The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Toured the Deep South

A new musical documentary, Gay Chorus Deep South, chronicles the experience.

About 15 minutes into Gay Chorus Deep South, members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus are gathered around an office phone. The phone emits a brief screech before a voicemail marred with static plays: “So, you’re going to bring a fight to the South?”

What follows next is a slurry of homophobia from the voicemail leaver. Chris Verdugo, the executive director of the chorus, just shakes his head.

“There’s no amount of singing that’s going to fix that,” Verdugo says.

This “fight” was actually the 2017 fall Lavender Pen Tour of the American South, when 300 members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and guests from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir drove through Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina to sing. They made about two dozen appearances, spoke on a conservative radio show, and found other members of the LGBTQ+ community, hoping to find unity in some places with the worst anti-LGBTQ laws in the country. 

It’s all captured in an upcoming documentary directed by David Charles Rodrigues, Gay Chorus Deep South, which won the Documentary Audience Award at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

The documentary isn’t a simple story of spreading joy and peace through the power of music. For one, the documentary challenges conceptions we have about the South. Queer South historian Josh Burford calls the south “a myth … a distancing technique.” 

There are many people who want this tour to happen, Burford says in the film. “Let’s bring attention to the needs of the local communities. That’s a great idea,” he tells SF Weekly. “But then the other side of it is after being ignored for long, the idea of a prominent, national organization doing a goodwill tour in the South feels very paternalistic and condescending.”

The situation is a lot more complex than anticipated. Moreover, Gay Chorus Deep South unfolds the limitations and strengths of what art can do. Tim Seelig, the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, knew that there was no chance in changing the voicemail sender’s mind. (That person would actually go on to leave several more hate-filled messages, not seen on screen.)

But Seelig isn’t trying to reach people like that.

“The chorus — in general, not just on this tour — have people on one side of the spectrum who are totally supportive, accepting allies. On the other side there are people who are never going to listen to what we’re going to say,” Seelig says. “But there’s a huge pool of people in the middle.”

Singer Jimmy White’s father fell into that pool. White, who carries an ongoing battle with cancer during the tour, hasn’t talked to his homophobic father in half a dozen years. But when the tour visits Mississippi, where White is from, White’s father is in the audience. It’s unclear if they ever fully repair their relationship, but for a single concert, White’s father listens to his son sing in a gay men’s chorus.

Changing hearts was one goal of the tour. Another was to support other LGBTQ people in the South. “We created a safe space in those places that are not always safe to be out,” Seelig says.

It’s not always easy to do. That visibility in itself is activism, according to producer Bud Johnston. It’s something that the makers of Gay Chorus Deep South are trying to amplify through documentation — by “shining a light” on organizations like the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. 

“I think every one of the chorus members has trauma and has stories that are hard, whether it be their coming out stories, or how they were raised,” Johnson says. “But they’re the ones who are going out on a stage under a spotlight and singing their hearts out putting themselves in front of audiences that can be discriminatory. That’s courage.”

Opens Nov. 22.

Grace Li covers arts and culture for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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