In the wake of the 2016 election and the heightened divisive climate, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) was joined by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir (OIGC) on a 2017 tour of the Southern States with the most discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws. The tour was documented in the emotionally potent, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting Gay Chorus Deep South by filmmaker David Charles Rodrigues. The feature had its world premiere at last year’s Tribeca, winning the Documentary Audience Award, before going on to play at over two hundred festivals throughout the country and internationally, gaining more awards along the way.
The tour was led by SFGMC’s Artistic Director and conductor Dr. Tim Seelig, along with OIGC’s Terrance Kelly, with the intention of bringing a message of acceptance to communities confronting intolerance in their home states. Over 300 singers travelled from Mississippi to Tennessee through the Carolinas and over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. They performed in churches, community centers and concert halls with Seelig and many SFGMC members returning to States they had fled, confronting their pain and preconceptions with touching moments of reconciliation with estranged family members. The conversations and connections that emerge offer a glimpse of a less divided America where the things that often divide us—faith, politics, gender identity, and sexuality—are set aside by the soaring power of human voice, along with a little drag.
Ahead of the broadcast premiere of Gay Chorus Deep South this Sunday December 20th on Pop, Logo and Pluto TV at 9pm ET/PT, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with filmmaker David Charles Rodrigues, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Tim Seelig and Artistic Director of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir Terrance Kelly about the impact of both the tour and the film and the potential music has to bring people together and lead to meaningful change.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Tim, first of all could you take us back to what sparked the initial idea for the tour and how you decided which states you wanted to go to?
Tim Seelig: “The chorus started in 1978, and in 1981 it took a national tour of nine cities across the country helping to start gay choruses, and now it’s a worldwide movement. So we were facing our 40th anniversary, and we decided to take a tour to mainland China. That was becoming a little difficult and the ROI was not great considering state owned media there and we were realising that we were not going to make an impact. When the election happened, literally within a day or two, our board chair called and said, ‘Why are we spending all this money to go to China? We need to go to the South.’ His name is Steve Huffines, and he’s in the film. He grew up as a preacher’s kid in Birmingham, Alabama, so this was just part of his DNA and why he wanted to take the choir home and see if we can make a difference. Then we put out a press release saying ‘Gay Choir Takes a Tour of Red States’, and people were like, ‘You know there are 33 of those, right?!” So we thought we should narrow that down, and it was no longer the red state tour. So we decided to go to Mississippi and North Carolina, which have the worst discrimination laws on their books. Then we just got a map and went, “Okay, how many states can we get to between Mississippi and North Carolina?’ And we ended up with Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina.”
Terrance, when you heard that the tour was was going to happen why did you want to be involved? Also, could you tell us a bit about the the membership and mission of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir?
Terrance Kelly: “Well, this this tour is our mission. We have 23 faiths represented in the organization and we have about 300 singers between the three choirs. When we heard about the tour we were like, ‘This is us, we have to go!’ Our then executive director picked up the phone and called SFGMC and said, ‘Hello, this is so exciting, you have to let us come! You have to, you have to, you have to!’ And the SFGMC called back, maybe two days later, and said, “Yes!’ That started the shenanigans!”
David, you then heard that the tour was happening. Why did you think it was going to make a good documentary?
David Charles Rodrigues: “I knew the power of the music and the message of the chorus and the choir, and I was looking for stories that would test the waters of the decisiveness of the country. I was really shook by the election and by what happened and how things were going. This was literally the only story that I saw where a group of people stood a chance at testing those waters and bringing some hope and forging a path forward. Then when we met them that’s really when we knew we had a special story, when we got together and we started working together. It’s really important for me to say that we didn’t make a film about the chorus and the Oakland choir, but we made a film with them, and that truly was the experience and why it was so meaningful.”
Yes, it very much feels like that watching it. You were right there on the tour bus with them and the access feels very intimate. It feels like we’re kind of on tour with you as viewers, rather than observing from from a distance.
Tim Seelig: “You mean when they were on the bus with us for the bus drag show?! The only thing allowed was that you had to put all of your drag stuff in what would fit into an overhead bin! Then they changed in the bathroom or in the back. So it’s a little piece that is never told in the film. Where do they have all that?! In a small bag!”
They need to have that as a challenge on Drag Race, don’t they?!
Tim Seelig: “Yes!”
One of the aspects that struck me about the film is that it’s a powerful reminder that preconceptions cut both ways. A scene that illustrates that is when Tim is going along for an interview with a conservative radio show, and we think we know how it’s going to turn out, but it ends up being very different to what we might expect. What surprised you the most about the whole experience?
Tim Seelig: “We were stunned, we were absolutely stunned that places were just packed! We were really surprised by the turnout, because there’s no guarantee. Our first stop in Jackson, Mississippi, was on a weekend when basically the town empties because it’s a state capitol. On a Sunday night, here we are the Gay Men’s Chorus, and the roof blew off! That was amazing. The next day when we went to the Brown AME Chapel and then the Edmund Pettus Bridge and that was the pivotal moment of the tour for the participants because we realised, ‘Wow, this is huge.’ We were in the place where a revolution was birthed, and we’re part of one, whether you want to talk about them in the same breath or not, it doesn’t matter, we felt that to our very core and I think it changed the rest of the tour.”
