Dr. Tim Seelig is an Emmy Award-winning director and conductor of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the National LGBTQ Center for the Arts. He’s also an activist, teacher, speaker and author. And for the first 35 years of his life, virtually none of that seemed possible—largely because he was a gay man, living as a straight one.
Tim wrote a wonderful book about his life called Tale of Two Tims: Big Ol’ Baptist, Big Ol’ Gay, which chronicles his rise to success as University professor, opera singer, father, husband, and Southern Baptist music minister to a congregation of 22,000 members before being outed and losing everything.
I was honored to speak with him and I’m excited to share his voice and story with you today. Stream the episode on Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Spotify or below! Or keep reading for a lightly edited transcript.
Coming Out and LGBTQ Activism: Dr. Tim Seelig’s Story (lightly edited transcript)
So I started by asking Dr. Tim Seelig what he recalls most in terms of his sexuality early on in his life.
Wow, when you ask that question, all kinds of pictures pass through your mind. Goodness gracious.
I had a crush on a boy in the fourth grade, Bobby Kellogg. He didn’t know it. It was certainly a harbinger of things to come. Because in the fourth grade, you don’t know what your type is. But looking back, oh, boy, he was so my type. And considering the fact that I didn’t come out for the next what, 25 years. That said a lot.
I love talking about your first crush on TV. Because you know, looking back at that as well, you’re like, Oh, duh. Your listeners are not going to be old enough to know this. But mine was Bonanza, because Bonanza had four male leads. And really, they were one of each type. There was a daddy and there was a bear… I’d be hard pressed to have to pick one, but if I did, it was Hos Cartwright, which headed to my penchant for liking big, burly bear men.
I just laughed so much about the fact that most of us put a poster of Farrah Fawcett on the wall. And our parents were thrilled because they were like, ‘Yay, it’s a girl.’ And we really just wanted the hair. If I had those feathered wings, oh, man, I can flick my head around.
Throughout all of that, Tim didn’t realize he was gay. The world around him wouldn’t really allow for him to. He told me he dabbled with his desires in his teens, but it didn’t go well.
Over a decade later, he saw a Christian counselor who pronounced him “Not Gay.” Months after that, he saw another Christian counselor two who told him to just “scratch the itch” as needed. One of his psychiatrists tried to get him to select a female classmate he might be attracted to.
He ended up selecting what he called the “PR choice,” Vicki, and went on to fulfill what seemed like his duty: they got married and had beloved children. In his book Tim described Vicki as sophisticated, put-together, talented and aloof, a “princess” with a beautiful voice.
Someone who never left home without full makeup and drove a VW convertible. Tim tried to remain faithful, but he just couldn’t be someone he was not. And that’s when everything changed.
I had remained faithful for about 10 years of my marriage. And then I just had to go see if this was true or not. In the book, I tell this story that I was in a situation in a different town and this very nice, handsome man invited me over to spend the night and here I am 35, almost 35. And I’d never slept with a man ever. And he helped me in his arms. And I woke up in the morning and said to myself, I’m home, this is who I am. And it wasn’t the elicit, you know, one-off of anonymous sex or whatever. But all of a sudden, I knew where I fit. And then that began the, the end of my marriage, etcetera etcetera.
I think that may be that kind of moment when you go Oh. It’s not that I like this activity so much—because, yeah, we like that. But you find this place where you go, this is where I belong.
As I told Tim, I was really struck by the beautiful sense of authenticity he experienced in that moment—and that at the time, that realization marked the beginning of the end of his marriage. That’s a lot to carry.
If I had known that morning when I woke what I know now. Yeah, I knew it wasn’t gonna be good. And I knew that in that moment that the unraveling needed to begin. And there was, oh boy. As I have said, that thin veneer of being in the closet, when it burst, it was big and pain got on everybody.
And I’ve had several really significant moments of truth telling when my lies have just caught up with me. And when I finally came out and it was just horrible and my mom and dad are – they’re gone but – professional Baptists and and of course they asked the proverbial question of like, “What do we do to make you gay?” And I’m like, “Yeah, you didn’t make me gay.” One of my favorite t shirts says, “My mother made me gay. If you give her some material, she’ll make you one, too.” I said, “You didn’t make me gay. You made me a man of truth and integrity so that at one point I lost everything, but told the truth, and I’m not sure they were happy. Maybe they would have preferred making me gay, as making me truthful. I don’t know.
