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    AIDS and Me in Three Acts

    Photo By Christopher Turner

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    Act 1: 1980s Discovery

    Act 2: 1990s Devastation

    Act 3: 2010s Dedication

    Prologue

    In a few weeks, a couple of events will bring my relationship with AIDS full circle. For me, the journey began one sweltering August evening in 1987 in Dallas, Texas. For each of you, it unquestionably began in a different time and place and under different circumstances. As my own story unfolds, I hope that you will take the time to remember your own. You’ll have to wait a bit on the full circle unveiling. When I came out at the age of 35, I knew absolutely nothing about the gays or the “lifestyle choice” I had joined my church in decrying. Nothing. Had I not come out, there would be no story to tell. As hard as it has been, I am so grateful for every twist, turn and lesson.

    Act 1: Discovery

    Back to that scorching evening. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I walked into my first rehearsal as conductor of the Turtle Creek Chorale, Dallas’ gay men’s chorus. Nine months before, I was married and working for the Baptists. Three months before, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a gay chorus. But there I was, called upon to get up to speed really quickly. The chorus was in dire financial straits, dysfunctional and co-dependent. We were a perfect match.

    After a short introduction of the new conductor, I took the podium. As I raised my arms to conduct, I looked down to see a beautiful young man in the front row covered in sores. I could not imagine what was wrong with him and why he would come to rehearsal like that. That wouldn’t have happened in the choir at the Baptist church. At break, I asked John, one of the singers I had met, about it. He gave me a pitying southern “bless your heart” look and explained. Jeff had full-blown AIDS. Singing with his brothers each week was literally keeping him alive. It was the music and the family. It was certainly not any medical protocol available in 1987.

    My life changed that night. I witnessed the power of this “singing together” thing we do. Oh, I had preached it before, but now, there it was right in front of me. Jeff was the proof. It turns out that John was the Executive Director of the AIDS Resource Center. He said, “You really need help!” I agreed. We became best friends. We had lunch almost every week for the next nine years—before he died with me holding his hand. But I get ahead of myself.

    The choir began to grow. Many came for that healing power of music and community. In 1991, the chorus commissioned the world’s first AIDS Requiem: When We No Longer Touch. That’s a hint at the full circle coming shortly. It was a powerful mix of Latin mass text set against the stages of grief. PBS approached us about doing a documentary about our path. Many pushed back fearing TCC would be become known as “the AIDS choir.” In the end, we agreed and the filming began. The resulting documentary was titled After Goodbye: An AIDS Story. It won 12 major awards culminating with the national Emmy for best documentary in 1994. It has been viewed by millions and truly made a difference.

    As with many of you, our days back then were filled with little other than dealing with this dreadful disease. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was hit especially hard. Choruses across the country were called on to sing memorial service after memorial service—for members, their partners and friends. Every rehearsal included announcements about who had died, who had entered hospice, who needed care at home that week or a visit in the hospital. And then we sang some more. We were in every stage of grief—all at once.

    When I began conducting in Dallas, we had lost 11 singers. When I left, the number was around 175. In San Francisco, the number is 300. The chorus sang, raised money, raised awareness and fought the fight every day. And I led them. In 1996, I was selected to carry the Olympic torch as a warrior in the fight against AIDS. I carried it on behalf of the chorus—and all choruses—and those we had lost. Of course, it was John who nominated me! I was as entrenched in the epidemic as one could be. I have not run since.

    Act 2: Devastation

    Shortly after my brief running career ended, I went for my routine physical. I was expecting the: “Your cholesterol is high. If you don’t drop some pounds, you’ll need to start taking a pill!” My doctor sat down in the examination room, but did not have cholesterol on his mind. This is the conversation as I remember it (most definitely not the one that actually happened.)

    Doctor: Tim, you have been an AIDS activist for years. You’ve buried countless dear friends. Have you ever stopped to ponder how you would react if you yourself were HIV positive?

    Tim: Well, of course I have.

