Drum Majors (L-R) Marek Szeszycki, Mike Wong, and Chris Mills leading the SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band down Market Street in 2015 | Credit: Michael Kerner

The pandemic can’t keep Pride down. For its 50th anniversary, the theme, “generations of hope,” couldn’t come at a better time. In a season of uncertainty and change, when it would be easy to give in to fear, Phillip Huff, president of the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band quotes Harvey Milk: “You’ve got to give them hope.”

“Nobody thinks Pride is canceled. It just looks a little different this year,” said Huff.

SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band President Phillip Huff

While the official Pride parade and festival didn’t happen in person at the end of June, what took place instead broadened the scope for those who could attend — going online meant physical proximity didn’t limit participation. Timothy Seelig, artistic director for the 300-member San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, said they are usually everywhere during the month of June, and that this year even more of the people who have asked them to sing in previous years came calling for video content as Pride had gone online.

The show must go on — just not in person. Both the Freedom Band and the Gay Men’s Chorus have stayed busy producing video content to uplift viewers virtually.

Dubbed the “official band of San Francisco” in 2018 by Mayor London Breed, The Freedom Band has released four shelter-in-place video performances that capture band members at home, in a Brady Bunch-style split screen. This includes “This is Me” from the The Greatest Showman, released on Pride weekend, a song Huff described as “being true to oneself/loving yourself for who you are and not letting yourself be down because others think you should be something else than what you are.”

The Freedom Band collaborated with Portland’s Rose City Pride Bands on a video performance of John Phillips Sousa’s “Hands Across the Sea.” According to Huff, “We have hands up and down the coast with our sister band in Portland virtually because the pandemic may keep us from going to Portland for the Lesbian Gay Band Association 2020 conference, but it’s not going to keep us apart because we are friends no matter what.”

For the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the pandemic fast-tracked a concept to broaden their mission beyond in-person performances to make a difference in the world. They launched San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus TV (SFGMC TV) with four styles of content: SFGMC in Concert (snippets of past performances), Behind the Curtain (interviews with notable vocalists like Billy Porter, Laura Benanti, and Kristin Chenoweth), Inside the Chorus (SFGMC member spotlights), and Out in the Community (musical outreach and education). A virtual choral performance tribute to first responders, “Truly Brave” launched SFGMC TV in early April and has garnered almost 200,000 views.

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band share a pivotal origin story because of Jon Reed Sims. Sims, a music teacher, founded the Freedom Band and the Chorus several months apart in 1978. He led the 70-member Freedom Band down Market Street during the first Pride parade, playing “California, Here I Come.” Both the Band and Chorus were the first of their kind to include sexual orientation in their names — a model for countless bands and choruses now. That camaraderie and fondness between sibling organizations still exists as the band has occasionally invited SFGMC to march with them in the Pride parade.

Band founder and Drum Major Jon Sims with members of the Twirling Corps in the SF Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 29, 1978 | Credit: Richard Best

In November of 2019, the SFGMC received a gift of great value and in honor of their 41st anniversary: Sims’s ebony Yamaha grand piano, which now resides in the 300-seat performance hall of the National LGBTQ Center for the Arts/SFGMC headquarters, was played during Pride weekend, as Seelig celebrated the release of his memoir, The Tale of Two Tims, with socially distanced, masked instrumentalists playing the Sims piano and a cello, offering an opportunity to see what kind of micro-performances might be possible in the future.

Seelig has taken on a leadership role in theorizing what choral performances might look like post-pandemic, authoring a paper published May 15, “Choral Singing in the Time of COVID-19,” that he now describes as an “historical document of that time,” informed by insights from three doctors on the spread of coronavirus by aerosolization and ideas for how to rehearse and perform. Twice weekly, he and Chris Verdugo, executive director for SFGMC, meet with the Gay Lesbian Chorus Association to connect and share what they have learned.

SF Gay Men's Chorus Director Timothy Seelig (center) at his book launch (with the Jon Sims piano) at the National LGBTQ Center of Arts

“What we’ve found is we are all in the same boat and that feels good to others in the boat,” said Seelig. “It’s not sinking. It’s taking on water, but we are bailing as fast as we can.”

Of singing, Seelig said, “It’s a dangerous thing we do,” describing the deeper kind of breathing required for singing, using stark images of spraying perfume in the air to walk through or spraying Aqua Net hair spray over one’s head and how long those particles hover as vivid examples of aerosolization. Seelig said a study on aerosolization has been commissioned by the National Marching Band Association in conjunction with the American Choral Association to better study aerosolization and microdroplets for greater understanding about its impact on disease spread.

“We cannot do our craft without amazing breath — I call it the gas for the motor and that’s what’s causing the danger,” said Seelig.

