Never underestimate the power of music to bring people together, even when the parties in question are deeply conservative Southern Christians and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. In response to a rise in fresh anti-LGBT bigotry, the out-and-proud California choir planned a series of concerts across five of the states with the harshest laws against homosexuals. Neither the tour nor the Airbnb-backed, “Love thy neighbor”-themed “Gay Chorus Deep South” doc that follows them can fully reverse the discrimination and divisiveness being stirred up in politics today, but both are powerful tools in bridging the prejudice gap.
Rather than simply preaching to you-know-who, director David Charles Rodrigues — an equal-rights advocate who draws from his own “other” status as a (straight-identifying) Brazilian American — succeeds in humanizing the individuals on both sides. If anything, the big surprise of the film is how its progressive-minded main characters, the 300 or so San Francisco singers who’ve struggled most of their lives to make peace with their identities, do most of the growing here.
Turns out, the SFGMC went in with the somewhat patronizing goal of enlightening Southerners via its Lavender Pen Tour (named after the pen, a gift from Harvey Milk, with which San Francisco mayor George Moscone signed a gay rights bill into law four decades earlier). But as a visit to an alt-right talk radio program in Tennessee shows, not everyone’s against them. Or, as one of its members admits late in the film, “I was doing to the people of rural America who voted for Trump what I would be furious if they did to me.”
Can you blame them? Many still bear the emotional scars of being rejected by parents or family in that part of the country years before: Chorus director (and recovering Texan) Tim Seelig recalls how, after coming out in Houston years earlier, he was fired from his church job and all but run out of town. Raised in Mississippi, Jimmy White hasn’t talked to his father in more than half a dozen years, but hopes to reconnect when the tour passes his way — and is completely unprepared for how much his home state has changed, or the warmth with which the group greeted.
Yes, there are picketers — almost pathetically few in number, one of whom openly acknowledges suppressing her own same-sex attractions — and several parishes that refuse to host concerts. But Rodrigues doesn’t dwell on the negative, focusing instead on the powerful moments in which the chorus finds a welcome reception, or unexpected support, as when Terrance Kelly of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir reaches out to suggest the two groups join forces on the road. Things don’t go quite as expected in Selma, Ala., and yet, the chorus sends a message all the same, singing “We Shall Overcome” while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, made famous by Martin Luther King Jr. more than half a century earlier.
Slick and a little simplistic at times, “Gay Chorus Deep South” models itself on the shape and structure of reality-TV competition shows, neatly setting up and paying off certain emotional situations along the way. In editing, the filmmakers try to squeeze as many faces as possible into quick-cut montages (strategically sprinkled with shots of photogenic younger members), while breaking out those with relevant backstories to receive more detailed spotlights, like Team USA stars being profiled during the Olympics.
It’s not as easy to capture the impact the tour is having on locals, though the crew sets up interview booths after some concerts, featuring on-message testimony from audience members, including several young lesbians struggling with acceptance today. Nearly everyone defaults to the same basic soundbite about how it shouldn’t matter whom you love, while sidestepping practically any mention of actual sexuality — which is where so much of the moral resistance seems to lie among America’s religious-minded voters.
While the SFGMC is presented almost as chaste, one can only imagine the stories they must have from this trip — though the film was backed by Airbnb, not by Grindr, so instead we get a scene of two members sitting down to dinner with a cheery Christian host family. In this exchange, which reflects the spirit of hospitality that Airbnb embodies, we see two groups that might never break bread together otherwise actually exchanging stories and learning about one another. One of the men in this scene, Ashlé, has sung with the chorus for years but recently came out as a trans woman — and because many of the laws the group is challenging limit trans rights and bathroom access, her visibility is an important component.
But it’s the music that does most of the work here, transcending talking points as it brings people out to see the SFGMC (and Oakland Interfaith Choir) in action. There’s less of it than you might expect in the documentary, though the chorus performed at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will surely support this audience award winner in its release. During these scenes, the doc alternates between what’s onstage and shots of the audience, where one can practically imagine minds being changed and, in some cases, elderly concertgoers witnessing what their lives might have been (if we can know anything about faces glimpsed for just a few seconds).
Such gay-by-association assumptions no doubt explain why several allies feel the need to declare their heterosexuality on camera, and illustrate how deep the homophobia often runs in the South. And yet, with its optimistic, group-hug mentality, “Gay Chorus Deep South” conveys how much things have changed since many oppressed ex-Southerners fled for havens such as San Francisco. There’s a lesson here that applies to more than just LGBT political causes: To heal the country and move on, we must reach across the divide and listen to one another. And what better way to do that than with a concert?