Op-ed: There's Room Under the Bus for All of Us

One man's workplace was also his closet door: the Southern Baptist Church.

BY Tim Seelig

July 30 2014 5:00 AM ET

Seelig as a minister of music at a Southern Baptist Church (left) who later became the artistic director and conductor of the S.F. Gay Men's Chorus.

This post originally appeared in a blog for Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.

Everyone’s story is unique, including mine. Both of my parents were professional Southern Baptists. My brother and I both followed in their footsteps. He is still following. My path took a dramatic about-face along the way.

The subtext of my formative years was conformity. It was reinforced at every turn by the fear of being different. And yet, I knew I was just that. I prayed at every altar call for God to help fit in — make me straight.

Other than that one small glitch, life was a perfect Christmas newsletter. Married with two beautiful children, I held two fairly prestigious positions at once: associate minister of music at First Baptist Church of Houston and associate professor of music at Houston Baptist University.

Life in the Southern Baptist workplace was a very difficult place for a gay man living in a huge closet and floating down the river of denial. But, I was a musician. I was obviously not the only gay musician working in a church, even though I felt so incredibly alone. I thought there might be other “gays” on the staff or at my university, but we dared not share even the slightest hint. In fact, one of the saddest things looking back is that we were required to join in the systematic discrimination and even bullying of people just “like us.” I went to work every single day with a knot in my stomach for fear I might “drop a hair pin” or give a lingering look at a handsome coworker or church member and be discovered. It was a strangling existence.

So, you see, the perfect life was far from perfect. The entire picture was built on a fundamental lie about who I was at my very core. I wasn’t arrested. I wasn’t “caught” in any act. But through a series of events and misguided Christian counselors, I simply realized they were lying, too. One of us had to tell the truth.

The very day I was “outed” to my wife by the counselor we were seeing, she shared the information with the pastor of our church. I was called to his office and given a set of requirements if I wanted to keep my job. A few of those included in-patient reparative therapy (an out-of-state location had already been chosen), provide a list of all of the other staff members at the church who were also gay, stand before the congregation and acknowledge my sin and repent publicly.

I chose “None of the above” and walked out. Out of life as I knew it.

The losses were great. I lost my children, family, both jobs, house, car and most of my friends.

The gain was astounding. Truth. I had told the whole truth for the first time in my life and now had a foundation to build on.

The proverbial bus rolled over me and backed up – many times. I thought I was alone under there and everyone I had ever known were either passengers or driving the bus. Many years later, one of my daughter’s friends wrote me as an adult and described what it was like for her at church. “One day, you were gone and no one ever spoke of you again. In my child’s mind, I assumed there was something that you could do that was so bad, you would disappear.”

I found out there was actually a gay men’s chorus (who knew?) in Dallas looking for a director. I jumped on it and the rest, as they say, is history. I conducted that chorus, the amazing Turtle Creek Chorale, for the next 20 years before moving to my current position with the grandfather of all LGBT choruses, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

Working in the church for all those years absolutely prepared me for the next quarter of a century I have spent as a musical activist. Even my mom and dad came to acknowledge verbally that I had found a “ministry” far greater than I would otherwise have ever known.

I came out at the apex of the AIDS pandemic. We were, as the Holly Near song says, "Singing For Our Lives" — a song she penned on the night of Harvey Milk’s assassination — and the lives of others. At the same time, we were singing songs of protest and of enlightenment, serenading a huge and multi-faceted movement. It was and is an honor and a thrill, and also very difficult at times.

The hymn, “There’s Room At the Cross For Me,” became “There’s Room Under the Bus for All.” That Southern Baptist, Republican, Texan bus is a big one. It casts a huge and very dark shadow. And it leaves a mark that never truly heals.

At the end of the day, the message is clear. I am what I am and no one can change that for whatever reason. Fear is our greatest enemy, not the bigots. Fear of rejection. Fear of what might happen if we tell the truth. Fear of loss. And yet truth gathers to itself the most amazing things, people and opportunities.

Today, I have found myself and in the process regained those things I thought I had lost: my children, my family, my career and a loving community, including my wonderful partner Dan.

From the song "Everything Possible," “The only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re gone.” For me, that is the essence of what we are to do. Yes, we must fight and scream and yell and protest. But in the end, love is our strongest weapon and greatest ally.

Finally, from Stephen Schwartz’ song "Testimony," all along the way, “there were loving arms I could not see,” and, when all is said and done, and my life over, given the choice, “I would come back as me!”

Life is amazing and astounding. And no more knot in my stomach going to work!

 

TIM SEELIG is the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and a recovering Southern Baptist. 

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