That morning, when I woke up and knew that that was where I would belong the rest of my life, I had no way to count the cost ahead. Over those couple of years, many times I had the thought the world would be better off without me. My children would never have to know I was gay. I wonder how if I have the courage to kill myself, and if I did, how would I do that? And so it had those never attempted suicide and never really came close, but I’d actually checked with my insurance provider on the sly about, you know, does it pay benefits if you commit suicide? Looking back, of course, geez. Now I have a long road to look back, but it all turned out so magnificently, that I’m glad I didn’t do that.
During this time after that, that one really life changing experience, I knew I was a fish out of water. In the huge Southern Baptist Church, I was serving as Associate Minister music, and in the marriage, I knew now where my water was and I was a fish out of it. So I told my wife to find us a Christian counselor, and we’ll go and so we did. After we met together, he said, “Well, I’d like to meet with you by yourself, Tim, and then Vicki after that,” the next day. And I went and told him everything—that I had been unfaithful and played around in the last three years of our marriage. And he said, “Well, duh.” I mean, I think I walked in and said that I’m gay. And he goes, “Yeah, I know.”
So the next day, instead of just telling my wife sort of the overview, like we used to say, “he’s struggling with homosexual tendencies.” Rather than that, he told her everything. He told her, you know, that I’ve been to bookstores and had anonymous sex and the whole thing. So she reacted as any woman would. I don’t blame her for this at all. Maybe her first stop on the way home, I questioned, but she went straight to the pastor’s office, from the counselor, and told him everything. I mean, my dirty laundry was hanging out all over Houston. I was outed to everyone just.
There is some good news to that. The whole band aid ripped off. And I can tell you that from experience now, for 35 years, I’ve been waving my arms at gay people, as the choir director of the gays. I watch these people who rip the bandaid off slowly, and tell just their close circle of friends who we know are going to tell their close circle of friends. But then you don’t know if the family down the road knows. And that fear, that sense of foreboding of oh my gosh, who knows and who doesn’t know, is sometimes debilitating, that living a lie and fear. And so I didn’t have that. I just got ripped. The whole thing ripped off.
When that bandaid came off, Tim was given a choice. He could accept the steps required by the church or resign. Those steps included “reparative therapy,” sharing the names of any other homosexuals he knew of or suspected in the church, standing before the congregation to be accused and asking their forgiveness for his sin, and ending his friendship with a female accompanist who was said to have aided and abetted him. He described the prospect of ending that friendship as the one he felt most hurt by and least willing to do.
So he moved out of his home and into a motel, where he had a new sense of peace of mind.
He wrote, “The emotional house of cards came tumbling down. I was alone, without resources, or the knowledge of how to get any, adrift… Yet I had left the pastor’s office with a few things he, nor anyone else could take away: Truth.”
Ten months after being fully outed, Tim took a job conducting the Turtle Creek Chorale, a gay men’s chorus in Dallas. The pay wasn’t great (at all) and he planned to stay for only a year. Instead, he stayed for 20. Tim was loud and proud about his gayness, and his parents had opinions about this.
My mom and dad asked as Southern Baptists. Why do you have to keep telling people that you’re gay? Why do you have to just tell that? Why can’t you just be a choir director of some men’s? So I asked them, and you’ll, you’ll love this. I say “So Mom and Dad, what’s the most important day in your life? What is the one day that’s the most important?” And you might think they might say you’re like, “Well, when you were born,” which of course I would think they would answer what they didn’t, or the day they married. No, didn’t answer that.
The most important day in their life was the day that they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Because from that day forward, everything is different. I say to my Southern Baptist professional parents, “Exactly. And you talk about it all the time, don’t you?” “Yes, no, we live it. We don’t just talk about it.” And I’m like, “Well, on October 14, 1986 when I came out, everything after that day has been different. Everything for me is new. It looks new, it feels just like your salvation experience. So my coming out is just like your salvation experience. How do you think that went over?
Oh, my goodness. Probably not the way I’m feeling it, where I’m like, this is a perfect analogy. Because it is salvation. Freedom, salvation.
I got reborn on that day. And ooh, they don’t like it. Oh, no, no. But it’s a good one, isn’t it?
Thankfully, some of Tim’s family did eventually come around. His brother, well that was another story.
