Were you the one who conceived of this tour in the first place?
Tim Seelig: We were coming out of the 40th anniversary of the gay men’s chorus. San Fransisco Gay Men’s Chorus birthed the movement. It was the first chorus in 1978 to proclaim its sexual orientation. It was a small musical organization, and now it’s worldwide. On the 40th anniversary, we were going to go to China, because we looked around the globe and the only really major country that did not have a gay men’s chorus was China. The election happened, and we were spending a lot of money to go to China knowing that we would be shut down by the state media anyway, so the impact we would be making was limited. Literally the day after the election, our board chair called and said, “let’s postpone China: The South really needs our help.” Boy did we ever underestimate how much help it really needed! Just last week, the Supreme Court announced it will decide whether gay people can be fired for their sexual orientation on a National level. It’s insane. This message, that we thought might have a shelf life, that we hoped might have a shelf life, is apparently urgently important to deliver today.
I have seen it twenty times. I cry every time.
What percentage of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is from the South?
TS: I don’t know that exact figure, but I do know that I conducted the gay men’s chorus in Dallas Texas for twenty years before I got the job in San Fransisco. Even Dallas was this way– where young men who had come out in urban areas were happy, and then the people who grew up in rural towns all over the ten state area were looking for a place where they belonged. This is not unlike San Fransisco as you can well imagine. No offense to New York, but people do think of San Fransisco as the gay Mecca! I would say a good twenty five percent of them come from the South. I can start a good ol’ southern baptist hymn and they all join in. It’s frighting that they carry that brainwashing with them.
Did you have any fear going into this project?
TS: I didn’t have any fears because I grew up in the South. I know that Southern people, while there is a fringe, Southern people are nice. They don’t ordinarily gather their guns to shoot gay people. I was not frightened knowing we were going to larger cities. Our board of directors, however, was frightened. The people who had never been out of California were freaked out. We had a large police presence, the FBI was listening into ‘chatter,’ which I think is just the best marketing ever. Two weeks before we left on tour to Charlottesville, it made our board people crazy, so they just said, “this is what we are going into.” They doubled the budget for security. We had a police escort wherever we went. The afternoon we got to the First Baptist of Greenville, we were doing our warm up in the big sanctuary and they said, “uh… we’re going to change our plan. You’re not going to rehearse. We’re going to go to Fellowship Hall down the way and we’re going to get you some food. On your way out, make sure to pick up all your bags and all of your possessions and take them to the Fellowship Hall.” This was because of a bomb scare. We had no idea that they had been getting bomb threats at First Baptist. This is not surprising in Greenville South Carolina, that the fringe rednecks would not want the gays at the Baptist Church and boy, they didn’t.
At what point did David Charles Rodriguez come into this, and when did you you decide to make the experience into a feature documentary?
We had no idea. We planned the tour. When this got out, we decided to call it a “Red State tour.” Immediately, two days after the election, our PR firm put out a press release that the “Gay Men’s chorus goes on Red State tour.” It took off. The media hits were in the hundreds of thousands. If you remember the aftermath of the election, it was not a pretty time. People were looking for anything that was hopeful. So it really caught on. There was kick back, saying, “you can’t go on a Red State tour. There are 33 of them.” Some are actually pretty progressive. We changed the name to the Lavender Pen Tour. This name comes from the fact that our first performance was on the night Harvey Milk died. Before he died, Harvey Milk gave a Lavender Pen to Mayor George Mascone, who was also assassinated, to sign the country’s first equal rights bill for LGBT people. We took that as our baton for Harvey. People have told me, “that is just the weirdest name ever.” We like it and we don’t care what others think! Shortly after that, we had three different entities come to us and say we want to make a documentary. They said this is so cool, and would you allow us to go along with you. We were clueless. We interviewed all three of them. They were all wonderful and they had their hearts right out where we wanted them to be. The one that rose to the top was the pitch from Air BnB, which is a San Fransisco company. Their brand is “We Belong.” They wanted to support this. They had a media department doing commercials and short films, but they had never done a longer film, and we didn’t know any better. Air BnB went out and found David Charles and hired him to be the director and the crew. We didn’t know. We thought we were going to get a nice little tour video to show “What I did on Vacation last Summer.” They had three hundred hours of film, they hired an editor in Los Angeles and just said, “here is the three hundred hours. Call us when you’ve watched it all.” It all just unfolded. It was sad for us because they did not ask our opinion. We saw the final product. This was surprising because we did not know what any of the process was. On the airplane home from LA to San Fransisco, Chris and I wrote notes. We said this might be better. We sent them to David Charles and the lovely group, and they tore them up! We were stunned when we saw this. I have seen it twenty times. I cry every time. I just see this message. Everyone needs to see it. Not because of me or anything else, but because at this time in our country, the fact that people should not be together came together, shows us that it can be done. After Tribeca, Sheila found us and that was a happy day.