Friday, September 18, 2020
Arts + Culture For San Francisco, the Gay Men's Chorus brings the...

For San Francisco, the Gay Men’s Chorus brings the ‘Holigays’ home

"We first performed the Christmas Eve shows in 1991 when the AIDS pandemic was at its worst." Now, the annual shows are a mainstay.

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The holidays can be particularly challenging for members of the LGBTQ community — especially those who’ve lost loved ones to AIDS or who’ve felt disenfranchised from friends and family after coming out.

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) makes every effort to combat any potential feelings of isolation by bringing the greater community together at its signature shows, blending heart and humor.

Founded in 1978, when the gay community was at one of its loneliest points, following the assassination of gay supervisor Harvey Milk, the Chorus soothed wounded souls with song during its first official performance on the steps of City Hall.

The pioneering choral group continues in this mission with each and every performance in addition to lifting spirits during more celebratory moments. The Chorus, itself, has plenty of reasons to whoop it up as it closes out the year with Holigays Are Here (Tue/24 at the Castro Theatre, 5pm, 7pm, and 9pm).

SFGMC’S 30th-annual romp through festive favorites — from Liza Minnelli’s “Ring Them Bells” to a new arrangement of “Silent Night” — comes on the heels of two big wins for the Chorus this year. Not only did it acquire its first permanent home base for rehearsals and offices (what’s set to become the first-ever National LGBTQ Center for the Arts) in high-rent San Francisco, it also made a splash with its groundbreaking documentary feature Gay Chorus Deep South about its historic 2017 Lavender Pen tour through the Bible Belt.

I spoke to Artistic Director Dr. Timothy Seelig and longtime choreographer Steve Valdez about the Christmas show, the now widely acclaimed documentary, and how the LGBTQ community can feel engaged and included over the holiday season.

Photo by JP Lor

48 HILLS What’s the significance of SFGMC’s holiday show for the SFGMC community and the greater LGBTQ community?

TIM SEELIG In the chorus’s third year, the first 41 homosexuals were diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. San Francisco was an epicenter of the disease. Rather than some church or school holiday concert, it became a gathering place — a home for so many. That alone set it apart in its purpose.

STEVE VALDEZ The importance of the SFGMC holiday show, the performances at the Castro Theatre on Christmas Eve, is tied to the plight of AIDS in our community. We first performed the Christmas Eve shows in 1991 when the AIDS pandemic was at its worst. The chorus, itself, has lost over 300 members since its inception.

In 1991, many people were sick and alienated from their families with no place to go for Christmas. The Christmas Eve shows became “Christmas” for many in the LGBTQ+ community and it remains so now. Of course, now it has extended its reach and draws diverse audiences of all ages.

The goal of every SFGMC holiday show is to provide thrilling music, laughter, some emotional chills, and some “Oh no they didn’t!” moments. We put a gay twist on the traditional and make it fabulous.

48 HILLS How do you keep the show fresh after all these years?

TIM SEELIG There are two ways we go about this. We listen and research new holiday music. And, if we don’t find what we want, we commission it to be composed or arranged. We are very lucky, indeed. Every year has a different theme or guest, which we build the program around.

48 HILLS How do these shows fulfill the SFGMC’s mission to bring communities together, embrace our similarities and differences, and build lasting memories?

TIM SEELIG The holiday show is truly the one experience that guarantees bringing everyone together. It is the one concert during the year that people seek out to attend. And the singers love to invite their friends, fans, and families as well. Some even invite those folks as a way to come out to them. The shows are produced within an inch of their lives with costumes, props, full-chorus choreography, and some wild and crazy antics, all nestled in the warm cocoa of the familiar. It has become the SF destination.

STEVE VALDEZ Music is the universal equalizer. We try to incorporate various styles of music in our holiday programs. I think we manage to find the common threads that resonate with everyone through our music. And, at the end of the day, our holiday shows are highly entertaining and touch on emotions and messages that are the same for everyone.

48 HILLS Why is spending Christmas Eve with the SFGMC an exciting proposition?

TIM SEELIG Many of us grew up in church. What do you do on Christmas Eve? Go to church. When you come out, you don’t do that so much anymore. And many LGBTQ folks still don’t go home. It leaves a blank spot on the calendar of your life. Voila. Filled by SFGMC. Filled to the brim.

STEVE VALDEZ There is no better way to bring in Christmas than spending some time with SFGMC at the Castro Theatre on Christmas Eve. The shows are 90 minutes long with no intermission, the theatre is packed, and the spirit of Christmas is everywhere. The hustle and bustle leading up to Christmas is stressful for most, so attending one of these shows is completely relaxing and ushers in the feeling of Christmas. SFGMC in the Castro Theatre is truly a San Francisco experience. The setting is magical. It’s one of those experiences that makes you proud to live in San Francisco.

48 HILLS What keeps the group engaging for you?

TIM SEELIG After 32 years of conducting LGBTQ choruses across the country, there is nothing I would rather do. It is my life. I love everything about it — the music and the mission and even the occasional drama that might crop up from time to time among 300.

STEVE VALDEZ I have been a singing member of SFGMC for 25 years and am also the choreographer. SFGMC is family to me. I am inspired by our work, in love with our product, and proud to be a part of the SFGMC legacy. I also love that we are constantly evolving through our membership and many of the programs that have been born, such as RHYTHM (Reaching Youth Through Music).

48 HILLS How did the Lavender Pen tour transform you and the people you encountered?

TIM SEELIG The tour changed everyone who went on it. We got to see how our music touches people and encourages them. Of course, we get that in San Francisco, but nothing like the tour with brand new people who absolutely embraced us.

STEVE VALDEZ On paper the tour seemed to be good outreach and a chance to bring our message of positivity to communities in the oppressed South. Of course, it turned out to be so much more when you put names and faces to the tour.

From sitting in the First Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama and connecting the dots of the Civil Rights Movement to our own LGBTQ struggles to meeting so many influential activists in the different cities we visited, it was truly monumental.

Fortunately, you can experience the SFGMC Lavender Pen Tour by watching the award-winning documentary that was filmed on the tour, Gay Chorus, Deep South.

48 HILLS What updates can you give me about Gay Chorus Deep South? I read that it was acquired by MTV Films and now there’s even Oscar buzz?

TIM SEELIG The film is amazing. It has now won 30-plus awards at 102 festivals. It’s a rough year with 156 documentaries entered. We are just happy to be associated with this film.

48 HILLS What’s next for the SFGMC? Any updates about the new center?

TIM SEELIG We’ll be launching programming for the Center in January and cannot wait. No spoilers, though.

48 HILLS What are some ways that LGBTQ+ people can feel engaged during the holidays (outside of coming to these performances) if we don’t have strong family support systems?

TIM SEELIG I have always thought the best way to stop navel-gazing is to give back. Do something for someone else. I would look up the incredible Glide Memorial Church and volunteer this December!

STEVE VALDEZ I am very fortunate to have strong family support with my SFGMC family and my own family of choice. I am not an expert in this area, but I think the key is being around people and finding something that motivates you. The SF LGBT Center is probably a great place to start.

HOLIGAYS ARE HERE
Tue/24, 5pm, 7pm, & 9pm, $35-$45
Castro Theatre, SF
More info here.

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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