Gay Chorus Deep South

Human Rights Watch Film Festival: Gay Chorus Deep South Review

A century of progress is under threat in an increasingly tense America following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, with thirty states still allowing for their LGBT citizens to remain vulnerable thanks to their refusal to pass anti-discrimination laws. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, under the leadership of artistic director Tim Seelig, decides that complaining from their comfortable liberal bubble isn’t enough, and take a show on their road that they hope will increase the visibility of the community in places that don’t get much of it otherwise. The “Lavender Pen” tour impressively covers five states in seven days, the locations chosen for their being the five places that the organization has decided are the ones with the strongest issues with discrimination; before the tour begins, the chorus is joined by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, which helps them get into venues that may have rejected them otherwise.

The journey will be a personal one for many of the choir’s members and leaders who come from the south and left it with bitter personal memories behind them. Seelig himself hails from Houston, Texas, his father was a minister and his mother worked with Billy Graham; he lived an entire life as a married man with children before coming out saw it all go away, alienating him from his family as the church did its best to destroy him on the way out. The group’s chairperson Steve Huffines is from Birmingham and remembers the open racism of his childhood that he feels has returned, and recalls his own experience being made fun of by his own school principal for being different. Chorus member Jimmy White worked as a social worker in New Orleans before he felt forced to quit his job because of discrimination against him as a gay man. These emotionally-fuelled narratives give a great deal of weight to a film that threatens to feel like a promotional tour documentary (it’s produced by MTV films) but accomplishes more thanks to the work that director David Charles Rodrigues does in keeping in close contact with his protagonists.

It also, of course, covers performances by the choir and the effect their selections have on crowds, including reverent pieces as well as some light-hearted fun when Phillip Whiteley sings “She’s Got You” and treats southern Baptists to the sight of a drag show. The places they go to range from large venues in urban centres to small churches in more rural places, the audiences range from the already converted to the skeptical; members of the choir have family come to see them perform whom they haven’t seen in years. The confrontations between people from opposite sides of the aisle is sometimes unpleasant, like the cranks leaving threatening voice mails on the SFGMC’s phone line or the senior minister of an Alabama church who turns them away, or the protests that accompany the choir attending the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (where Martin Luther King made his most famous speech). Others are surprising, estranged family members are happy to see their relatives, like White’s, whose father and delightful stepmother come from Jackson to see the show, and church leaders put their belief in hospitality above all other concerns. “Using art to promote unity and peace matters more than politics,” we are told, while seeing the south in a different light is also an opportunity for members of the choir to open their own perspectives.

Josh Burford, Queer South historian, points out the negative view of the south as a myth to overlay people’s fears. What effect this tour has on the places they visit is impossible to determine, organized religion is inextricably linked with politics in the south, but Rodrigues wisely doesn’t concern himself in this matter, focusing instead on the effort and intention. The most uncomfortable moments (like a church protestor who balks at the idea that gay rights can be compared to the civil rights struggle) are moved on from perhaps too quickly, as if Rodridgues is afraid of endangering the film’s status as a feel-good film; it also may have been more satisfying to see more musical performances, they feel few and far between, but for the most part it’s a pleasant watch that covers a large number of personalities without feeling like it is spreading itself too thin.