Sarasota Opera Power Couple Talk Culture Shifts

Arts & Culture

BY ANDREW FABIAN SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JUL 10, 2020

While the Stonewall Uprising rightfully occupies a large slice in the collective consciousness of gay rights activists, another historical moment gets less attention. That moment was the police raid on Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys screening that took place in Atlanta on August 5th, 1969. The raid transformed the city and signaled to the country that, even in the South, the LGBTQIA+ community was a demographic to be reckoned with. Husbands Ken Yunker and John Young, a lighting designer and an accountant for Sarasota Opera, respectively, lived and worked in Atlanta in the 80s and 90s and had a front row seat to the city’s transformation following the raid.

“When I first moved to Atlanta, there were gay ghettoes,” says Yunker. At the time, Yunker was an accomplished lighting designer in the thick of a career in theatre that began at Lyric Opera of Chicago. When he came out in the 70s, being gay was still very much an underground experience. But, through the 80s and 90s, he and now-husband Young saw the evolution of Atlanta ghettos into something decidedly different. “Those ghettos don’t exist anymore,” says Yunker, “because the gay community felt safe spreading out. Now any gay neighborhoods are considered cool and trendy.”

Still, the upward trend in acceptance suggests there was a baseline of homophobia that pervaded the Atlanta area. Young originally studied oboe and piano in college but discovered he had a knack for singing, making a living with his voice in NYC before moving to Atlanta. When he and Yunker moved South, he joined the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus. “Back then, even in Atlanta it was a struggle,” says Young, “there weren’t many performance opportunities, so we’d play a small church here or a school auditorium there.” However, as the city’s Pride festivals got bigger and bigger, so did acceptance of the gay community. “When I left to move here, the Chorus was filling up auditoriums and huge performance venues and doing huge production shows.”

And when the pair said farewell to the city, they found a home in a quiet little town with an opera house on the rise. “We started thinking, ‘where do we want to be in 5, 10 years?” says Yunker. At the time, Sarasota Opera was hiring a lighting designer. Yunker got the job, of course, and Young got on board later in the accounting department. For the pair, the rich world of opera has been a throughline in their marriage, providing them a space to be themselves, the space to fall in love and the space to continue carving out lives in a world that, more and more, trends towards acceptance and a celebration of who they are. “Our experience has been largely supportive in the world of theatre,” says Yunker. “The transformation in this country over the last several decades is encouraging,” says Young, “and that can’t happen unless there is more widespread acceptance.”

Sarasota Opera, 61 N Pineapple Avenue, 941-328-1300. Photo credit: Ken Yunker.

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