Entertainment » Movies

Mission and Music :: Dr. Timothy Seelig on 'Gay Chorus Deep South'

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Nov 7, 2019
Dr. Timothy Seelig
Dr. Timothy Seelig  

After the 2016 elections, the San Francisco Men's Chorus felt a need to answer history's turn with song. They did so with the Lavender Pen Tour, a concert tour that took them to four Southern states where the forces of anti-LGBTQ oppression had seized the moment with ruthless zeal and begun hammering out wave after wave of discriminatory legislation.

The SFGMC's tour was committed to film by director David Charles Rodrigues, resulting in a documentary titled "Gay Chorus Deep South." The film, which has taken LGBTQ festivals by storm this season, is a powerful work in which members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus reveal deep scars left from familial rejection, bullying at school (sometimes by the staff as much as by fellow students), and religious persecution — that is, persecution by the religious, ostensibly because they are religious. The most shocking story, perhaps, belongs to none other than Dr. Timothy Seelig, whose history with a deeply anti-LGBTQ faith emerges over the course of the film. After coming out, Dr. Seelig found himself — and his family — attacked in what can only be described as a vicious manner.

But Dr. Seelig survived and flourished, in large part thinks to his work with music. (For his full bio, which lists his many accomplishments, click here.) Dr. Seelig went on to direct Turtle Creek Chorale in Dallas, Texas, for two decades, before taking up the baton as artistic director for the SFGMC. Under his leadership, that chorus has commissioned a number of notable works, including "Tyler's Suite" (for the Tyler Clementi Foundation), "I Am Harvey Milk" (by renowned composer Andrew Lippa), and James Eakin's humorous, and moving, "#twitterlieder: 15 Tweets in 3 Acts."

EDGE had the great honor of speaking with Dr. Timothy Seelig about the SFGMCs Lavender Pen Tour, the film, and where our community goes from here.


EDGE: It's easy to imagine why, after the 2016 elections, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus would want to do what GALA choruses do: Launch a tour and do some outreach. Though, after all the progress we had made, it certainly did come as a shock to see just how badly our own country needed that sort of outreach.

Dr. Timothy Seelig: It was our 40th anniversary and we were planning to go to China. And we already had people saying, "You don't need to go to China; you won't make any impact, because the state-owned media will not cover anything that you do." So, we were already thinking maybe that wasn't the best way to spend that much money and energy when the election happened. Our board chair literally called the day after and said, "We don't need to go to China. This is our answer: Let's go to the South."

EDGE: How did that project come to take the form of the four-state "Lavender Pen" tour?

Dr. Timothy Seelig: We announced we were going to go on a "Red State" tour, and that took off like crazy, because the media at that point was looking for any interesting or good news. And then we started, of course, getting blowback and the [feedback we got] was "There are 33 red states. What are you gonna do with that?" So we pivoted from that, even though it had already gotten out in a ridiculous and huge way, something like 800,000 media hits in two days or something — it was just weird. We wish we could get that much promotion from a concert.

EDGE: How did the Chorus settle on filmmaker David Charles as the guy who would document the journey?

Dr. Timothy Seelig: So, when we pivoted [to the idea of a smaller tour], the news was [already] out. Within a month, three different entities approached us and said, "We want to make a documentary." We were, like, "Oh my gosh, we have no idea what we're doing. How do you do this?" So we asked for a proposal from each of these three groups and sat down and went through them and discussed them with people in the industry — you know, the singers who had anything to do with film. It just seemed like a really good fit.

As an aside, David Rodrigues' wife read this story in Paris on vacation and called him and said, "Oh my gosh! This is so perfect." So that's how he even heard about it.

So, we had three groups [interested in making a documentary], all of whom we really liked. They were wonderful, they presented beautiful proposals. Two of them were from L.A., and one was from here. The one we decided we would go with was the one here; we were able to meet them more regularly during this process than the other two, and we just had a good gut feeling [about them]. And we knew they were willing to invest not just their time and energy and heart, but they were willing to invest the funds to make it right.

EDGE: There was significant support from Airbnb, which produced the film. How did that happen?

Dr. Timothy Seelig: Airbnb had just launched a corporate message that said "#weaccept." That was their theme or their plan for the year. And they also have, obviously, their own marketing department, and they produce their own commercials, and they'd done a couple of short films, eight minutes or so, about Airbnb. Their marketing department was anxious to do a longer feature. So the Airbnb marketing people went out and found and hired David Charles Rodrigues, who became the film director.

