San Francisco’s Gay Men’s Chorus has led charge for equal rights
The Eccles Center will be filled with an array of vocal music when 75 of the 300-membered San Francsico Gay Men’s Chorus performs on Saturday.
The concert will showcase the group’s four breakout ensembles, according to Artistic Director Tim Seelig.
"The oldest of which was formed in the first year the chorus was formed in 1978," Seelig told The Park Record. "It’s called the Lollipop Guild."
The second, called the Vocal Minority, was formed 10 years ago, and they’re akin to the King’s Singers or Chanticleers, according to Seelig.
"The third ensemble started four years ago, and it’s called Swag," he said. "They focus on gospel and rhythm and blues. The majority of the members are people of color and their mission is to reach out to diverse and minority communities — African American, Asian and Hispanic."
The last ensemble is also the newest.
"It’s an a cappella chorus called the Homophonics," Seelig said. "They are kids, millennials, who sang in college.
"The fun part of the Homophonics is that whenever someone would type the name in, the spell check would change it to Homophobic," he laughed. "At first they thought it wouldn’t be a good name, but then they thought it would be a good name because they’d have to correct people."
Each group will perform a "smattering" of their own styles throughout the show, which will also include big numbers by the whole group, Seelig said.
"Of course we do Broadway show tunes, because we’re gay," he deadpanned. "And then we will also do three themed sets."
The themes will be Elton John, Valentine’s and the holidays.
"We decided to do a short, five-song holiday set, because we just did 12 holiday concerts for a total of 11,000 people," Seelig said. "So, those numbers just fall out of our mouths."
Seelig, who has been with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus for the past five years, said he is looking forward to coming to Utah, because it is important for the singers to carry the torch regarding equal rights and social justice.
"We do go to certain areas of the country on purpose," he said. "Three years ago we traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, and sang the first concert on the campus where murdered student Matthew Shepherd, who was gay, went to school.
"We want to hold up this banner and, hopefully, be a light, for people to see," Seelig said. "Hopefully we’ll have some folks coming up from Salt Lake City."
Seelig’s own journey to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus started as a Southern Baptist music minister.
"I was doing that when I came out and was immediately thrown under the proverbial bus, which backed up and went forward and backed up and went forward again and again," he said.
He has led both lesbian and gay choirs throughout his career and applied to the present spot in 2010.
"This is the big daddy of LGBT choruses," he said. "It was the first chorus to self-identify its sexual orientation in its name and now we have LGBT choruses on every continent. We have 180 in North America alone."
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was founded in 1978.
"In the 1970s, the burgeoning gay movement took form and one of those forms was gay pride parades," Seelig said. "They weren’t huge, but in San Francisco, the first gay band, the Lesbian Gay Freedom Band, started, and the conductor thought there should also be a choir and put up fliers in the Castro District and asked people to show up."
More than 100 men showed up for the first rehearsal.
"They sat around in the room in a Methodist Church and came up with lots of ridiculous names, one of which was Men About Town," Seelig said. "Thank goodness they didn’t choose that."
Instead, the founders decided to take a risk.
"In a day when being openly gay was not accepted, they decided to call themselves the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and stepped out with courage," Seelig said.
The day of the group’s fourth rehearsal, former city supervisor Dan White shot and assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk , who were both openly gay.
"The chorus went to the candlelight vigil and someone asked them to sing," Seelig said. "They stood up and sang a Mendelssohn piece, ‘O Lord Our Refuge,’ because that was the only song it knew."
Folk singer and activist Holly Near also attended the vigil.
"She had written a song called ‘Singing for Our Lives,’ on the way to the vigil and she taught it to the guys, who then sang it with the entire crowd," Seelig said.
Since then, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has evolved, along with the gay community.
"In the early 1980s, AIDS hit and the next decade-plus was spent taking care of each other," Seelig said. "We mourned and healed together, and it was a long, dark time."
During that decade, the LGBT choruses matured.
"Out of that, we came to this realization that our voices do have power and our music resonates deeply with our audiences," Seelig said. "So, we began to lead the charge of social justice and equal rights."
Today the chorus as well as the other LGBT groups, continue their missions.
"It’s an awesome time for LGBT community and we are as relevant today as we ever were," Seelig said. "As long as there are young people being thrown out of their homes, and as long as there are young people being thrown out of their religion and as long as there are young people committing suicide, we are relevant.
"We provide a lifeline, more now, than in the past, by people who are encouraged because they have seen us on YouTube or in concert," he said. "We work hard at our mission and our music."
Park City Institute will present San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus on Saturday, Feb. 13, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $75 and they are available by calling the box office, 435-655-3114 or visiting EcclesCenter.org.
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