Diva, Cheerleader, Big Ol' Gay :: Tim Seelig on His New Memoir

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday July 24, 2020

Dr. Timothy Seelig's name is a prominent one in LGBTQ chorus circles; he is the author of several books on choral technique and serves as the Conductor and Artistic Director for the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. His recordings have reached the Top Ten charts on Billboard and iTunes.

Dr. Seelig is also known for his involvement with several documentaries, most recently the LGBTQ film festival favorite "Gay Chorus Deep South," which chronicles the SFGMC's "Lavender Pen Tour," a series of concerts undertaken across the American South in the wake of the divisive 2016 elections.

A native of the South himself, Seelig became a natural anchor point for that documentary, which touched upon his deep estrangement from the Southern Baptist church. That estrangement - and Dr. Seelig's own dramatic life story - is revealed in Seelig's new memoir, "Tale of Two Tims: Big Ol' Baptist, Big Ol' Gay."

This is more than a coming out or coming of age story; it's a reflection on a life lived in two majors acts - in the style of an opera, Seelig suggests - and recounted with Seelig's own sincere, intimate manner. From his youthful days as a natural performer to his dawning realization that he was a gay man living in a toxic anti-gay culture, and to the betrayals at the hands of his trusted church and a trio of "Christian counselors" whose treatment of Seelig ranged from cynical to sadistic - not to mention the sadism of leaders from within the faith's hierarchy - "Act One" of the memoir recalls Seelig's first 35 years, decades of conflict and unease and a marriage forged not from passion or love, but to conform.

Then there's "Act Two," which celebrates the freeing of a spirit suddenly released into authenticity and reborn from the ashes of an outwardly ideal life destroyed in large part by external forces of hatred and hypocrisy. Seelig's story is rife with pain and discovery - but buoyed throughout with humor, grace, and (one of his favorite words) empathy. His journey has been a harrowing one in places, but Dr. Seelig has emerged a stronger, more complete man, and a leader whose voice calls us as much to joy and compassion as to pride and principled resistance.

EDGE had the great pleasure of catching up once more with Dr. Timothy Seelig.


EDGE: How are you doing as the COVID crisis grinds on?

Tim Seelig: It is really bad. Everybody is exhausted and it just keeps going. We're the award-winning COVID country, thanks to all the help we've gotten from 45.

EDGE: "We're #1!"

Tim Seelig: We are #1! That's probably the only thing he can brag about in his administration about being number one. It's just so bad, because there's no direction; the waffling back and forth ... you know, other countries were decisive, and as bad as it is we're just now getting in the thick of it. It's crazy.

The effect it has on everyone's mental health is staggering. It's like nothing we've ever faced before. I lived through the AIDS pandemic and... there are similarities, but this is crazy.

EDGE: What's it like for the chorus?

Tim Seelig:: The choral art is a disaster for now.

EDGE: But hasn't the San Francisco Gay Men's chorus actually gotten together and done some stuff on Zoom?

Tim Seelig: We have a Zoom event every single day. I mean, we have a huge chorus, with 300 people — somebody's gonna show up to something. But we have fitness and meditation and cooking classes and game night and movie night... there's something every day for the chorus.

EDGE: How about for the general public — if people want to hear the chorus perform?

Tim Seelig: In the third week of COVID we created SFGMC TV, and so we have our own channel. It's not a TV channel, it's an online channel, but we have been cranking out content since then. We're showing some archival footage — we don't have a lot of archival footage, because we live in a city where everything is union-owned, and we don't videotape most of our concerts — but we have [some] archival stuff; we have what's called "Behind the Curtain," and we have been interviewing a massive number of people, from Billy Porter to Kristin Chenoweth, to Chasten Buttigieg. It's been awesome.

And then we have Singer Spotlights, so we're spotlighting singers; and then we have "Out in the Community." So there are four channels within that channel, and we have been working our butts off.

We've created three virtual choir pieces, and we have four more in the pipeline, but they are hard — they are very, very hard. Nobody understands that the singers don't like hearing themselves sing by themselves. When they hear themselves [on the recordings they have made], a lot of them just don't send it in! I don't know how long that's gonna last. We are officially closed until January, and unofficially until August of 2021.

EDGE: You recorded the audiobook version of this yourself. What was that experience like?

Tim Seelig: One of my close friends suggested I was really the only one who could read the book. I thought that would be fun. I had actually read one other audiobook before, so the process was not unknown to me. But reading your own words? All too often, I would stop and think, "Did I write that?"

I read the entire first half of the book, sent it to the producer, and he said, "No. That's not you!" I had tried to be all proper and fancy. I'm not either. I went back and read the entire 1st half over before moving to "Act 2."

