by C.J. Hirschfield
The first public performance of San Francisco’s renowned Gay Men’s Chorus took place in 1978 at an impromptu memorial at City Hall for pioneer gay rights advocate and city supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone, who had been assassinated earlier that same day. It’s worth noting that they performed a religious song: “Thou, Lord, Hast Been our Refuge.” The tens of thousands of mourners had marched to City Hall from Castro Street.
Since that time, the world’s first gay chorus has performed all over the world.
In response to a wave of discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws and the divisive 2016 election, the Chorus made the decision to embark on a 25-performance tour of the American Deep South. The new documentary GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH chronicles their fascinating journey, and the conversations and connections that result are often surprising—and not always in the ways you might think.
Writer/Director David Charles Rodrigues understands that the Chorus’ charismatic and outspoken conductor Dr. Tim Seelig has a compelling backstory that works well as an anchor for the film. When Seelig came out to his Southern Baptist congregation many decades ago, he lost everything—his home, his family, his livelihood. Other chorus members also fled the South, and we know that their homecoming will be fraught with painful memories—but also possibilities.
A lovely surprise of the film is that the Chorus was joined by the inspiring, animated and diverse Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, made up of singers representing 13 different religions—“and no religions.” One third of their chorus is gay. Why gospel songs? “That’s how to get to them.”
The “we” were over 300 singers, who paid their own way, and donated the proceeds to local charities promoting equality for the LGBTQ community. The “them” are folks from Mississippi to Tennessee, and through the Carolinas. And the message—through music—is love and acceptance to communities and individuals confronting intolerance.
“Every social movement has used music,” we are told, and the film’s concert footage gave me chills—the quality of the performances is stellar, and heartfelt. The shows took place in churches, concert halls and community centers. Not all of the songs are gospel: the Chorus’ brilliant version of a Patsy Cline song– sung in drag –was a hit. Try to hate on that, if you can, y’all.
And what did they find on the road? Like the excellent recent documentary Hillbilly, Gay Chorus Deep South reveals a part of our country that is less divided, and demonstrates more acceptance that we on the coasts might give it credit for. Tim is surprised when a talk show host greets him warmly. And while one Baptist church refuses to allow a concert to be held in their building, and church protesters decry gays in truly hateful ways, they are embraced by another pastor, who tells his congregation that “The only people Christ was uncomfortable with were the self-righteous, judgmental religious people.”
One of my favorite parts of the film are the brief scenes in which LGBTQ concert-goers—both young and old—share their appreciation of the Chorus’ visit, and how much it means to them, and gives them hope.
The film also offers moving scenes of reconciliation, examples of how the famous Southern hospitality can be tested, and some crazy fun drag performances on the tour bus.I don’t think I’ve ever cried before at a documentary’s closing credits, but as someone who lived next to San Francisco’s Castro District in the late 70’s through the mid-eighties, seeing the too-long list of former Gay Men’s Chorus members in whose memory the film is dedicated is a beautiful reminder that their voices made a difference, and will sing on.
GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH is an MTV Documentary Films release, runs 100 minutes, and screens November 22-27 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco. Dr. Tim Seelig will appear on Saturday, November 23. The film has been playing around the country and as future dates are set they will be added to the screening site.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus present their annual holiday concerts in December.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”
Watch a full concert in Greenville, South Carolina