    Doctor: That’s good. Because you are.

    That’s obviously how I remember receiving the news; not how it really happened. I have no idea what he said. It wouldn’t have mattered. The earth fell away. My T-cells were around the number of singers in my chorus. I began medication immediately.

    The next dreaded steps were those taken by millions—how to share the news. The hardest thing was telling my daughter. It was a bright sunny morning. It was a Starbucks. Corianna was a nurse. She knew way too much about AIDS. She had walked with me through the massive losses. When I told her, in a very uncharacteristic emotional outburst, she literally wailed, through tears, “No!” I held her. I had failed her—once again. My coming out—when she was nine and her brother seven—was apparently not enough devastating news to take about Dad and their broken lives. Nope, there was more.

    I, too, was devastated. The shame I felt was indescribable. I knew better than to allow this to happen. I knew how to save myself from the plague. I had told countless others. I was a role model, after all. I had failed myself, my family and my friends.

    I did what I had done several times in my life. I picked myself up, dusted myself off and started waving my arms at people! Before that, I was fighting for “them.” Now, I was fighting and singing and waving for “us.” It was yet another huge paradigm shift for Tim.

    Act 3: Dedication

    Fast forward to 2011. I arrived to begin my job waving at men in San Francisco. One of my first stops was the National AIDS Memorial Grove. I was completely overwhelmed with its beauty and serenity. Here was a place for me! I looked for where the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ name was listed. It was nowhere to be found. There is no shame in that whatsoever. It had been discussed many times, but simply had not come to fruition.

    From that point, I was like a dog with a bone. I started thinking of having the Chorus’ name engraved in the Circle of Friends. While amazing, it just didn’t seem right. I moved to an engraved boulder. Nope. Then to a bench. Getting warmer. All of this time, we were working with the amazing folks at NAMG to make sure that when the chorus entered the Grove, it would be just right.

    On October 27, on our 40th birthday weekend, we will finally break ground for the memorial to the 300 singers the Chorus lost. But more than that, it is to all artists everywhere. We are building a beautiful Artists Portal for all. And, for the first time in Grove history, the memorial will include an 8-foot emperor chime. The tradition of striking a gong or a bell in meditation and memory has been a part of rituals across the globe and for centuries. “Ring the chime. Speak a name.” You can find out much more about the memorial at our web site. You can help us complete our dream (https://www.sfgmc.org/namg). If you knew a singer or dancer or artist, consider adding their name to the Artists Portal.

    So, here we are. Full circle. I learned of this horrible plague up close and personal from Jeff, sitting 20 feet in front of me, literally singing for his life. I learned about this plague from my sweet friend, John. I learned about the stigma first hand when I came out as HIV+.

    I am still learning what a community can do to make a difference in our world. In a few weeks, we will dedicate the most beautiful “circle.” While the memorial sits on a full circle, the bench is a broken circle to symbolize the fact that our hearts and our lives will never really be whole again. I could not imagine a more amazing finish to Act 3 than to help facilitate a permanent memorial that will be there long after I am gone!

    There is one more full circle moment. The night before the groundbreaking, the chorus is going to perform When We No Longer Touch at St. Ignatius Catholic Church. This is the very church the Chorus was banned from, resulting in the Chorus suing the Diocese—and winning. It is 27 years after the world premiere of the Requiem. Of course, we will sing at the groundbreaking, too. I have a feeling it will be the most beautiful music ever heard, except for the fact that weeping does horrible things to your voice. It won’t matter. We’ll be surround by angels who will fill in as needed.

    Epilogue

    At every turn of the three acts described above, there were amazing people there to help pick me up, hold me and encourage me to keep going. I would not be here without them. Without them, the play would have had a very different ending. In a few weeks, we will memorialize heroes from all over the world and honor organizations in the same way. Those of us who survived must redouble our efforts to tell our story. I will continue to tell mine. Will you do the same? What a way to celebrate a 40th birthday!

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.