That's how we came upon him, and the first time we met him in person we knew we were in the right shoes. We had no idea how right those shoes were going to be — I mean, of course, you never know. [The film] could have been a lovely keepsake on the shelf for members to have, and many choruses have, maybe not documentaries, but films about their work. So, yeah, we had no idea except that when they first started, we had an inkling when they said they were going to do a scouting tour and then took a crew of five people and went to all the places where we were [planning to tour] and they ended up making four different trips to the South without the chorus. Just on fact-finding and interviews.

EDGE: The film's real spine - its through line - is your own journey to a moment when you set foot in a megachurch for the first time after you and your family were horrifically mistreated by a megachurch that you worked for before coming out at age 35. Was that something planned from the first, or did that emerge as work on the documentary progressed?

Dr. Timothy Seelig: No, I fought it tooth and nail. I said, "No, no, no! I've been through this before." Turtle Creek Chorale had two documentaries: One about the chorus and AIDS ["After Goodbye: An AIDS Story"] that won a national Emmy in 1994, and then we did another PBS documentary ["The Power of Harmony"] in 2005. So, I've been down this road. I did not want to be the [focus] of any documentary. I wanted it to be about the chorus.

So they started interviewing the guys. There were other featured singers, stories that they followed, and you can kind of see those in the very opening — there are a couple of [storylines] that they cut because there wasn't time. They interviewed me, but as the filming went along — they were filming me as the conductor — they were like, "Oh, this is interesting; what do you have to say about that?" And I kept telling them, "Don't do this. No." And they kept saying, "Yes."

By the way, nobody in our chorus ever saw any of the footage until it was finished. We had no input, we had nothing to say. Chris Verdugo, our executive director, and I, we took a flight out to LA to see the finished project. We loved it, but all the way home on the plane Chris and I wrote a whole page of notes: "We think you should do this, change this. We sent it to them the next day, and they were like, "Thanks! That's great" — and took none of our advice, since it wasn't our business.

They had 300 hours of film that they handed over to a completely independent editor who didn't know anything about the tour or the chorus. He watched the 300 hours and then they got together and started deciding on the storyline. So, unbeknownst to me, in the summer — a year ago in July — they started screening it for film people in LA. They had three different screenings, and the result of those screenings was, so they tell me, "You need to use Tim as the through line. Instead of just vignettes of singers, and maybe one of Tim, he needs to tell a story throughout." So, yeah... I'm both honored and horrified at the way that turned out. However, apparently, they made a good decision. We're getting massive numbers of emails and kudos and "Thank you"s for telling this story.

EDGE: That's my next question: You often hear people say that when they put their stories out there, they hear back from teens who say, "You saved my life," or people who say, "Thank you for really telling my story, for letting me know I'm not alone." You must be getting a lot of that.

Dr. Timothy Seelig: We are, we are getting more than we ever imagined. Right now people are seeing it in film festivals, and it's mind-boggling. We have won 23 or 24 audience favorite awards from Tribeca, and from Zurich, and Istanbul, and Perth, Australia. It's just so unbelievable that right now this is touching people. It's not surprising, in that we all live in crazy land right now — not just in the United States, it's crazy everywhere. So, yes, we are getting those messages, and now we get to look forward to the film being on television one of these days. I can't even imagine how great that's going to be.

EDGE: Even before you embarked on the tour, you were getting hateful messages — so has that been going on as well?

Dr. Timothy Seelig: Yes. I have a good one for you. This came in just yesterday, and I sent it out via Facebook to the whole chorus. We got an email in which they called us "Perversion evangelists."

[Laughter]

EDGE: Nice!

Dr. Timothy Seelig: Yeah! We've got a new moniker for the chorus.

EDGE Credit for creativity, anyhow.

[Laughter]

Dr. Timothy Seelig: "You're just Perversion Evangelists." We're like, "Love it! Just love it!" We may use it in some new branding exercise.

EDGE: You need to make T-shirts!

Dr. Timothy Seelig: Yeah! "SFGMC: Perversion Evangelists!" Maybe for the next GALA festival.

[Laughter]

Dr. Timothy Seelig: So, yeah, of course we're getting that. However, I guess we're just steeling ourselves for when it does air on wherever it's going to air. MTV bought it... I don't know how many [subsidiaries] Viacom has, but they have CBS and Logo and MTV. So, they'll be deciding where best to show it. But I expect that will get the larger blowback, because right now somebody has to go to a festival to see it. It's a small audience, but it's an audience of people who showed up to go to a film festival.

EDGE: It's interesting that you're shown in the film having very calm discussions with pastors who refuse to let you sing in their churches, as well as going on to a conservative talk show and having a discussion with the host. You seem very collected, but were there times when you just felt angry about what you were hearing from people?

