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    Priscilla Meets Dixie

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    Hopefully you are familiar with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ Lavender Pen Tour to the South in October, 2017. Steve Huffines, our board chair at the time, suggested it a few days after the disheartening election of 2016. The results had us immediately concerned for our own futures, but even more so for our brothers and sisters in the South, especially Mississippi and North Carolina, which at that point had the most egregious discriminatory anti-everything laws on the books. (Alabama recently joined that hall of shame.)

    So, off we went to the above three states, as well as to Tennessee and South Carolina. We made 25 appearances in eight days. Six buses, a number of vans, and security detail including a police escort in many of the cities. It was gargantuan, ginormous, momentous and life-changing (running out of superlatives)—for us.

    Harvey Milk Inspires Name

    We chose the name “The Lavender Pen Tour” to honor our gay patron saint Harvey Milk. In 1977, he presented Mayor Moscone a lavender pen to sign the nation’s strictest anti-discrimination bill that they made a reality in San Francisco. Early on, my choice for the name of the tour was “Priscila Meets Dixie.” I had the graphics ready: a big tour bus—full of the gays—with a huge stiletto on the top from which would fly a flowing in the wind confederate flag. My idea was vetoed.

    I am from what many in the Bay Area would consider the South, or South adjacent. Many in the Deep South do not include Texas in their family of states. It is considered its own country. In recent years, we Texans are not all that sad to be left out of their ignominious clan. Nonetheless, my upbringing, taste in food, and accent after too many margaritas, are all most definitely southern.

    The preparation was incredible. The singers raised the money for their trip. The organization raised the money for all of the things that make a huge tour like this work, including renting huge performance halls, marketing, outreach, etc. We did all of this so that we could leave the $100,000 we raised in the five states where we sang.

    Documenting the Tour

    OK, now on to the close-up. As soon as word got out that the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir were heading to the South, we had a number of people approach us wanting to document it. We listened to their vision for the project, and, of course, the specific story they wanted to tell. We decided on one. It was a real gift, because this particular production team had the backing of our incredible San Francisco-based company Airbnb. Their mission aligned with ours, and it was a match made in heaven from the start.

    The documentary team, led by director David Charles and executive producer Bud Johnston, jumped right in—long before the tour. In fact, we all took a “scouting tour” in August, visiting every Southern stop we would bring the Choruses to in October. It was inspiring. We met the groups who are doing Herculean work on the ground across the South. These folks are in the trenches—one of the lessons we learned. They have chosen to stay in very difficult places to fight the good fight. They are our heroes, and made us look differently at our own bubble and our efforts. Boy, does it take a village.

    Then, after less than one year of planning, we left on tour. Oh good Lort. The crew was everywhere filming everything, yes everything. They were up in our grill for eight days. Then, we came home … and they kept filming! Finally, almost a year ago, they hired one of the best editors anywhere, Jeff Gilbert. In January of 2018, they handed him approximately 300 hours of film and basically said, “Call us when you have watched it all!” He watched, and called back, blown away by what he experienced.

    The hard work began. By August, they were testing it with private screenings for people in L.A. who didn’t know anything about the chorus or the tour. They helped David hone in on some stories, asked for more of some, less of others. But, bottom line, they all loved it. They finished the film, and finally showed it to us. Some might say I am a controlling person (yes, I “hear” those unison eye rolls), but I’ll just say turning over the complete creative process to others is not my favorite thing to do. But it paid off this time, aided by the fact that I had no choice!

    An aside here. This was not my first rodeo with a team of people filming so close as to reveal my blocked pores and nose hairs! No siree bob. In the early 1990s, PBS filmed a documentary about my Dallas chorus, the Turtle Creek Chorale, titled After Goodbye: An AIDS Story. It was about music and grief and featured Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross. It won 12 major awards, and the national Emmy for best documentary in 1994. There was a follow up twenty years later titled The Power of Harmony. More stories, gay marriage, adoption. It won Best Documentary at the USA film festival. Both are amazing pieces of work, but nothing like Gay Chorus Deep South. The third time is definitely turning out to be charmed.

    Showings at Film Festivals, Including Frameline

    Thus, began the process of entering the film into film festivals, a process we had no knowledge of, and still don’t, really. But David, Bud and Airbnb do! The rest is history. It had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.  We took 80 singers who performed following the credits, and the next day at the Stonewall Inn! It won Audience Favorite Documentary award. A really big deal.

    It won Audience Favorite Documentary in Zurich a week later, with a 2-minute standing ovation by the normally stoic Swiss. To round out the trio, it won Audience Favorite in Edmonton, Canada. Three countries! Now it is on to a total of about 40 film festivals. I have the very difficult task of representing at the festival in Honolulu and Vancouver, B.C. (Am I hearing those eye rolls again?)

    “What now?” you ask. Well, we are incredibly honored to have Gay Chorus Deep South chosen as the closing night film for Frameline. We are so grateful and excited. As we did in NYC, members of the chorus will be singing a few songs at the end of the screening. Oops, that might have been a secret. Cat’s out. This is a huge deal that our hometown festival (and the largest LGBTQ film festival in the world) selected Gay Chorus Deep South for its closing night.

    “Where will it go from here?” you ask. We wish we knew. I can just quote director David, as he tells every audience at the Q&A following the screening: “We just want as many people as possible to see this film of love and passion and common ground.” Of course, we are nervous to be showing it to our hometown crowd. We hope you like us. Really like us.

    Thank you, San Francisco, for supporting the chorus for 41 years—through thick and thin and dark, dark times. You have stood behind us and loved us. We hope we make you proud with Gay Chorus Deep South.

    One final note: please come see Queens on June 21 and 22. It is our homage, at this 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, to all of the drag queens, transvestites, trans community, lesbians and Sisters who have changed history and continue to make life better for all of us.

    Hope to see you at Frameline and Queens.

    I still like “Priscilla Meets Dixie.” Maybe a sequel of bloopers and outtakes?

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