EDGE: In the book's YouTube trailer you explain the subtitle of the memoir: "Big Ol' Baptist, Big Ol' Gay." You spent 35 years in the first category, and now you've spent almost 35 years in the second category.

Tim Seelig: Right, and without a single day of overlap.

[Laughter]



Tim Seelig: It's not like it took me six months to go from Baptist to openly gay. No, it was overnight. Of course, I struggled with it, as I describe in my "Christian Counselor" [sections of the memoir], but the coming out was a day-long process.

EDGE: Right at the crux — at that singular day — you lost family and career and church all at once. It was the sort of huge, all-encompassing loss that prevents many gay men from ever coming out. And yet, you describe that first night as being one in which you finally slept peacefully and had a great "millstone" taken from around your neck.

Tim Seelig: You know, in hindsight — and I'm sure I say this in the book — I'm grateful that it all happened in one day, because I've watched many people in these last almost 35 years so fearful about who would find out, and then they would come out to one person... and you know that one person is gonna tell somebody; you tell your beloved aunt that you thought you were safe with, and she tells the family, and then you don't know who knows. And so, for me, everybody knew. There was a great freedom: No one could hurt me with that information anymore, no one could find out and blackmail me.

There is one other thing about coming out... not just my experience, but in counseling LGBTQIA+ singers throughout these years, I've never heard anyone who said, "I wish I had waited longer to come out." Not one. The only ones who potentially could have said that are the ones with kids, and there's no good time [when it comes to your kids]. Mine were 7 and 9, and I used to say, "I could have waited until they were 11 and 13." [But what I heard in response was], "Oh my gosh, that would be way worse!" I mean, how do you know?

So, that's what I say to people coming out: You'll ultimately be glad you did.

EDGE: But it certainly wasn't easy. Did you ever have moments of regret?

Tim Seelig: No. Not one, no. I think I described wondering how I was going to pay child support and becoming a temporary typist because I had learned how to type really well through four degrees, typing my own dissertations. I was like, "I'm going to put that to good use!" So, there were definitely moments of, "How can I take care of my kids?" But other than that, no regret.

And, of course, in the memoir [I relate how] I went to the third Christian counselor in hopes that he would help us with an exit plan, and I had that scheduled in my mind because I'm a planner — I'm a Type A, controlling planner — and I thought, "We could do this over six months and prepare for this," and that was not to be the case.

EDGE: You describe your life in this book in terms of opera — which makes sense since you studied opera, you sang opera, and music really has been your life. Would you say you are a diva?

Tim Seelig: Oh, good lord, yes! A friend of mine who is a soprano, a diva, asked me to inscribe her book, and I wrote "To the Queen of Divas — from The Diva to the Queen." That would be me!

[Laughter]

Tim Seelig: Having grown up form the age of three standing on the piano bench and singing for family and friends, I just never got off the piano bench. I've been on the stage every week of my life. Maybe not every day, but every week. Maybe I am every day because here I am talking to you.

[Laughter]

Tim Seelig: I am a diva, but one of the things I work on hardest is empathy, and that is not always the trait of a diva. I'm a good leader and I'm a good listener, and I've always known that a good leader figures out where everybody wants to go and gets in front. It's not that I've been a great visionary; I've just had the right people and the right opportunities.

EDGE: Diva, leader, and cheerleader. You actually were a cheerleader in high school, but you say that being a cheerleader has been a lifelong vocation — that you're a cheerleader for music, for equality, for people who are marginalized and othered. How are you keeping your cheerleader batteries charged in these dark and challenging times?

Tim Seelig: It's a big challenge. We are still having meetings with the chorus on Monday nights, which is our normal rehearsal night, and we're averaging 150 people. I will tell you that at 6:45 pm this very last Monday I said to myself: "I can't do this. I can't do this for two hours on Zoom with 150 people who are hungry for some hope and some fun and to sing — though I can't hear them sing back to me." Which means it pretty much becomes a two-hour monologue, because there's no feedback. Lucky for me, I know what they're feeling because I'm feeling it too, and therein lies the empathy. If I were on the other end of that Zoom call I know what I'd like to hear, and I know what I'd like to feel when it's over.

So, the cheerleading... oh boy, it's a lifelong ministry. It's my job, and rehearsals were one of the most fun things that we ever did. Probably the majority of singers throughout my career have said, "Performances are lovely, but rehearsals are where the community happens, where the magic happens, where the fun really happens." So, not to have those... We're trying to replicate rehearsals as much as possible. But learning new music [via Zoom] is almost impossible. We're working on the first new piece since COVID right now, and they have to learn it one their own. That's what I do on Monday nights is feed them a little bit, and then they're going to have to come back and record their part of a video for virtual choir, and I will have never heard them.

