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    A Peek Behind the Gay Curtain

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    It was November, 2010. I had just accepted the offer from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus to become the Artistic Director in January, 2011. I was doing all of the things you do when you accept a job in San Francisco and have to move from Dallas, Texas. I needed to find new housing, surprisingly one fourth the size of the one I was leaving in Big D. It was a lot.

    I got a phone call from a music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. The gay men’s chorus I conducted in Dallas for 20 years had a reputation for being one of the LGBTQ choral groups that did a large amount of “classical” music. They had a pretty spectacular reputation among musicians. I felt good about the interview.

    “Dr. Seelig, I have enjoyed your recordings and am so thrilled you are moving here. Please tell me you won’t be dipping into the stereotypical flamboyant theatrics and sappy sentimentality of most gay choruses.”

    My answer. “No sir, I won’t be dipping in the shallow end with a just a toe, I’ll be jumping in the deep end—fully immersing the singers and audience in all of it. That’s what you can expect during my tenure.”

    He just couldn’t let it go. “I thought you would be different. Why is that your plan?”

    “Here is why,” I said. “Many, if not most, gay men were told the following while growing up, in the hopes they could pass and not embarrass the family: Don’t be flamboyant. Don’t be too sentimental. ‘Boys Don’t Cry!’ I believe being free to be exactly who you are—when you get to the stage—is completely liberating.”

    That is what we have done. This last concert alone, we sang Handel, Spice Girls and “Every Sperm is Sacred.” Woo hoo!

    Selecting repertoire and content for SFGMC is not an easy task. No one wants to just sing show tunes. OK, a few. But one of the most important things we do, when up to 300 singers gather, is to sing about everything possible, including music based on very difficult topics that the singers themselves are still going through. We’ve moved on from just singing “I’m Coming Out.”

    We do this quite naturally, because it is in our mission. It is often not easy for the singers or the audience. But it is necessary. 

    Recently, a conductor colleague from another gay men’s chorus across the country reached out to ask how we have handled difficult repertoire—music that just feels too close for comfort and is emotionally too close to reality. His singers were dropping out.

    I wrote the following letter:

    Dear one,

    I have been in your shoes often over the decades. There have been many times when we have performed music that has touched the deepest part of singers and audience alike.

    There have been times when singers have felt that, as a moth to a flame, we were in danger of getting too close and would be singed or even burned up. Some singers join with the “Girls just wanna have fun” mentality. They soon find out that what we do is so much more important than that. Some are simply not interested in sharing in the wide gamut of emotions and the vulnerability it requires. Dropping out because one topic or the other is too close, too difficult emotionally, is the exact reason to stay! Leaving only serves to deny yourself of the opportunity to heal. The chorus will be fine. It is you who suffers the most when you leave.

    While this is an individual decision, allow me to give you some of my recent experiences.

    The first was in the world premiere of “Testimony,” composed for us by the incredible Stephen Schwartz based on letters sent to Dan Savage for the It Gets Better Project. The piece is about suicide. It is incredibly difficult and dark. Every rehearsal was filled with tears.

    This was followed by another world premiere based on the story of Tyler Clementi, who jumped from the George Washington Bridge at 19 because of cyber-bullying by his roommate in his freshman year as a music major at Rutgers. The entire process, from creation to performance—introduced by his mother and brother—was gut wrenching. Many of our singers have at one point considered suicide at some level.

    For “Tyler’s Suite,” walking this path, singing these words and notes, became intensely personal and difficult. We brought in a specialist in depression and suicide to speak to the chorus. They had a choice: either sit out the concert and allow those deep wounds to stay unhealed, or continue to sing those songs surrounded by their brothers, and allow the music and the experience to reach deep within and help them begin to heal in a way no other experience could. I can absolutely guarantee that not one person who decided to stick with us was sorry for their decision in any way. Every single one of them grew and healed. Music is therapy, as we know.

    I know from my own experience, conducting a Requiem for SFGMC’s 40th Anniversary concert only 9 days after my daughter Corianna died, that digging in the midst of unspeakable pain … singing words that were far too close and painful and raw (“waiting for the calls that never came”) made my process better. While not easier, it was deeply meaningful. I was so close to the flame. The singers and the audience felt my pain, and rather than taking away from the experience, the closeness deepened it for all of us. I could have stepped aside because it was too painful for me. I didn’t do that. I am so grateful I did not.

    Two years ago, we performed the world premiere of James Eakin’s “Paradise Found.” It was a huge piece that was an allegory for addiction as the character in the piece attempted beyond hope to rise out of the despair and hopelessness (“a hell of my own making”). Again, many in our membership were deeply affected by addiction. The same thing happened. Rather than push them away, it became a lifeline for them, and encouragement, a touch point. None would have looked back and wished they had not performed. Many sponsors of the guys in the chorus encouraged every one of them to stay in, to not allow their fear of what might happen make them run and miss the opportunity to overcome!

    To isolate this experience to just the above topics is to gloss over reality. As I said, when we come to a gay chorus, we all bring different baggage. For some, singing “Amazing Grace” is too difficult because of the pain of reliving what organized religions has done to them/us. I am in that group, as you know. I have had more singers drop out because the religious content was too close and too hard for them, than ever dropped out for the other reasons stated. For some, they can’t sing about a Father at Christmas because of a damaged relationship.

    There is absolutely some truth in the fact that we, as a people, wear our feelings right out in the open.

    When all is said and done, we are called to sing about our experience—all of it. It’s why I have always believed we should show every aspect of our fabulous and complex gay life: flamboyant, sensitive and sometimes a little dysfunctional—we should bring all of this to the stage! We are also called to sing about our difficulties in every respect. We are called to this because it is real and because we strive, above all, to be authentic where once we were not. Mostly, we are called to this because we will refuse to be afraid to be ourselves. We will not be told who we can and can’t be, in any way.

    If my deepest hurt can help someone in the audience, my hurt becomes diminished because some of it left me and crossed over to lift someone up.

    That is the greatest gift of all. It’s a miracle, really.

    Tell your singers that the flame will not consume the moth—because there are loving arms surrounding you—and some you cannot see. They are there, ready to comfort and help you fly to safety should that be necessary. The fire will refine. With each “getting close,” you learn. Go ahead and get close. Feel the refining warmth. Say “thank you” and fly with your brothers to safety, knowing that you will soon return to the warmth of the fire. 

    Be brave. Be bold. March into the frickin’ fire and SING!

    That was my letter. That’s what you will experience every time you come hear the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Get ready. It’s going to be a fabulous ride, touching every single part of your being—with music. We call it TLC. Yes, Tender Loving Care. But more than that, Tear. Laugh, Chill Bump. Bring both a Kleenex for your tears and a belly for your laughter. You’ll definitely get a chill bump or two.

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