Gay Chorus Deep South: Audience Award Winner at 2019 Tribeca Film Fest

Happy Gay Pride Month!

David Charles Rodrigues’s Gay Chorus Deep South, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Fest, follows singers in the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) as they embarked on a tour of the Deep South after the turbulent results of the 2016 election.

This docu just won the audience award, which speak well of its potential commercial appeal beyond the strictly gay milieu.

Artistic director and conductor Tim Seelig leads his choir in a series of church performances in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

On the Lavender Pen Tour, the group made 23 appearances across Mississippi (Hattiesburg and Jackson), Alabama (Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham), Tennessee (Knoxville), South Carolina (Greenville), and North Carolina (Greensboro and Charlotte) from October 7–14, 2017.

The tour helped hare the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ mission of community, activism and compassion throughout the South, supporting its LGBTQ brothers and sisters and promoting acceptance and love through music. SFGMC also joined with local non-profits and LGBTQ groups to help raise much needed funds in support of their vital work to dismantle biased and discriminatory laws.

The tour received its name from the actions of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay candidate elected to major office in the U.S., who has often been referred to as the patron saint of the SFGMC. In 1977, a year before his death, Milk sponsored a landmark gay civil rights bill. Mayor George Moscone signed that bill into law with a lavender pen given to him by Milk. The lavender pen remains a symbol of the fight for equality for all and the reason for the tour’s name.

A former minister who was ousted from the Southern Baptist Church in Texas, Seelig came out at the relatively older age of 35.  The church also funded litigation by his ex-wife, which saw him lose contact with his children.  Unfazed, Seelig channels his anger into creative endeavor, and his subjective past motivates him even more strongly to spread his message of inclusion and acceptance.

Tim’s past experiences are sad, but not unique; many of the chorus’ members have also fled deeply religious backgrounds. Ashle, who is mid-way through transitioning from male to female, recalls how her entire congregation were encouraged to “pray the gay away” when she was young. Jimmy, now in his 50s and fighting cancer, hopes that his fiercely conservative estranged father will attend one of the concerts.

The goal is to raise awareness of and discuss such socially relevant themes as diversity, inclusivity and acceptance, while challenging the faith-based, right-wing, anti-LGBTQ laws–and norms–brought on in the Trump era.

Can you fight effectively against prejudice and homophobia through popular songs?  We are used to see in similarly-themed documentaries impassioned talking heads , street demonstrations, gay pride marches, and sometimes even violent confrontations.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

The docu does not try to conceal issues of intolerance and bigotry.  And though the focus is on the Deep South, the docu doesn’t deny the hate crimes and homophobia that prevail in liberal states and big cities.

It opens with choir rehearsals, when the chorus receives a hateful voice-mail message blasting the group for “pushing themselves” onto people who do not agree with their “lifestyle.”

After listening to it, one chorus member says, “There ain’t no amount of singing that can fix that.”

Rodrigues follows the group along their bus tour, it becomes apparent that one can’t underestimate the power of heartfelt tune, either.

In the docu the chorus collaborates with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir to bring performances across the U.S. of songs like “Amazing Grace” and “True Colors.”

“I’m not afraid of your Jesus,” the chorus sings in unison, during one of their anthems. “I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your God.”

The docu draws its power from its timely subject in Trump’s increasingly divisive leadership, but also from the personalized modes in which it presents its arguments. In one touching scene, a chorus member invites his parents to a performance, and his estranged father watches a member in full drag belt it out in drag. Afterward, he tells his son that surprisingly he enjoyed the show.

But would the impact on one family lasts, or is it only in the short run?  Would the father go and tell his straight mates about the performance that he had attended and enjoyed and encourage them to do the same (even if they don’t have sons in the chorus).

The director of Gay Chorus Deep South is not naïve enough to believe that one concert (or even several concerts) can change the climate of opinion, but it goes way beyond issues of representation to suggest that it is a step in the right direction towards acceptance and embracement.