There is a certain amount of dramatic tension that animates “Gay Chorus Deep South,” a documentary directed by David Charles Rodrigues that follows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which is joined by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, as they travel around Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and the Carolinas.
As is pointed out in explanatory text at the beginning of the film, several states in the South have bills pending that would allow discrimination of LGBT people on the grounds of religious beliefs, and so it was felt that a tour with these choirs might do some good to change some hearts.
Tim Seelig is the leader of the Gay Men’s Chorus from San Francisco, and he is the de facto lead of “Gay Chorus Deep South.” He is an older man with a level gaze, and it is only as the film goes on that we learn the story of how he was raised Baptist and expected by his family to be a church leader. Seelig married a woman and had two children with her, but at age 35 he could no longer pretend to be heterosexual.
Seelig describes how the parishioners at his church would praise him and his wife for singing and for presenting the picture of a perfect couple, and then how they would fight in the car afterward. When he came out of the closet, Seelig lost his house, his two jobs, and all contact with his wife and children. “The Baptist church left no stone unturned to ruin my life,” he says. Of the 20,000 people in the congregation, not one of them reached out to him in the spirit of compassion. “I hate the church for all the things they did to my family,” Seelig says. On this trip, he is going back to his roots for the first time in 30 years. “I get to go and sprinkle some water on some pretty dry land,” he says.
Most of the choir is made up of middle-aged and older men, and so their experience of discrimination has been a bit rougher than it might be for younger people. Jimmy White is a member of the choir who is battling cancer, and he is trying to re-connect with his father, who has rejected him harshly in the past.
We see Jimmy’s father at home, and then we see him in the audience when a choir member named Phillip Whitely does a drag performance as Patsy Cline, singing “She’s Got You.” The camera cuts between the performance, which is cheerful and frivolous, with broad comic underpinnings, and Jimmy’s father in the audience. It’s hard to tell at first how he is reacting, and we might expect the worst under the circumstances, but when he goes back to see his son, he assures him that he liked the Patsy Cline drag act best of all, “believe it or not,” and this signals a measured kind of hope.
We also follow a choir member named Ashle Blow, who is seen having dinner with a very religious Southern couple who are extending a particular kind of double-edged Southern hospitality; the wife is working hard to be a gracious hostess with Blow, but her face sends signals of hard disapproval waiting to spring out from under her role-playing.
Later in the film, when Seelig coolly expresses his dissatisfaction to a pastor about “bless your heart” Southern hospitality and what it conceals, we have seen it in action on screen in the dinner that Blow has with that religious couple, and so we understand more intimately just how much Seelig needs to fight against mere tolerance and toward what he terms “celebration” of the difference of others.
There isn’t too much musical performance seen in “Gay Chorus Deep South,” and it tends to be centered on songs like “Amazing Grace” or new songs that appeal for change, and your mileage will surely vary on how much of this sort of thing you can take and like. There is one performance from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir with a female soloist toward the end of the film that outstrips anything we see from the Gay Men’s Chorus, but surely that underlines the need for allies more than anything else.
There are the expected clichés voiced here about how music can transform hearts and minds, but “Gay Chorus Deep South” is most useful as a way of seeing how intolerance hides behind evasive Southern hospitality and how it might be vanquished with what that hospitality seeks to avoid: direct confrontation.