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How a gay chorus is using American Sign Language to keep holiday spirit alive

For this year's annual holiday concert, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus has added an inclusive twist to the Christmas classic "Silent Night."
Image: San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus
San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.JP Lor / San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus has gone virtual this holiday season and has added an inclusive twist to the Christmas classic "Silent Night."

During its annual holiday concert, which will be held on Christmas Eve, the 300-member chorus will perform "Silent Night" while using American Sign Language, so the deaf and hearing-impaired community can enjoy the performance.

The chorus released a preview video of what's to come during its 30th annual holiday celebration.

The chorus' annual holiday concert began in 1990 in an effort to bring cheer to those who had been impacted by the AIDS epidemic.

As for the "Silent Night" performance, artistic director Timothy Seelig said it was inspired by past inclusivity efforts by other choruses.

"I wish I could take credit for this inspiration, but it actually came from the Seattle Men’s Chorus in the mid 1980s. It was first included as a way to include the deaf community in the concert experience," Seelig told NBC News in an email. "It quickly swept through choruses everywhere and is a cherished tradition for all."

The New York City Gay Men's Chorus has also been incorporating American Sign Language into its performances since the '80s.

"They are a world-class organization, and I try my best to make sure that my interpretations are up to their level to make sure that the deaf audience is getting the same quality the hearing audience is getting," Tom McGillis, who has been signing for the New York chorus since 1988, told NBC News in 2016.

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus gained national recognition for its talents last year in the award-winning documentary “Gay Chorus Deep South,” which followed the group as it traveled through the South in 2017 to promote a message of acceptance and unity. The film, directed by David Charles Rodrigues, won the documentary audience award in the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and is now being shown on on Pop, Logo and Pluto TV.

LGBTQ Southerners have often faced social and political hardships across the Bible Belt. One Arkansas city last year attempted to enforce LGBTQ protections, but it was ultimately ruled it could not enforce its ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Circumstances like this are among the reasons why Seelig found it important for the chorus to embark on the journey after the 2016 election.

"We felt things were going to get much worse for the LGBTQ community, especially in states with the most egregious discriminatory laws already on the books. It was important for us to reach out to bring uplifting and unifying music to our brothers and sisters in the South," he said.

In the wake of the pandemic and the surge of Covid-19 cases, Seelig said the San Francisco chorus will emerge resilient.

"From its courageous beginning one October night in 1978, the chorus has been at the forefront of the fight for equality for all — whatever direction that took," Seelig said. "The chorus is now experiencing its second pandemic in its 43 years. We will come out of this one stronger and more committed to the work before us."

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus annual holiday concert, "Home for the Holidays," will take place on Thursday, Dec. 24, at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST.

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