Gay Chorus Deep South

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

We all know that old trope about gays loving Broadway music. But then, don’t we all?

Music is something that brings people together.

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus believes that music van be a powerful bridge between the LGBTQ community and the alt-right. So in 2017 they packed up their music and went on a tour of the Deep South, holding a series of concerts across five of the states with the harshest laws against homosexuals.

Teaming up with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir (hoping to appeal more to Bible Belt audiences) the SFGMC embarked on a week-long tour of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

Filmmaker David Charles Rodrigues tagged along with his camera crew.

The result was an intriguing documentary titled “Gay Chorus Deep South,” which chronicles this courageous journey and also shares a sampling of the music.

“Gay Chorus Deep South” will be showing Sunday night at Tropic Cinema as first entry in this year’s Southern Circuit Tour of Filmmakers. Presented by South Arts, the series brings new films from independent filmmakers to cinemas throughout the South.

SFGMC members were aware of the risks of being “out and proud” in the Christian South. Before leaving California, they received many warnings. “I’m not afraid of your Jesus,” the chorus sang in response. “I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your God.”

Known as the Lavender Pen Tour, the venture took its name from the pen that Harvey Milk gave to San Francisco mayor George Moscone four decades earlier to use in signing a gay rights bill into law some.

However, this is not San Francisco. And on the tour they encountered lots of protesters. Several parishes refused to host concerts. There were picketers. Homophobia often runs deep in the South.

Many SFGMC members are themselves Southern.

The group’s artistic director Tim Seelig is a former Baptist minister who was fired from his church in Houston when he came out.

Other chorus members also bear the emotional scars of being rejected by parents or family for being gay. Now in his 50s and fighting cancer, Mississippi-born Jimmy White hasn’t talked to his father in more than half a dozen years. The film shares a poignant reconciliation between father and son.

Rodrigues takes care to point out that the tour wasn’t all threats and resistance. A conservative radio host in Tennessee invited several SFGMC members on the air, expressing his support for this “campaign for peace.” An uptight South Carolina Baptist church graciously hosted a performance by the chorus.

Since the film was backed by Airbnb, we get to watch a couple of tour members sitting down to dinner with a cheery Christian host family, an obligatory scene to reflects the spirit of hospitality that Airbnb embodies.

Even so, many such supporters seemed to feel it was necessary to declare their heterosexuality on camera, fearful of being assumed gay by association.

The filmmakers try to squeeze as many faces as possible into quick-cut montages, then pausing to spotlight relevant backstories. With some 300 singers it’s impossible to tell all of these individual stories. But the ones it manages to cover are powerful. A transgender teen explains how her parents enrolled her in Christian therapy. A young woman recalls how her grandparents burnt her gay pride flag on their front porch. A transgender named Ashle remembers how her congregation was asked to “pray the gay away” when she came out.

A sequence showing the chorus march over the Edmund Petters Bridge in Selma, retracing the steps of Martin Luther King over 50 years before, while singing “We Shall Overcome,” makes a not-so-subtle comparison of the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ+ rights with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

“Gay Chorus Deep South” has a message: “To heal the country and move on, we must reach across the divide and listen to one another. And what better way to do that than with a concert?”

Join filmmaker David Charles Rodrigues and Dr. Timothy Seelig, artistic director of San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, for a Q&A following the film.

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