Since the choral document’s publication, SFGMC has pulled together a task force of 16 people who guided the chorus to a statement of no in-person SFGMC rehearsals or performances until a vaccine or proven treatment is available, as a survey circulated among members revealed 23 percent of the chorus are in high-risk categories. A fourth doctor was added to the task force and their recommendations are to not promise too much, too soon about gathering together. Instead, they are cautioning against giving “false hope.” Seelig looks forward to when SFGMC will be able to move forward in its first outdoor performance at the National AIDS Memorial Grove.

Seelig remembers conducting at the Turtle Creek Chorale during the AIDS pandemic and describes the coronavirus pandemic as being very different. He survived AIDS and is one of the “now unseen millions who are HIV+.” There is still no vaccine for HIV.

“The world’s attention turned to COVID within weeks. The world’s attention didn’t turn to HIV/AIDS for years. During the HIV years, we gathered to sing. Through all of our courage from being together and singing, visiting hospital beds and taking care of those who were sick — this has completely been taken away,” said Seelig. “The hope here is it will be managed because the world’s turned its focus on it.”

While hope abounds, there is loss too. For SFGMC, 2019 was a huge year. Their documentary Gay Chorus Deep South was released to high praise, with The New York Times lauding its “compassionate optimism.” In 2019, SFGMC also purchased a headquarters as part of a capital campaign, after 41 years with no home base, inaugurating it as the National LGBTQ Center for the Arts. Enter 2020: Mere months after the Center of the Arts launch, shelter-in-place went into effect. Seelig entered his 10th year of conducting SFGMC with a sobering reality of “not conducting one single concert in 2020.”

“There are two aspects of the Gay Men’s Chorus — the difference between what we do and who we are. We are hanging onto this because what we do has been taken away. What we do is gather and rehearse and have family and retreats and then we put that on the stage. That’s all gone — what we do is literally gone,” said Seelig. “Who we are is alive and well. We are putting out content that continues our activism. We are putting out content that touches people. And the guys are continuing to be a community.”

Both the Freedom Band and SFGMC believe in community and were born out of protest. Their founder, Sims, understood music to be a uniting force for good and a medium to connect people and build understanding — something Huff said they are continuing to do with the Band. On both organizations’ websites, they have posted solidarity statements for Black Lives Matter. Huff recalls the police violence and aggression that the LGBTQ community has faced in the past and said, “I don’t consider the rights that we have fought for and that we are fighting for are complete until they extend to everyone.” Huff also revealed that the Band is planning to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter through programming, having added 20 new pieces of music from Black, Indigenous American, and Latinx composers to their library with the intent of pulling the songs into concerts over the next five years.

“If these most recent protests had happened outside of the time where we didn’t have a pandemic, you can rest assured that the band would be there marching alongside protestors and demanding an end to police brutality and racial inequality,” said Huff.

Just because they aren’t meeting in person doesn’t mean the community isn’t coming together. Instead, it is a silver lining for both the Band and the Chorus. The band has been gathering via Zoom weekly, on Tuesdays, which would typically be rehearsal time. Instead, they have been presenting music education seminars, including the physics of music and a spotlight on Ernestine Schumann-Heink, a German opera star who was an antixenophobic activist of her day, or, as Huff calls her, “the Lady Gaga of 1910.” SFGMC members organically set up grassroots Zoom meetups every day of the week that run the gamut of game night, meditation, cooking lessons, a recovery meeting, and workouts. Seelig said “the guys are having a blast,” claiming at least half of them are gathering regularly.

Members of the SF Gay Men's Chorus meet online to stay in touch.

Once the pandemic abates, Huff is hoping for a renaissance. He recounted that, following the Black Death of the bubonic plague, the Renaissance blossomed. So, he counters, this is a time of introspection, asking what do we want to change? What do we want this renaissance to look like? While he looks forward to a renewal in art and culture, what he is most interested in is changed hearts: “Where we really start to see the change in our society [is] toward accepting and loving everyone for who they are, no matter the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or their gender identity or their socio-economic status.”

It echoes a meme that Seelig brought up on a call with several music colleagues, asking “when we are finally able to gather to sing again, will it be the voices we hear or the tears?” The words so moved composer Andrew Lippa, who was on the call, that afterward he penned a song for the chorus. In July, SFGMC will be on hiatus to plan their 43rd year, which will launch on August 17. This fall, they will host once-a-month virtual concerts, from September to December and continue to release weekly content on SFGMC TV. Seelig said, “I’m really, really proud of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus because we are working hard . The staff is working really hard to make the lemonade, and it seems to be working to the best of our ability.”

“When we are safely able to return to singing, we will have to shut the doors, because everyone is going to want to sing,” said Seelig.

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