If it were fiction, “gay choir tours the conservative South” would seem like a cutesy, juicy conceit. But this premise isn’t a premise—it’s part of the real-life time line of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which since its founding 41 years ago has stepped up to cultural fault lines, regardless of the surrounding devastation. Their first official performance was at a memorial for Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly gay elected official. During the dehumanizing decades when AIDS was met with indifference and “don’t ask, don’t tell” seemed like the best policy, they showed up, determined to touch hearts and minds. So it makes sense that after Trump’s election in 2016, they embarked on an eight-week bus tour of Southern towns, singing in the churches that would welcome them. Some didn’t; some were picketed by protesters.
Along for the ride was documentarian David Charles Rodrigues, whose new film Gay Chorus Deep South captures a spectrum of stories about LGBTQ acceptance, from the tale of a middle-aged belter whose parents still hadn’t come to terms with his sexuality, to one about a devout churchgoer who implores her pastor to allow the group to perform, to another about Southern Gen Zers trying to make their mark in a historically hostile environment that’s shifting. The message: Whether you’re in San Francisco or St. Augustine, progress is fleeting if you don’t keep showing your face (and showing off your pipes).
NewNowNext talked to Rodrigues about how and why he brought such a heated, sprawling, soaring work to the big screen.
How did you become familiar with the chorus in general and this tour in particular?
I was really shaken by the divisiveness of the country after the  election. I was looking for stories that could bring some hope and could bridge the gap, but I was just seeing a lot of protesting and people screaming at each other. Then my wife brought to my attention an article about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus doing their tour of the Deep South. I had lived in San Francisco for many years, and I knew how amazing they were. I was like, “Oh, my God, this is the first time I see some sort of hope, some sort of positive movement.” I felt like it could become an inspiration point for people looking to create dialogues or reach over to the other side.
After Trump’s election, many people professed surprise that there was still so much racism bubbling under the surface of the country. Was the level of homophobia these men still faced surprising to you? Or did you think things had gotten better?
Sadly, it wasn’t surprising. Despite being straight, I’ve been a part of the LGBTQ community since I was a teenager. I don’t even consider myself an ally—I’m part of the community. I know there’s been so much progress and positive change, but there are still pockets where the kind of homophobia we equate with the ’50s and ’60s still exists.
We met a queer teen in Tennessee who didn’t even come out, but was outed by her family and kicked out of her house and forced to do conversion therapy. It was important to share those stories—especially after gay marriage became legal and we got a lot of amazing positive role models on television and in the media. Kids are seeing that, and they’re coming out super early now, whether it’s in middle school or in early high school. There are many success stories, but a lot of kids come out and the reality they face is much different than the reality they’re seeing on television—there’s bullying, there’s rejection from the family. Unfortunately, levels of progress don’t all move together.
Adam Hobbs/Thorsten Thielow
A subject in Gay Chorus Deep South.
Julian, a member of the chorus, is an example of this.
Yes, Julian has lived in San Francisco for decades. He was friends with Harvey Milk and has lived an incredible life. Six months ago, he was gay bashed in San Francisco. He was in the hospital for three weeks. It’s just important to note that we need to stick together and stay strong. Everywhere can be safe if you stick together and form a community, but nowhere is safe if you don’t.
Did you have any preconceptions about the South that you were surprised to see punctured?
The big surprise was that 90% of this tour was a positive experience. We did not expect the warmth, the empathy, and the celebration. We expected “Southern hospitality” levels of hate and some levels of aggression. And those did happen. But they were literally 10% of the experiences we had. We shot 300 hours of footage, and when my editor and I were going through it we were terrified we didn’t have enough conflict. We had to judge our own judgment. The surprise of this film is actually the opposite. Unfortunately we live in a dark time in our society where being hopeful, positive, and loving is the plot twist.
Adam Hobbs/Thorsten Thielow
Did you get a read on why that is? In red states, that proportion—90% acceptance and 10% rejection—was not the case 10 years ago. Was it marriage equality? Increased representation in pop culture?
I think it’s a combination of factors, but I really think it’s this movement happening in the churches there—not all of them, but in a lot more than we could’ve imagined. A lot of churches are becoming all-inclusive. They’re starting to create inclusion seminars and sponsor gay Prides. The role the churches are playing is creating this profound change. If you’re a protester, you get to this concert and you see all these churchgoing people, and it becomes very difficult for you to hate on that. When you see someone exactly like you celebrating something, the chances of you giving up your hate or embracing the love are way greater.
Given the level of polarization in the country right now, do you feel more or less hopeful since you started the film?
I feel more hopeful. Not since the civil rights movement in the ’60s has the population been so engaged in politics. The midterm elections were a great proof of it, and I feel like it’s just going to keep going. A big issue in American politics is how passive the population had become toward it. I’m so hopeful for the kids. I have a 22-year-old daughter. She and her friends are just so smart and engaged. They understand that politics is the place where you can make a real difference. This could be a moment where true democratic values can be reclaimed for the people. We have a real shot at going back to a time when the Democratic Party represents a true democracy.
Gay Chorus Deep South, an MTV Documentary Films production, opens November 1 in select theaters.