of healing, and he hopes it will help the chorus’ members come to terms with what has happened. “Members of the chorus have been with it 10, 15, 20 years. Gary (Keating) started it 35 years ago. In those 35 years, as a community, we’ve been through a lot. Music has always been a way for us to heal and come together in difficult times.”
Did Knight think music would serve the same purpose on this occasion, this reporter asked.
“I fully expect it, yes,” Knight replied.