Conductor, pastor reflect on San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus tour of red states

SAN FRANCISCO -- Last year, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (SFGMC) was planning to embark on a 40th anniversary international tour, when Donald Trump got elected president. Instead, the choir opted to tour Trump-supporting red states of the American South.

To hear how it went, we caught up with conductor Tom Seelig as well as a pastor in South Carolina who hosted a tour stop.

But first, here's more about the concept.

"We felt like we could have the most impact in the South," executive director of the chorus Christopher Verdugo previously told Hoodline. "Certainly, there are parts of California that are red, but they don't have anti-LGBT discriminatory laws on the books. California doesn't have religious freedom acts or bathroom bills."

The message, said Verdugo before embarking, is the promotion of "universal equality and inclusiveness, and the value in treating all individuals--irrespective of differences--with dignity."

The tour to the South took months to plan, with choir staff making several trips to ensure the safety of its members and to solidify venues that could hold the 200 plus member choir and an audience. The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir (OIGC), "a community of diverse races, cultures and faiths," joined the SFGMC on the tour as well.

Christopher Verdugo, executive director of the SF Gay Men's Chorus. | Photo: SFGMC/Facebook

"After spending a week in the South... with our beneficiaries and community partners, I learned that hope--the unbreakable and audacious idea that Harvey Milk built his life on and inspired us to do the same--is very much alive," said Verdugo in a press release.

The tour is named "Lavender Pen" after a purple pen that gay activist and Sup. Harvey Milk reportedly gave to Mayor George Moscone to sign an anti-discrimination bill into law that was authored by the supervisor.

The Tour

The trip ultimately led choir members and staff to Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee--socially conservative states not known for being safes spaces for the community--all while raising much-needed funds for local LGBTQ+ nonprofit organizations.

"When we decided on the five states we would be traveling to, we worked with local groups to select five beneficiaries in the five cities. Those ranged from grass roots organizations to larger organizations like GLAD," said SFGMC artistic director and conductor Dr. Tim Seelig in a phone interview.

On the trip, over $100,000 was raised for the non-profits. "It's one of the things that we are most proud of because that money will go a long way. It goes pretty far in the South," Seelig said. "Seldom have we taken a trip of such magnitude."

Seelig noted that the last trip of similar consequence happened with a SFGMC national tour in 1981 that began a surge of the LGBT choral movement. The choir was founded in 1978 shortly after the murders of Milk and Moscone.

At each concert performance on the tour, a local LGBTQ choir would open the show, except for in Mississippi which at the time, one didn't exist. "Since our visit, and inspired by our performance, a LGBT choir has now started in Jackson," Seelig said.

The mere presence of the choir in the South is also worth noting with "huge crowds everywhere we went," He said. The choir had roughly 30 appearances in eight days.

"As a group, we learned a lot, were encouraged a lot, and were thrilled to meet some of the most wonderful people," Seelig continued. "We came home feeling really lucky. We already knew how lucky we have it in San Francisco, and how hard it is in the South."

Protestors and choir members in front of Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama. | Photo: Dave Earl

The tour wasn't without controversy, though. There were protesters, they were refused from performing, and there was a bomb sweep along the way. "But we were never fearful for our lives," Seelig said.

At Church Street Methodist in Knoxville, Tennessee, for example, "One of the pastors said no, we cannot have gays singing in this church," said Seelig. "So he pulled the invitation for us to perform there."

Then, at First Baptist Church Greenville in South Carolina, local law enforcement conducted a bomb sweep when choir members first arrived.

The sweep, however, wasn't part of any perceived threat, Senior Minister Dr. Jim Dant of First Baptist told Hoodline in a phone interview.

"We wanted to make sure that this was a safe and secure place for the choir to come," Dant said. "There was no bomb threat or scare, but given what has happened in a couple of churches recently in the nation, it just felt prudent to make sure that everyone who attended was safe."

Seelig was hesitant at first about performing at the South Carolina church, not because of safety concerns, but because of his past; he was fired from a First Baptist Church in Texas when he first came out at 35 years old.

SFGMC and OIGC at First Baptist Greenville. | Photo: Courtesy Tim Seelig

"It was so incredibly emotional that my life before and my life now crossed paths," Seelig said. "To be invited back as a big ol' fag was unbelievable."

The impact on First Baptist Church was palpable as well. Dant described his church as a welcoming and non-discriminatory organization, and notes that it's not affiliated with the larger Southern Baptist Convention. "We live, believe, and think differently" than most Baptists, he said.

"Most of the people who were pushing back were from other churches that want to tell me what a terrible person I am," Dant quipped. "That I was a false teacher and that I'm going to hell. But that's par for the course."

Dant was still uncertain how the performance would unfold on the night of the event. "We had no idea how many people would be here," he said.

The choir marching over Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama. | Photo: Courtesy Tim Seelig

Ultimately, the sanctuary was "completely full with at least 1400 people in attendance," Dant said. "The response from the congregation was applause from beginning to end. It was a moving experience."

"We celebrated together and did a lot of laughing," said Dant. "And because we were able to laugh together, we were able to cry together, too."

A number of new congregants have joined the church since because the SFGMC performance was an introduction to the organizations values, Dant said.

"Its going to be harder and harder as time goes on for a person of Christian faith to maintain these feelings that someone is less than," Dant said. "I think that love is going to win out."

Film crews accompanied the choir and Seelig said that a forthcoming documentary about the trip will debut next January.

Pastor Dant also has a new book connected to his experiences with the choir and the LGBTQ+ community set to be released next month. The book, called This I know: A simple Biblical defense for LGBTQ Christians, is meant as a quick reference for those challenged by other Christians.

"I've been personally impacted," he said. "Because of the friendships established with Tim and other members--it's amazing. Our church feels very related to that choir and I feel really connected to them. It's amazing how life has opened up because of this event."

Dant--who travels to San Francisco several times a year--will be signing copies of the new book on February 6th in the Castro at Dog Eared Books.