Dr. Timothy Seelig: Having been the child of Southern Baptist ministers — my mom and my dad and my brother — I know that it always has been the case that you don't get anywhere by screaming and jumping up and down or getting in people's face. I have to respect them. I don't have to like what they say, but I have to respect them for, not their position, but who they are as people. And I also find in my whole life that when I have a person with the opposite point of view, [when I approach them with kindness] I get much farther with them. I can also draw them out to say more stupid things.

[Laughter]

Dr. Timothy Seelig: This is an aside, but it's well documented that throughout our movement it's taken both sides, the ACT-UP side as well as the LGBTQ choruses to bring the message [of equality and inclusion] in a completely different way. It takes both sides of that coin to really move forward. I've been doing this for 32 years, and that's the message that we bring forth through our music. Yeah, there's a little bit of anger, like the piece "I Ain't Afraid": "I'm not afraid of your Jesus, I'm not afraid of your churches, I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your God." That's a Holly Near piece. It's interesting how that really brings out the best and the worst in people. When you say, "I ain't afraid of your Jesus," people start to get their hackles up — and then, all of a sudden, the punch line: "I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your God." And people all over the South just go crazy for that song. They love it. It's just like, "Oh my god, this is so where we are."

I don't have any need to go in and scream at some pastor in the South. That is not where I want to go. I was, however, ready with my Scripture for the radio show.

EDGE: He was surprisingly nice.

Dr. Timothy Seelig: That was the biggest disappointment ever!

[Laughter]

EDGE: What as the Lavender Pen tour meant for the men in the chorus since it happened? Has it created a deeper bond of fellowship among the members, or maybe a greater sense of commitment and of mission?

Dr. Timothy Seelig: Absolutely, yes. Absolutely. [The SFGMC started] in 1978. San Francisco was wildly crazy, so why not have a chorus? And then, all of a sudden, '81 happened. You may know that the SFGMC went on a national tour in 1981. They went to nine cities in the summer of '81 to spread the GALA — well, there wasn't a GALA yet, but to spread [the word] that there was a gay chorus [and encourage other cities to start gay choruses of their own]. Atlanta [Gay Men's Chorus] started because of this; there was one [River City Mixed Chorus] started in Omaha, Nebraska.

So, anyway, the San Francisco Chronicle, the day we departed, had a full page article about the chorus — "Chorus Leaves on National Tour." And in the lower right-hand corner is a small article that says, "41 Homosexual Men Found with Cancer." On the same page. Maybe they were grouping like things, but it is one of the things we look back on. For all gay choruses that existed at that time, the party was over for the next ten, twelve years. Then we came out of that even more socially active. We had survived that, and we became activists.

There were 200 Gay Men's Chorus singers on [The Lavender Pen] Tour — they are so proud, literally [as soon as they] got home they were saying, "Now what do we do?" We were, like, "Hey, we're going to be paying that one off for a while. Calm down. We're going to GALA [a national LGBTQ chorus musical festival]." But what can we do next?

The guys are looking for every opportunity for the chorus to make a statement. We have a massive, truly massive educational outreach, which is amazing and going extremely well. It's a complete arm of the chorus that is growing. And we bought a building — we're in the beginning stages of creating a National LGBTQ Center for the Arts. So, we have our hands full.

I say all the time to anyone who will listen that I have twins, and the twins are Music and Mission. I have to feed each of them every day for them to thrive. I can't do one without the other. I'm a semi-trained musician; I love the music. And on the other hand, boy, I love the activism.

EDGE: And you have to love them equally, right?

Dr. Timothy Seelig: And you have to love them equally! As Boston does, too. I see choruses all over the country that just go Mission, Mission, Mission, Mission — and they don't sing very well, so no one comes to hear them sing. So how are they going go make a difference with their mission if they don't sing very well? On the other hand, if you don't pay attention to your mission, you could just be the symphony chorus, or any other community chorus or church choir. So, yeah, it's a daily process, and I think it's part of the success of the chorus that we're kind of rabid about both sides of that coin.

EDGE: Will you will be commissioning a piece about your tour, the way the Boston Gay Men's Chorus did after they went to the Middle East in 2015?

Dr. Timothy Seelig: That's a really good question. The repertoire that we performed we had already recorded, and it includes some really beautiful pieces — it's recorded on our 40th Anniversary album, which is called "40." All that was already in the works, so... the answer is, probably not!

[Laughter]

Dr. Timothy Seelig: We're in the middle of a big commission right now for this year, for the spring, and it's all about the youth voice — the voices of the LGBTQ kids. And it's spectacular. It's called "@QueerZ," for Generation Z.

I think we've moved on. The Chorus will finish a concert series and then at the next rehearsal it's, "What do you have for me now? What's the next thing?" You cannot rest.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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