“Gay Chorus Deep South,” which details the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ 2017 U.S. tour, closes Frameline43. (Courtesy Adam Hobbs)

SF Gay Men’s Chorus spreads message down South

Groundbreaking group continues human rights’ struggle

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was gung-ho about heading to China, where no gay chorus had gone before, for its 40th anniversary tour in 2017. But soon after the 2016 presidential election, the pioneering gay choral group took a sharp right turn and started planning for a tour of the Deep South instead.

“With the election, we knew that things were already bad in the South and going to get worse as they have, so this was important,” says SFGMC Artistic Director Timothy Seelig.

The group’s 23-date Lavender Pen Tour across Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina in October 2017 is the subject of the documentary “Gay Chorus Deep South.” Developed and produced by Airbnb and directed by David Charles Rodrigues, the movie — which won an audience award at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival — closes Frameline43, the San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, on Sunday at The Castro.

The tour, named after the writing instrument former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk gave former Mayor George Moscone to sign a gay civil rights bill into law in the 1970s, was designed to confront homophobia, spread compassion for the LGBTQ community and raise funds for nonprofits strugging into fight anti-LGBTQ laws.

The SFGMC found the best way to do that was to touch the hearts of Bible Belt residents with sacred music. The choir started each concert with “Amazing Grace” before breaking into a big, old gay anthem.

“We knew we were never going to reach the religious fundamentalists,” Seelig says.“But there’s a huge middle that needs encouraging where they sit, to see that we are genuine, authentic and just sharing our message.”

The Lavender Pen Tour is just one example of SFGMC’s decades-long struggle to achieve top-notch performances, promote community activism and empowerment and spread a message of inclusiveness through outreach programs.

In August, the groundbreaking group, founded in 1978 and credited with starting the LGBTQ choral movement, will begin working from its first permanent home in The City at 170 Valencia St.

The SFGMC envisions that this first-ever National LGBTQ Center for the Arts will, over the next year, begin hosting performances and public programs and also serve as a creative space for other queer artists desperate for studio space in pricey San Francisco.

“We are more relevant today than in November of 2016 because of the steps backward we’ve been taking,” Seelig says. “The fight’s getting harder, even with all the gay people fighting with us. So I can’t say [“Gay Chorus Deep South”] is going to change votes, but the struggle for our rights requires every tool we can find to win, and we feel that it’s a really important tool to put in the toolbox toward equality.”

IF YOU GO

Gay Chorus Deep South

Presented by Frameline43

Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. June 30

Tickets: $35

Contact: frameline.org/festival

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