Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Tim Seelig

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Artistic Director Tim Seelig.

Read excerpts from the interview below.

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Clemons: There was a time where the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was what soothed and gave hope and help to people suffering with HIV/AIDS. And now, you know, 30 years into this, we're into another pandemic and it seems like that ability to gather and sing and be there has been preempted by this virus. 

Seelig: It certainly has. Thank you so much. It's interesting to be a man of a certain age and now to have lived through two pandemics that have so critically affected my community. As a person who is HIV positive, this is even closer to home. The first pandemic that I experienced was AIDS and HIV in the late '80s and '90s. During those times, there was fear, of course, of people touching it, catching it, by just touching or hugging. And that went away over a while and we were able to continue to sing. In fact, the chorus really grew and matured as a family, because we were able to be together. This pandemic is completely different and we’re not allowed to gather. 

 

Clemons: How are you responding to these times when it's dangerous to gather?

Seelig: The chorus does about 50 concerts or appearances a year, and many of those are to help other organizations raise money for their own needs. There's a difference, as people know in what we do and who we are, and what we do has been taken away. At least we're pivoting to much more online. But the who we are that started in 1978 will never change, and it will be there throughout this pandemic.

 

Clemons: How are you adapting in this moment? Are you going online? Are you finding other ways to communicate and sing? 

Seelig: We pivoted really quickly and established SFGMC, San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, TV and so what that is we're going back and pulling videos from our archives and releasing those. And we're interviewing wonderful people that every week we release two interviews that are a wide range from Kristen Chenowith to Chasten Buttigieg, and we're also going inside the chorus and doing spotlights on our own singers and our educational outreach, which has been enormous. And we're putting all of that online. So yes, we have a virtual choir which was amazing, called Truly Brave. Please go see it. It kind of went viral on us and we're really grateful for that. Now everybody is doing virtual choir, and I just got to say, it's not a choir. It's a bunch of people singing at home that some fabulous editor puts together. 

 

Clemons: How did you hear he Supreme Court decision on LGBT employment amidst all the pandemic and protests following the killing of George Floyd by police?

Seelig: Right, it is so incredibly major in our lives. I'll give you just a couple of points. When the chorus began, the very first chorus to actually emerge and have orientation in its name, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. There was an argument at the first rehearsal, not surprising with 100 gay men in the room, but they had an argument about who they would be. Could they really be the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus? Because in those days you absolutely could get fired for being gay and being a member of the chorus. They thought of several other names, and they emerged as the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Interestingly, my tale of two Tim’s, when I was 35, I had lived 35 years as a big Southern Baptist minister and I came out, and I’ve spent the last almost 35 waving my arms at the gays. The interesting thing is that the church had every right to fire me, and they still have that right, so that has not been taken away.

 

Clemons: Tell us a little bit about "Tale of Two Tims: Big ol’ Baptist, Big Ol' Gay."

Seelig: Well just briefly, as I said, I spent 35 years in the womb of the Southern Baptist Church. My parents were Southern Baptist professionals and my brother as well. And I had a lovely wife and two children, and came out from a mega church of 22,000 people at 35, and I just could not live that lie anymore. And so I came out and had no idea what I was gonna do. And there was a gay men's chorus in Dallas. I had no idea that existed. And I started that job, really, just to pay child support, thinking I would stay a year, and I stayed 20 with the Turtle Creek Chorale in Dallas, Texas. And then I came 10 years ago to the Mecca of all things gay and was honored to be given the opportunity to conduct the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. 

 

Clemons: As you reach out in your role with the chorus, are you seeing new norms and new practices come that show people will not remain isolated and disconnected in the future?

Seelig: I think it really all depends on how long it lasts. And we're nowhere near in San Francisco of getting out of this. We are Zooming like crazy. We have a Zoom event every single day of the week. We do have 300 members, so we have fitness and game night and movie night and cooking classes so they can still feel a part. But it's not the same. And the real problem, as people well know, is the word aerosolization, where when you get into a room, a closed room and you sing for an extended period of time, the virus just goes all over the place. So the only thing that they have said at this point that we could do is stand about 8 feet apart outdoors and make sure the wind is at your back. And that's really not a choir either. So we're gonna hang in here. We're not expecting to begin again or gather at all until 2021 we hope that we can do it then. 

 

Clemons: What is the degree of contact, coordination, sharing of best practices on how to weather these times and how to still matter? I mean, I think that's the real thing. How do you still matter in people's lives? And what are some of the best lessons you've learned from others? 

Seelig: One of the questions about a gay men's chorus, period, or a lesbian chorus or LGBTQ, is relevance, and we have this conversation every single year. And when the AIDS pandemic was over and we had spent all of our time healing and nurturing, we were like, “Are we still relevant?” And then we got into the equal rights fight and like, “Well, we got marriage, are we still relevant?” So I think that we're gonna find that we will — in fact, I think we're gonna find that we’re even more relevant. Certainly we have been for the last three years. GALA choruses is the network and became its course of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, began the movement in 1978 and now we're on every continent. They're all over the world, and North America has over 190 gay men's choruses, in every city, in little cities, large and small. And we're on two Zoom calls every week to try and lift each other up and help with ideas and think, “How are we going to weather this.” And so, not only are we nurturing our chorus, but we're nurturing each other as the GALA choral movement. 

 

Clemons: Please use this opportunity to share any of your stories of how you've changed some of the lives of your members. 

Seelig: Thank you. Yes, I mean, I could obviously go on and on, and we don't have time for that. But when we have auditions, we ask every single auditioner, “why the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and why now?” And those answers are wide ranging, everything from the music, the community. Many people are looking for a place to gather, for family they've lost. They've come from out of town from a small town where they were abused and thrown out. And so they're seeking that community, and it's pretty equal. I will say that the people that just want to do music usually find that elsewhere. It's a combination. They can join the symphony chorus or the opera chorus, but what we have is a family and the people that join come for that reason. I would say the most dramatic changes come across the board because you walk in a room with people like you, doing this wonderful thing that you may have loved or never done before, and all of a sudden you're accepted. There's no shame, no bullying. There's no more bullying, all those things, and you're in a room with people doing something that really is going to change the world. We have a large, sober community in the chorus who are tired of bars or don't want to go there anymore and find family. We have people without family, so you know the role that I have filled for all these now 34 years that I’ve been conducting gay men's choruses is wide ranging from conductor, of course, and musician to daddy, leader, therapist, pastor for many and we are a big family. Some people say we’re a church. I don't accept that, but some people say it is. But I can say that every singer that joins the chorus is changed in some way. 

 

Clemons: Remind people where they can go to the new TV that you created. 

Tim Seelig: Great, so our website is SFGMC.org, San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. ... It's on the front page as SFGMC TV and it's a pretty amazing array of content.