My brother, who was a Baptist preacher disowned me three times, in front of big Baptist churches. It was awesome. Mom and Dad had now had an uber gay son and then they had this Uber conservative preacher for kids. And he was the problem all through this, more than more than I was. But Mom and Dad, they said to me and to their friends: “If we are going to believe that God is omnipotent and all-powerful, he can change him. If God wants him to be straight, well, he’ll change. He can do that. So we’re gonna put our belief in God.” How about that for a concept?
The silence and ignorance around gay people’s existance that was especially prevalent early in Tim’s journey extended into healthcare as well. Early on in the AIDS crisis, many church communities denied the disease’s existence, in some ways to avoid admitting anyone’s gayness. Instead, they said young men were dying of “natural causes” or cancer instead.
Tim told me that he has lived through two pandemics, the AIDS crisis and the ongoing one we’re experiencing now with COVID-19. He’s also conducted gay choirs during two pandemics.
A year before taking that first conducting job with Turtle Creek Chorale, Tim had no idea gay choruses even existed, much less the impact those experiences would turn out to be. At his first rehearsal, he realized something that would help birth his activism.
I had come out of huge Baptist churches and huge choirs of Baptist people. And I laughingly say that on any given Sunday morning, if Wanda Jean’s hair wasn’t high enough, she just wouldn’t come to church. I mean like “no, it’s too humid. I’m not going.” And here I came to that my first rehearsal of a Gay Men’s chorus in 1987 and in the front row was a young man covered in sores. And it completely freaked me out, because I didn’t know what it was. I knew no one up to that point, who had AIDS. And I was in the Baptist Church, I’m sure there were. But again, they had you know, they died of “natural causes.”
So at our break and rehearsal, I went over and asked one of the men that I knew, “What is that?” And he looked at me like, okay, you are ignorant. That’s KS, kaposi sarcoma, and he is covered with sores from AIDS. Freaked out still, I was like, “What is he doing at rehearsal?” And he looked at me again and said, “This is keeping him alive. He is staying alive with the hope that he can come to another rehearsal. That’s all he’s doing.” And it was a huge shift-change for me about the importance of music in our lives and the healing power of music that I had not learned in the church. I changed that night.
The choir had lost 11 people to AIDS when Tim began conducting for them. When he left, they had lost 175. As of now, they’ve lost 300.
The experience led to performances such as When We No Longer Touch and a PBS documentary based on that composition, After Goodbye: An AIDS Story, which won an Emmy.
Tim went on to accept an opportunity to guest conduct the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. And when he learned they were looking for a new artistic director, he applied, because “…it was the first chorus on the planet to proudly proclaim sexual orientation in its very name.”
When the chorus was only four weeks old, activist Harvey Milk was assassinated. The first performance was on the steps of City Hall during a candlelight vigil. Harvey Milk, whose campaign motto was, “Come out, come out!” became the choir’s patron saint. And Tim commissioned the oratorio, I Am Harvey Milk.
In 2016, after Trump was elected and the chorus’s 40th anniversary coming up, they decided to take a trip to China. No gay choir had ever gone to China, but the trip would have been extremely expensive and they wouldn’t have been able to perform for many people.
So our board chair called and said, “Let’s go to the deep south, where the LGBTQ people are hurting. They have the worst laws on the books. They’re discriminated against. The churches treat them terribly. Let’s go on tour to the south.” And so I had to go back to the guys and go, “Hey, guys, we’re gonna trade Beijing in for Birmingham. How do you feel about that?
Everyone was down for it. Everyone felt if we can go make a difference in the south for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, let’s go. And so they paid their own way and we went to Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and did 25 appearances in eight days. And we have a documentary crew. And they went up with us and did this whole documentary thing, and they got back and they had 300 hours of tape. And they turned it over to an editor in LA. And so then they made this documentary called Gay Chorus Deep South. And so they send it up to some festivals. And lo and behold, we had our world premiere at Tribeca and won Audience Favorite, and won Audience Favorite in 35 more film festivals around the world. And then MTV bought it. And they’re looking for a slot in November to screen nationally. And it is awesome.
