New Documentary Follows San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus Performances In U.S. South Sarah McCammon speaks with director David Rodrigues and San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus artistic director Tim Seelig, subject of the new documentary "Gay Chorus Deep South."
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New Documentary Follows San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus Performances In U.S. South

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New Documentary Follows San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus Performances In U.S. South

New Documentary Follows San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus Performances In U.S. South

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

There's a brief camera shot in the new MTV documentary film "Gay Chorus Deep South" that shows the main characters on a bus moving through the intersection of Gay and Church streets. That's also more or less the theme of the movie, which follows the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus on a tour of the Deep South.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH")

SAN FRANCISCO GAY MEN'S CHORUS: (Singing) Love can build a bridge. Don't you think it's time? Don't you think it's time?

MCCAMMON: Tim Seelig is the artistic director of the chorus, and David Rodrigues is director of the film. Welcome to the program.

DAVID RODRIGUES: Thank you.

TIM SEELIG: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: Tim Seelig, I want to start with you. The film begins with your own personal story of growing up Southern Baptist and working in the church until you finally came out as gay in your mid-30s. How did you feel setting out on this journey?

SEELIG: You know, I knew that when I came out, it was risking everything. But it's wonderful, looking back. In these ensuing 35 years, I've been conducting LGBTQ choruses. And it has been just the most wonderful experience. So I have the joy of hindsight.

And I know that people who have not yet had been able to come out or had found that courage, you know, my message to them is, come on out. Go ahead. I've never met one single LGBTQ person who says, I wish I had waited longer to come out.

MCCAMMON: And, David, you're sort of the unseen force behind this film. What drew you to this story? How did you get involved?

RODRIGUES: You know, I was really shook by the divisiveness that surfaced from the 2016 elections. And, you know, I was really looking for movements or stories or actions of - that could bring hope and that could, you know, if not bridge things back together, but at least test this divisiveness.

And there was an article about the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus doing this tour in the South. And I knew their power in their message from living in San Francisco before. I really thought that they were the only ones that really stood a chance to create that bridge.

MCCAMMON: Of course, you meet Christian Southerners who accept you and support you. And we know that support for LGBTQ rights is growing nationwide. Something like 2/3 of Americans now say they support same-sex marriage, for example. But as you also note, there are still those who hold religious beliefs that homosexual relationships are sinful.

When you meet people who say that for them, this is a theological issue - this is a matter of faith - how do you talk to them?

SEELIG: I don't argue at all. I mean, I've lived 35 years of my life as a Southern Baptist. I have all the weapons in my toolkit. I don't use them because I don't think that the Scripture should ever be used as weapons. So that's what I would say - is study harder (laughter). Get some background on what you're trying to use against our community.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH")

SAN FRANCISCO GAY MEN'S CHORUS: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...

SEELIG: When we sang "Amazing Grace," it was hard for the singers to sing because, you know, it says, that saved a wretch like me. And it supposes that we are wretched people. But the whole point is that all kinds of grace can be found inside and outside, if you look for it.

MCCAMMON: David, one of the themes your film touches on is the idea that the South is not one-dimensional, that it's more complex than maybe some of the stereotypes about it. But were you worried as you were filming this about stereotyping people in the South or potentially missing some of the nuance about what the South really is?

RODRIGUES: Absolutely. It was really important to give the South the voice it deserved and to really spend time there. So we spent a few months before the tour itself meeting people and really learning and listening to what they had to say.

And, you know, I like to say there's three choruses in this film. You know, there's the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. There's the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. And then there's the Voices of the South. You know, and they play an equal role in kind of bringing the story together.

MCCAMMON: Tim Seelig, there's a really interesting conversation in the film - where you talk with one of the pastors who's thinking about whether or not to host your group - about the difference between hospitality - Southern hospitality versus tolerance versus celebrating people. And without giving too much away, you ultimately tell him, you're not really that interested in just sort of reluctant acceptance. You want to be celebrated.

SEELIG: Right.

MCCAMMON: Why was that so important?

SEELIG: It's for me, one of my favorite scenes, because it's just so real. It's - like, the reality is just right in front of your eyes. And he was there. And he was trying to decide if we could sing in his church. And he said, well, you know, if it smells of activism, then I'm going to get pushback. And I - and, you know, we tolerate the gays.

And I just sort of went off. That was my moment where I just had enough. And I said, I didn't - don't need you to tolerate me. And I don't need you to accept me. But I need you to celebrate the uniqueness of all of God's creatures. I'll celebrate you. You - and oh, boy. And his exact quote was, "you know, I just haven't felt the nudge to do that." And so we nudged our way right on out of that church and left them. I wish we could have sung there. And I wish we could have done something significant, but we weren't allowed.

MCCAMMON: And David, one more question for you. You're the filmmaker here. What do you hope your film accomplishes?

RODRIGUES: All I wanted to do is for it to touch as many hearts and minds as possible and also to serve as a tool for certain people that need to create conversations with other people in their family or friends that have, you know, different opinions and take a different stand than them. Instead of, you know, deleting them from social media or not talking to them again, maybe they could use our film as a starting point to create a conversation.

MCCAMMON: That's film director David Rodrigues and Tim Seelig, artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. The MTV documentary film "Gay Chorus Deep South" airs on the Pluto TV documentary channel on December 30 at 12 p.m. Eastern and will be available on cable on-demand through February 15.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SEELIG: Thank you.

RODRIGUES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH")

SAN FRANCISCO GAY MEN'S CHORUS: (Singing) Love can build a bridge.

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