EDGE: You mention something that everyone might not really understand — I do, because I have been with the Boston Gay Men's Chorus for so long, and I know exactly what you're talking about: You say that when a gay man comes into rehearsal for the first time, that very first note sung at the first rehearsal is an emotional and powerful moment. It sounds like you feel that's being lost with the social distancing and online rehearsals.

Tim Seelig: That part is being lost in that at the beginning of the new season, the first rehearsal is like going back to school. You make sure your pencils are sharpened, and you get a new backpack and all that stuff. It's the way every season is. We only audition once a year, so new members all join in August. Right about now [every year] there's an onslaught of people [asking about joining]. They're still writing, asking "Are you having auditions in August?" We're like, "No, we're not having Zoom auditions in August, because there's nothing to join." So, that feeling... I think other people have this experience in their lives, and I'm saying that really dubious about what that's like. I do know that it happens when gay people are estranged from the church and the first time they come to an MCC or a totally affirming church; I know there's that feeling of, "I'm home and I can be myself in this setting." But it's different when it's something that you love, namely singing, and it's something that you love so dearly but you've always done it inside someone else's box, and you've adhered to not just the musical rules but the behavior, emotional, psychological rules that they set up, and then all those are erased and you can be whoever you want to be when you walk in.

I think [that sense of liberation] washes over people. It washes over me, still, describing it — it brings a tear to my eye. And people who come to concerts [have a similar experience] — we certainly saw that on our Southern tour. You've seen the documentary — you know the part with the girls, the teenage girls that snuck away from home to go to the concert, and the tears in their eyes. That was our experience throughout the South.

EDGE: Many things about the memoir are striking and memorable, but there are several disclosures that one might not necessarily expect someone as high profile as yourself to make in such a public way. One is your HIV status; another is how you share the story of an episode of sexual abuse, and there's also your recollection of you and your partner at the time being involved in a polyamorous relationship. Did you have any moments when you were writing this memoir when you felt that some of what you were sharing might be a little too much?

Tim Seelig: I certainly didn't say that was too much about my HIV status, because once my daughter extorted me into telling the world...

[Laughter]

Tim Seelig: Ever since then, I've been... people maybe get a little tired of my proclaiming my HIV status. But it's important for leaders [to share these facts about themselves].

This is not in the book: We had a GALA [Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses] directors' meeting, there were about forty GALA directors — this was about 10 or 15 years ago, already — and some of the younger conductors said, "My singers don't want to wear an AIDS ribbon anymore. It's an archaic symbol of something that's long passed." I stood up and said, "I've never said this to you all, but I'm HIV positive, and this is important to me. I can tell you that you're my colleagues, and it's scary for me to say this to you, my colleagues, so you can imagine what other people [might] feel." The guys next to me, Gary Holt, [director of] the San Diego Gay Men's Chorus for years and years, stood up after me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "I grew up Jewish. And let me say there's not one day of my life that my friends and family have not reminded me of the Holocaust. We will not forget that — and [AIDS] is our Holocaust." It was beautiful. And the singers were like, "Okay, we'll put the AIDS ribbons on." So, I just feel like there's going to be a trend toward trying to forget. And when Trump stands up and says "There's a vaccine for AIDS," this isn't helpful.

[The assault that happened] my first year of college... oh boy, I had to breathe. I had to breathe a lot before telling that story. But people want to know; they want to know the process of coming out. They think, "Okay, it didn't just happen at 35 that one day he woke up and said he was gay." The struggle is really important, so people can say, "Oh my gosh, this happened to him when he was 19 and then he fought that" — not just the shame, but the experience — and also, as I describe [in the memoir], the repulsion and attraction of that experience. After that I kind of was wondering if [the man in question] might do that again with me, and that didn't happen. So, as I was going through that part, and also the "dirty" bookstores while I was married, and the park [where men cruised for sex] literally around the corner from the church, the danger [associated with those things]... some people who are in the closet do get addicted to that danger and can't make the transition to a normal relationship when it's no longer against the law. I felt it was really important [to talk about all those things]. I have not spoken to my ex-wife at all [about the memoir], I don't know if she's read the book, but she knew all that because the Christian counselor revealed all that to her so it's not news to her. But [now] it is in writing.

Finally, as I was writing the chapter on my regrets about never having settled into one relationship — that just wasn't in the cards for me, hard as I may have tried; but I had a nine- and a twelve- and a six-year [long relationship], so it wasn't bad — but, looking back and describing those, I had a five-month polyamorous relationship with my husband and a third, and it was wonderful, and an incredible learning experience. Oh, boy. I don't think we would have learned as much about ourselves in any other way — no, I know that we wouldn't. Would I go into polyamory again? Yes! — in a word.