We rented the Brown Chapel AME in Selma, Alabama, where the civil rights movement began. And it only seats 300 people and we took 300 hours, so no audience. So it was a really intimate time that was filmed. It was unbelievably moving to know that in that basement, Martin Luther King gathered and built this revolution, birthed right there. And here we were doing the same thing in our own way. A part of the fight for our own rights. And we went from there to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and marched and sang “Love Can Build a Bridge” while walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
One of the best scenes of all is we’re in the Brown AME Chapel and had our time of just crying, trying to sing and crying and then trying to sing. And then we had four speakers at that service, all of whom had been at the 1965 march. And we walked out and there were three people protesting. And one girl—it’s delicious—the film crew went over and interviewed her and she was like, “You know what? I thought I was a lesbian and I never acted out on it. I think I really like girls, but then I married him” and pointed to this poor guy. So she’s trying to protest but she’s like, “but no, yeah, no. Okay, maybe.”
On some level, it feels like that’s why she was there, right? She was like, I need someone else to tell me this for me, someone else to embrace this.
Yeah. Her sign said “repent” and it probably meant “help.”
Tim has had really meaningful, sort of full circle experiences in his own life, too. Early in our conversation, I told him that someone coming out to me as gay when I was a kid immediately showed me there’s absolutely nothing wrong with gayness. He had an experience like that as well. At the time, he was told that his Jewish friend Alan would go to hell, something that made no sense to him. Even so, he tried to do his Christian good duty and help him find the lord and get “saved.” Twenty-five years later, Tim went to see him.
We parted at 18 with my, “You need to get Jesus in and I think you have a Jesus shaped hole in your heart.” And he went off to medical school, and I went off to be an opera singer. And then I came out and came back to Dallas, Texas, where I was conducting the Gay Men’s chorus. And as soon as I got there, I say “I need a doctor.”
And my friend said, “Well, my doctor is great. His name is Alan Hamill. All the blood rushed out of my face. I actually began to cry because I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding. That I left at 18 and now I’m 36. So 18 years later, I didn’t know if he would take me as a patient at all. I wouldn’t, if I had been him. But I called and made an appointment and I came in and they put me in the waiting room and I was sweating like a whore in church, you know, how would you do that anyway in the waiting room because you’d like you’re not knowing where they’re going prod? Yeah. Anyway, I was just sweating. And I heard the rustle on the door of him pulling out the papers. And he walked in. And I hadn’t seen him in 18 years. And he put the chart down and opened his arms.
Yeah, I get chill bumps today. Because you know, here was this beautiful Jewish man, doing what Christians are supposed to do. Hello?
Right, yes, opening our arms and being loving and accepting. And it’s interesting that these tenants of ‘love your neighbor’ and ‘tell the truth’ kind of take lower rank than this other idea of having to look and behave a certain way sexually.
Yeah. And make them be what you want them to be when that’s just stupid.
Increasingly, over the years, Tim’s parents embraced not only his gayness and pride about his identity, but his work and advocacy.
All of this has been music and mission. Activism has been a huge part of my whole life. And toward the end of their lives, they absolutely said with no question, “You’re a minister” and my mom said, “Your ministry now is greater than it could have ever been in the church.” Wow. And right up to Dad’s passing, he caught on the activist just a little bit and found a way to do that. I am so grateful for that journey.
If you haven’t been able to live fully or openly as who you are, whether that’s gay, lesbian, trans or anything else—maybe it’s not safe to do so where you are or you haven’t found the support system you need just yet—Tim had this to say:
In that setting, because I was there, oh, boy was I there. When you think you’re the only one. You’re sitting there listening to this podcast or you’re on YouTube, and you’re yearning to be a part of something like that. This was part of the discussion through the South of yeah, we look over at San Francisco and think, oh, my gosh, I wish I could be there. But there are a lot of circumstances that don’t allow for that. And I think if I were to say anything to people in that in that situation, who are isolated in small places and have this fear of what might happen if they came out, sit in your room, talk to yourself, look at yourself in the mirror, tell yourself number one— this is my life’s mission, is to make sure that everyone looking in that mirror knows that they are whole and fully formed by their creator, whoever that is. You don’t have to change. This is who I am. It was how I was born. And the lies and the faking things like sex that we do to fit in are all just this veneer.
