Watching Timothy Seelig, artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, lead the multicultural choral group, it’s impossible to imagine how closed off he once was to anyone outside of conservative, straight, white America.
“I’m sure most people who don’t know my story, say, ‘Oh look, there’s that man that conducts up there and he must have had easy sailing to get up on that podium,’” says Seelig, 69, who will read excerpts from his new memoir “Tale of Two Tims: Big Ol Baptist, Big Ol Gay” on Facebook live on June 27. “But this is my opportunity to tell them.”
Seelig’s stirring account of his life starts 1,700 miles east of San Francisco in conservative Fort Worth, Texas. Born to deeply religious Baptist parents, he and his older brother’s upbringing consisted of school and church, and both were segregated.
Things opened up for Seelig in 1968, the year his high school was integrated. The same year, he was working as a shoe salesman in a shopping center store that mostly catered to a Black clientele. Even in this period of immense racial strife, Seelig recalls how respectfully he was treated by this community, which he says opened the door for him to a whole different level of understanding.
In one of the book’s most memorable moments, Seelig describes how on April 4 in 1968, a man entered the shoe store, announcing that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
Seelig was nervous about how he — one of the only Caucasians in the shopping mall — would be received by the Black customers, with racial tensions running so high. So he was surprised when he was pulled in and embraced by one of the women.
“They didn’t treat me as an ‘other,’” Seelig says. “The opening of arms, humanity and a feeling that we’re all in this together was profound. I felt like it was OK to go through those next moments together and be a community for this moment. That was my first lesson, where my eyes opened that these people are not ‘other’ at all.”
Seelig’s life continued “as normal” as he went off to study music at a little Baptist college in West Texas, where the only black students were on the basketball team. It wasn’t until graduate school and later, in his career as an opera singer, that he experienced any true cultural diversity.
But the by-then married pastor of a Baptist megachurch got an accelerated education in multiculturalism after he came out, lost his position and family and began conducting Dallas’ all-gay Turtle Creek Chorale, in 1987, when he started working with people of color and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. In the book, the conductor, who previously had no direct contact with lesbians, describes the challenges of managing a 100-member lesbian choir.
“Then boy, was I the ‘other,’” says Seelig. “Immediately taking on the mantle of leading a gay organization and then a lesbian one, the requirements for me to ‘learn or burn’ were massive.”
Once he moved to The City to take the helm of the SFGMC, he began working with transgender men for the first time.
Today Seelig is brushing up on gender pronouns and working on increasing diversity in the SFGMC. Four years ago, it launched a diversity committee and, earlier this year, it appointed 30-year member Clint Johnson, its first Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion chairman liaison to the chorus to educate members about issues unique to its Black and Latinx members.
The SFGMC’s groundbreaking 2017 Lavender Pen Tour — the subject of 2019’s award-winning documentary “Gay Chorus Deep South” — took its message of inclusion to states with the most odious anti-LGBTQ legislation; the group marched across Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge following in the footsteps of King and other civil rights activists.
“It was such a revelation that we were sitting on sacred ground in the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where the civil rights movement was birthed, getting to trace those steps across the bridge and be emboldened from those actions,” Seelig says. “We were all changed and came home with renewed vigor to continue to build that bridge to other cultures, but specifically the African-American culture.”
After the tour, the choir went on to perform the seven-movement piece “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” highlighting the final words of seven Black men who died by violence. For the closing movement, in memory of Eric Garner, who perished after being put in a chokehold by an New York officer, in 2014, the chorus sang “I can’t breathe” for three minutes straight.
“That was one of the most dramatic moments of our lives, singing that work,” says Seelig. “If you listen and you’re in the middle of the LGBTQ+ community, you’re going to be challenged to learn every minute. One of the themes of my book is learning and stretching. I have learned and continue to learn such life lessons.”
IF YOU WATCH
Tim Seelig on Facebook Live
When: 2 p.m. June 27
Tale of Two Tims: Big Ol Baptist, Big Ol Gay
Written by: Tim Seelig
Published by: Nurturing Faith, Inc.