Terrance Kelly: “I think any marginalised person will identify with this film. It’s not just a gay men’s film. It was very interesting to see the reception that the film got and how much more open some people were in the South than I would have previously thought.”
David, Is there anything that resonated with you about the reception that you received?
David Charles Rodrigues: “Sadly in our day and age what’s shocking is the positive outcomes, right? That’s what the reception was and there was no other way to make this film than to show the true experience that the chorus and the choir had. When Tim was giving that interview to the radio station, first of all we were all very bummed that it turned out to be such a positive conversation! Then it was the genius of our editor, Jeff Gilbert, who really found that scene and made it into the transformative moment of the entire film. It is to this day one of my favourite moments. Tim says something in that scene that really helped the direction of the film and made it all worth it, saying that this tour and this story, and even this film is not about just the LGBT community, but it’s about “the other”; anyone who’s treated differently and who is oppressed, and who experiences what it means to be “the other”. We all need to come together and we need to unite forces and create one movement because if we are all scattered and doing our own thing then we’re basically playing into the narrative that the people who are oppressing us want us to. I feel like that’s one thing that the film has the intention to do. I don’t know how well it does it, but it definitely has the heart and the intention to do so. Bringing the San Francisco Chorus and the Oakland Choir together is kind of proof of how transformative it can be.”
Tim, why was it important to you to reach out to local members of the LGBTQ+ community in the places that you went to and not just to speak to people whose minds you hoped you might open?
Tim Seelig: “It was really important. The whole point of this tour was for us to lift up our brothers and sisters across the South whom we know, because of the laws and because of the church, are—I’m going to use a good old Baptist word—they’re just downtrodden and backslidden. Before we went on tour, we took a group first and met in each of the five cities with about 20 LGBTQ organizations. We met them for dinner and we talked about what we could do, and the interesting thing is that some of those people had never met each other before. These are tiny organizations compared to what we are used to in our big cities, and they met each other and they learned and that was an amazing thing to watch. That sort of web that we helped create in those communities continues today. The ramifications of this tour are many, and there are many we don’t even know about.”
David Charles Rodrigues: “There was a really profound moment when we were screening the film in a very small town in Tennessee. This young girl, who was probably in her early twenties or late teens, who was there with her mother and some friends, raised her hand in the Q&A and said, ‘I don’t have a question, but I want to share a story.’ She then said that she was going to school in New York when the film premiered at Tribeca and she went to see the film and after seeing the people from the South that we portrayed in it she was inspired to go back home and start her own activist community. So she left New York and went back to her small town in Tennessee to exist there and be there, not only to be fighting the good fight, but also living a full life. For me, it’s really important that people understand that you can be gay and you can be celebrated living in these areas where we’re told you can’t.”
Terrance and Tim, could you talk a bit about the impact music can have both on those who are singing and those who are hearing it?
Terrance Kelly: “I’ve been blessed with the ability to collect children. On the tour, one young man was so affected in Birmingham that he caught the bus 12 hours to our next stop and he wanted to talk to me, but was scared to talk to me. So my choir, doing what they do, put their noses into other people’s business and they found me and put me and him together, and he is now one of my new children. I won’t say his name because I don’t have his permission, but we talk regularly and his life has changed. He’s become much more secure in who he is. I tell him to stand up and be tall and he’s gotten four promotions and reconnected with his mother. He told her, ‘I have a new family’, because I introduced him to my sisters and they were like, ‘If they don’t love you, you don’t worry about it baby, we love you, you can come see us!’ So he told his family that and they were like, ‘Wait a minute, we are your family!’ So now he has two families who love and adore him, and his whole life trajectory has changed and it’s because of the music and the tour.”
Tim Seelig: “Yeah, “the power of music”, I’m using air quotes because that’s a phrase that is so trite and overused and ultimately foundationally true. I certainly found that out during what’s now the first pandemic that we lived through, the power of music that through the AIDS pandemic was palpable everywhere. It was different because we could hold each other and touch each other and nurture each other as opposed to the Covid pandemic that we’re in right now. The power of music is demonstrated in the film so beautifully and I think one of those times is when the families have driven hundreds of miles to Charlotte, which happened at every concert but we see it in the film in Charlotte, and people that had been estranged from their families decided, ‘Okay, all right, well, he’s going to be within 500 miles or 400 miles, we’ll drive and watch this thing.’ Then there was this coming together where they’re all touching and holding. This was pre-Covid people! You watch barriers break before your eyes and, yeah, you can’t deny that power.”
By James Kleinmann
MTV Documentary Films’ Gay Chorus Deep South directed by David Charles Rodrigues premieres Sunday December 20th at 9pm ET/PT on Pop, Logo and Pluto TV.
The 30th annual San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ Home For the Holidays concert traditionally held at the iconic Castro Theatre will be presented as a virtual holiday extravaganza, (At) Home For the Holidays. Expect modern takes on old favorites, the world premiere of Merry Everything, special guests include Tony-winner Laura Benanti, Drag Race winner Bianca Del Rio, and India’s first openly gay royal figure Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil. (At) Home For the Holidays will take place this Thursday December 24th at 5 p.m. PST. Tickets are on sale now at www.sfgmc.org.