In the end, no, I don't think [polyamory] is that widely accepted across the South where people are reading this book..

[Laughter]

Tim Seelig: I think that it's just in New York and Boston and big cities where they're going, "Oh yeah, of course." But, good for them [in other places]. I want to push them a little bit.

EDGE: I wonder about the great opportunity and great responsibility that comes with being in a position to commission new works of choral music. How do you go about deciding when a new work is called for, and what themes seem to call for a new work that might well end up being performed all over the world, for years to come?

Tim Seelig: It is daunting! Sometimes it's a long-range planning process, and sometimes it just falls into our laps. The biggest one I talked about is the Susan Koman Breast Cancer Foundation and "Sing for the Cure," which still lives on. It was a world premiere in 2000 with Maya Angelou, and it's been performed all over the world. I've conducted it in New York and London. That was amazing!

The first one was "When We No Longer Touch," the first AIDS requiem, in 1991. And then that one went on to be PBS documentary and won an Emmy, and it was just huge. That was really the first one.

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus commissioned the first piece written on stories told by the singers, "Naked Man," and that is still performed. The final piece of that, "Never Ever," is performed all the time. So, San Francisco had a history of commissioning, and then Turtle Creek Chorale, which I conducted [before assuming the position of artistic director for the SFGMC] has a massive history of commissioning and recording. It's just kind of what we did. So, when I arrived here, it was a no-brainer that we would continue that. I had some incredible things brought to me: Stephen Schwartz offered to write "Testimony" for us for no money, and it has moved people across the world. We were brought the story of Tyler Clementi, the young man, a Rutgers freshman, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York, and killed himself after being cyber-bullied. We were able to write Tyler's piece about what he went through — the emotions he went through and [the impact on] his family. It is spectacular. Nine composers wrote nine pieces. Sometimes they are brought to me, like the Tyler Clementi piece, and sometimes we dream them up.





Our most recent one: We decided about two years ago that we wanted to tell the young people's story. The demographic of our chorus is getting younger, so we had felt like we wanted to tell their story We commissioned then-23-year-old Julian Hornick - a brilliant, brilliant young composer - to write an hour-long piece, and it's called "@QueerZ," because it's a Generation Z story. He brought stories to the table that I never thought I would sing. We didn't tell him what to write; he actually interviewed people here and in LA and from the New York City Gay Men's Health Crisis, the young people. He said, "What stories do you think I should tell?" One of the pieces is about male prostitution — a homeless gay young man, about how he basically just rides the bus and picks up a trick and goes home [with him to have a place to sleep]. It is heartbreaking. And then he wrote an entire piece about gun violence: What it's like to be in Mrs. Smith's second-period class and have a live shooter drill, and how they stack the chairs. So, we were doing that [for our] March [concert]... but we didn't do it in March [because of the pandemic], so it had not been heard. And I don't know if... it's not possible, really, to do an entire hour work with a virtual choir. That's just too much. But we will perform it when we are back together.

We've commissioned, together with nine other choruses, Steve Milloy, an African American composer who's now the conductor of the Cincinnati Men's Chorus, [to set to music the work of] a beautiful young Black woman who wrote a poem in response to George Floyd's death. So, we've commissioned that, and all ten choruses are going to go together to make a virtual choir. It's a really wonderful response from GALA Choruses.

We've done two huge commissions with Andrew Lippa, the first being "I Am Harvey Milk," which is unbelievable and, obviously, about the life of Harvey Milk. The next one, which we did five years later, is "Unbreakable," and it's a century of untold stories [from the gay experience]. So, yeah, I get to do that — I get to dream.

We have another one in the works for when we come back, and I'll just tell you this: I made a comment on a Zoom call that Andrew Lippa, the roadway composer, happened to be on. And the meme that's going around says, "When we return to sing, will it be the voices we hear or the tears?" And Andrew heard that and went home and in literally three days wrote a song for the Gay Men's Chorus called "What Will We Hear?" Oh, my goodness! So, he orchestrated it at home with his synthesizer and he already has the soloist, she has already sung the solo part, and that's Kristin Chenoweth. That's what the guys are trying to learn on their own. So, yeah... while it's not a commissioned piece, geez! It just dropped in our lap, and it's so unbelievably beautiful and heart wrenching — but joyful, because it will be when we do get to make music again.


For more about Tim Seelig or to order his memoir "Tale of Two Tims: Big Ol' Baptist, Big Ol' Gay," please go to http://www.timseelig.com/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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