For the last 35 years, I have connected and counseled hundreds of LGBTQ people. I’ve never had one that said, I wish I had waited longer to come out. Not one, every single one of them says, I don’t know why I just didn’t do that. Because the pains not going to get easier. Trust me, the longer you live that lie, the harder it’s going to be. And you know, some of it’s ‘never borrow trouble from the future’. So when you imagine, oh my gosh, if I were to, you know, I like I love to say, you know what, you know, if I came out, Grandpa might just die. And I like to say, you know, there’s never been a reported death from a family member coming out. No one’s actually died on that. So take grandpa off of that. Grandpa is probably going to go, “Yee ha, love that.”
All the fears that we build up, I mean, mine all came true. I lost everything. But then I regained it. And the regaining was so beautiful and delicious, much of which I’ve described about my parents, when we all tell the truth and we’re all authentic. And I will say that because you are made the way you are by your creator, people that can’t accept that are now define your creator. They’re not just defining you. They’re saying your god that you’ve chosen is no good and wrong and made a mistake. And you’re not a mistake. So whatever courage you can come up with inside yourself. And then I would say, of course, come out to somebody come out to somebody. And once you do that, you pretty much want to tell another person.
In the introduction of his book, Tim shared that the decision to write his life story began as an exercise to make sense of his many ups and downs and quickly turned into a lot more. “By sharing my roller coaster journey,” he wrote “perhaps others’ twists and turns, ups and downs may seem a little tamer or at least conquerable.”
The coming out was just one of my ups and downs. I’m HIV positive, and that was really hard. I’d already come out and then I had to do that again with all my family and tell them that. And I had lots of ups and downs in my career as an opera singer and some huge successes, but it was all up and down. And then two years ago, my daughter died suddenly. She lived here, not with me, but 10 minutes away from me and that just rocked my world.
And so I took some time away and thought I’ll just write just a journal, and it turned into a book. And because I spent 35 years as a Southern Baptist music minister and almost 35 now, as I say, waving my arms at the gays, it’s two lives. It’s two completely different lives. Oh, boy. And so I called my book Tale of Two Tims: Big ‘Ol Baptist, Big Old Gay. And it’s a chronicle of my experiences and what I’ve learned. It’s on the Amazon, and I actually read the audiobook myself, and it’s available on Amazon, audible iTunes, or you can find it at my website, which is timseelig.com. And it’s been so fun. I don’t really hawk books, I’m not a bookseller. It’s not “oh, my book, buy my book,” but people have enjoyed it. I’ll just say that.
This week’s listener question involves a coming out experience, too. It came from Dakota, who wrote this:
My friend recently told her parents she’s gay and they are not being cool about it. She came out because she fell in love and I am so happy for her. I also want to be supportive and maybe cheer her up if I can.
She and I were talking and she seems to have sex questions… One that came up is how to use toys during sex in a lesbian/only vaginas situation. So if you can provide tips and maybe suggest a type of toy that I could put in a care package for her, that would be amazing!! Thank you! – Dakota
Dakota, you are awesome and I am so happy that your friend has you and a newfound love in her life. Here is what Dr. Megan Fleming had to say:
Dakota, shoutout to you for being an amazing friend and being there for your friend. Coming out to parents and loved ones is never easy. In fact, a recent study showed almost a third of LGBTQ youth say that telling people that they love have concerns, and that they won’t accept them is one of their biggest concerns. And so all I can say is that, although it’s very unfortunate and sad, it’s a journey and a process that takes time and a series of conversations, including education that sexual orientation is so much more than about sex. And I have seen countless times how, even when initially, a conversation or even the first few passes doesn’t go well with parents, over time and making room for both people’s perspectives can lead to a real shift and change in feelings about acceptance and ability to embrace something that’s really often so unfamiliar.
There are some really great sex toys out there and although they often can be used for any sexual orientation, some women absolutely prefer those that are sort of less phallic in nature. In particular, I love Wet for Her, a company designed by lesbians for lesbians. [Megan especially recommended the Double Dildo 4, Union Double Dildo and a finger vibe!]
I love those suggestions. All of those toys sound super fun. Another thing to keep in mind is that all sex toys can become couples’ sex toys. You’re so right that most toys labeled “for couples” are designed for a penis and clitoris combo. But you can have fun playing with toys for one person together, or two toys, one for each of a pair, which I highly recommend.
If you have a question for me or Dr. Megan, feel free to reach out. For monthly extras from me by email, sign up at girlboner.org. And if you enjoyed the episode, I would so appreciate a rating or review. Thanks so much for listening and have a beautiful, Girl Boner-embracing week.
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