Donald Trump’s 2016 election shocked a great many, including Dr. Tim Seelig, the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Despite the heartbreaking result, Seelig decided that, rather than continue to perform for friendly Bay Area audiences, it was time to head south—-to the Deep South.
After Trump’s election, Seelig and the choir announced their intention to stage a tour to some of the most conservative states in the country, bringing music with them as a way to bridge divides and find common ground.
“Two days after the election, we decided to do this. The [press coverage] was enormous because [people] were looking for something positive,” Seelig said over a Zoom call this week.
By 2017, with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir across the Bay Bridge hopping aboard the expedition, the Deep South tour was ready (every singer paid for his own travel). It would encompass twenty-five appearances in eight days across several states. The travelogue of that amazing experience is chronicled in the documentary, “Gay Chorus Deep South,” directed by David Charles Rodrigues.
Rodrigues too was looking for something positive to focus his lens on in the wake of the 2016 election, and when he heard of the joint tour well south of the Mason-Dixon line, he knew this was something to be chronicled.
“I was looking for stories that could create some kind of path forward [and] bridge that divide, or at least test the waters to see how real that divide actually is,” Rodrigues said on the Zoom call. “I truly believe that music is the quickest way to reach someone’s heart. It transcends and overcomes any kind of discrimination and prejudice.”
Rodrigues, who is neither gay nor a musician, was hooked on the beauty of the sound from the first time he shot rehearsal footage. However, he believes his status as an outsider allowed him to behold the proceedings with as much wonder as, he hopes, will audiences.
“Seeing those men sing and seeing their faces, [I realized] that singing was really transformative,” Rodrigues said. “It just touches every single ounce of your soul and body.”
Interfaith Gospel Choir Artistic Director Terrance Kelly recognized an opportunity to open minds and hearts when he saw one. Thus when he learned of Seelig’s tour plans, he phoned his colleague across the Bay and pleaded to bring his chorus along.
“We knew of each other for many years, but the tour was the first time we actually worked together,” Kelly said. “We were so happy when San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and Tim said yes.”
Seelig was once a professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, and he came from a solidly Baptist background. As a young man he married and had children, then came out as gay in his thirties. His Dallas church shunned him and went so far as to encourage his ex-wife to keep their children away from seeing Seelig at all.
Stories of that sort are not atypical for members of his San Francisco choir. Like Seelig, many of them hailed from the Deep South, and thus “coming home” was an experience that would prove both difficult yet necessary.
“We didn’t think we were going to change laws [just because] of our tour,” Seelig said, adding that he and Kelly leaned on their own evangelical backgrounds to spread the gospel of a different kind—in the hopes of melting one heart at a time.
“We saw scores, then hundreds, of people change,” Seelig said.
Of course, not everywhere was the tour welcomed with open arms. Several churches outright rejected their proposal to perform. One minister seemed to want to bring in their music but believes his congregation will not be receptive, and ultimately turns them down.
But in so many other places, in city after city, the music is welcomed.
“Whole churches changed. One associate pastor at one church that wouldn’t let us sing quit and started an LGBTQ ministry—and he’s straight,” Seelig said. “Those stories just kept going.”
One of the documentary’s most poignant subjects is Jimmy, a member of the Gay Men’s Chorus who is not only battling cancer, but nervous about reuniting with his father and stepmother in Alabama. He hasn’t seen them in years since coming out, and Jimmy hopes, however tentatively, that his family will come to the choir’s performance in Birmingham.
They do, and Jimmy’s elderly father not only hugs his son but smiles genuinely watching him sing.
Sadly, Jimmy passed away of cancer early this year, but Seelig believes that the experience of singing in Alabama inspired Jimmy to give some of his final days to his formerly estranged loved ones.
“After the tour, he went home for the first time in years and spent Christmas with his family,” Seelig said. “He went home to his family, they reconciled, and [then Jimmy] died. It’s 100 percent because of this film.”
Rodrigues believes that an important aspect of making “Gay Chorus Deep South” was that the choir members got to interact with LGBTQ persons in the Deep South. Many have heartbreaking stories of rejection and discrimination of their own, but Rodrigues believes that, rather than them escaping to the big city, it’s more important they stay in their home communities to change them from the inside.
“The LGBTQ members there are not only fighting the good fight but are living beautiful lives in the South,” Rodrigues said. “Hopefully that will inspire more people not to leave, because they are much more needed there than anywhere else. That’s going to create real change, much more than anything this tour or film can do.”
Seelig, the choir leader, told me that not only does he now have a healthy relationship with his children and grandchildren, he considers them his best friends.
“I couldn’t imagine a day without them,” he said, adding that despite being close to his children now, there are many in his old Texas Baptist community who would rather he stay away. “They’re not so happy with me, but they haven’t been happy
with me for thirty-five years. [They said] ‘Did we really have to live through this?’ Well, you did—and you do!”
With “Gay Chorus Deep South” coming to television on Sunday, Seelig believes that, just like music, the documentary can also be an agent of change.
“Our hope now that it finally has come to television is that people are moved and take a moment of reflection and see our commonalities, not our differences,” he said. “And maybe a conversation will start.”
“Gay Chorus Deep South” premieres today at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific on Pop, Logo and Pluto TV.