“There is a storm. And we have to learn to dance with the storm,” an offscreen voice says in the opening of the documentary Gay Chorus Deep South, currently screening at The Tribeca Film Festival. The movie follows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus as they go on a two-week journey to play 25 shows in churches throughout some of the most anti-LGBTQ regions of the south. The group, which was founded in 1978 in the wake of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk’s assassination, goes on an emotional whirlwind tour through Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and the Carolinas to test the nation’s capacity for empathy.
The South is currently in the midst of a widespread political backlash against the LGBTQ community. Legislators in states like Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, and Florida have introduced bills or pursued other tactics to make it easier for employers, businesses and adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people, as well as reintroducing bathroom bills that prevent transgender people from using the appropriate accommodations. There are advocates fighting fiercely in southern states against these policies, but as the queer former Alabama state Representative Patricia Todd says in the film, “[in the South] the Bible is more important than the Constitution.”
“We’re not going to affect change in our legislation before we affect change in organized religion,” chorus leader Tim Seelig says. He came out at 35 when he was married with a wife and kids, working as an associate minister of his Baptist church in Texas. He says the church stripped him of his family and set out to make his life miserable afterward. But now, he uses his preaching abilities to spread a steadfast philosophy that channels spirituality to heal wounds for queer people. His philosophical statements anchor the movie, as he goes from jokingly describing the line “I was lost and now I’m found,” as actually being about coming out to poignantly stating that grace is a feeling of acceptance that can come from having community.
The gay men’s chorus may have a certain air of respectability and privilege, being comprised, as it is, mostly of older white men in formal vests singing in a classical style. But their song lyrics address the gay experience of feeling excluded by the church in a pretty blunt, almost confrontational, way. They tell worshippers they’re “not afraid of [the worshippers'] children” but rather “afraid of what they might do in the name of the Lord,” and they move between solemn songs about rejection to upbeat celebrations of gayness.
Communities are surprisingly receptive, straightforward lyrics notwithstanding. Not every church allows them to perform, and they face a small protest group in Selma, Alabama. But for the most part, they’re welcomed by pastors who have no idea how their communities will react—and are willing to take heat from their congregation to find out. Time after time, pews fill up with curious faces, with many older congregants wiping their eyes, thanking them for coming by the end. That includes family members of chorus members who hadn't previously accepted them. One member, Jimmy White, says his father told him he wished he’d never been born, but the show loosened him up enough to say he enjoyed it afterward.
The tour demonstrated that even in places with the harshest anti-LGBTQ political battles, there’s more nuance and room for change than one might expect. In places like Charlotte, North Carolina, itself an epicenter of bathroom bill debates, the chorus sang alongside relatives backstage in the biggest tear-jerker scene of all. The movie also does an excellent job highlighting the pulse of the queer communities in the towns visited, casting a spotlight on local queer audience members at multiple shows and letting them speak about their concerns and their pride in the spaces they've built. And allies emerge from the woodwork throughout the film, like an older woman who gives a younger chorus member a handmade quilt with a mixture of southern images and pride symbols.
Despite all the reason for optimism in the film, there’s still a looming question of what it can tell us about the state of the country, or even the South, outside of its final cuts. It’s always possible the chorus's fans could be a self-selecting audience. Maybe the doc editors left footage of low attendance on the cutting room floor. And perhaps the MAGA-hat wearing radio host who seems hell-bent on wishing them the best would have been different without so many cameras around. But the sheer power of the bet the chorus took is undeniable. They kept showing up with 300 people, on their own dime, to churches where they had no idea how many people would come and pastors certainly couldn’t assure them that they'd be welcomed. The film is a powerful study in doing the unexpected, making the bet that someone actually might just meet you halfway even if you have every fair and practical reason to think they won’t.
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