Houston’s First Baptist Church, whose roadside cross is impossible to miss when passing by on the Katy Freeway, boasts on their website that they are “a thriving and diverse community of real people experiencing real life together.” For Dr. Tim Seelig, it was indeed a real-life experience at First Baptist that led to his firing and exile, subsequent years of harassment by the church, and a renewed sense of self and happiness. In his forthcoming memoir, A Tale of Two Tims: Big Ol’ Baptist, Big Ol’ Gay, Seelig details the ebbs and flows of coming out as gay in 1986 and how, despite the church’s best efforts, he is thriving in his second act.
“I’ve spent 35 years as a Baptist and 35 as a big ol’ gay,” the jovial 69-year-old laughs. Throughout his life, Seelig has worked as a conductor, singer, teacher, and motivational speaker. Today, he is the artistic director and conductor of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the National LGBTQ Center for the Arts. He has also conducted annually at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for 25 years, and was recently part of a documentary called Gay Chorus Deep South that won the Audience Award at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
Meeting him today, you would never suspect that he was once married to a woman, raised two children, and led a thriving music ministry at a very conservative church in Texas. “My dad was the vice president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and my mother was on the voice faculty,” Seelig notes. “They spent 60 years there and the name Seelig was synonymous with Baptists.” Speaking to the years of sexual repression that he experienced, the decorated musician says plainly, “As a Baptist, if you come out, you fear being disowned or thrown out.”
In his latest book, Seelig recounts his life leading up to his public outing by a Christian counselor to his wife, who then outed him to church leaders, the hardships he faced as a result, and everything in between. He recalls visiting an adult bookstore in Montrose, meeting men in a park that was just spitting distance from the church, and feeling very isolated as a gay man in the ’80s. “In 1986, I knew one out gay person,” he recalls. “So it was not a matter of, ‘Let’s join this crowd of gay people.’ I was definitely the Lone Ranger.”
Upon being outed to his church’s leadership by his therapist, Seelig knew his job and life were in jeopardy. “[The church was] not going to just let me come out and go be gay,” he explains. “They wanted it to be public and a lesson to others—to make me a scapegoat.” He dedicates a portion of the book to those harrowing days, the three therapists that shamed him for speaking his truth, and the lengths that the church went to in order to “ruin” him. “My wife and I had decided on ‘irreconcilable differences’ [as our grounds for divorce], because we had no money,” Seelig remembers. “First Baptist got her a lawyer, and a constable served me with new divorce papers—on the grounds of sodomy—while I was teaching at Houston Baptist University.”
Clearly, it was time for a fresh start. Seelig moved back to Dallas and interviewed to serve as conductor of the Turtle Creek Chorale, a gay men’s chorus, to make money. “I told them, ‘I’ve just come out, I’ve been ruined, the church took everything that I had, and I don’t have the option of failing.’” It would prove a formative move in his new life as an out gay man. He dove into activism, working and marching alongside brothers and sisters during the AIDS pandemic. He was honored to carry the Olympic torch in 1996 as an “AIDS activist hero,” his self-described proudest accolade. Even after receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis, Seelig used humor to survive and move forward. “I was maybe a little funny as a Southern Baptist, but when I came out at 35,” he laughs, “I decided the rest of my life would have a foundation of humor—or else I don’t want to keep going.”
His trademark sense of humor has come in handy throughout his life, but no more so than when he headed west to San Francisco to be closer to his daughter and her family. Her “sudden and unexpected” death two years ago rocked Seelig’s world and inspired him to take a three-month sabbatical to write his memoir. “That’s why I wrote it,” he states. “It’s not the final bump in the road, but definitely the biggest that I’ve ever faced, or will ever face.”
After putting the final touches on his autobiography, Seelig took a leap of faith and submitted it to a publisher. “I sent it off and thought they wouldn’t take it, but they did, and now it’s published,” he says with playful disbelief. “When my son-in-law read it for the first time, he said, ‘This is the greatest gift you could have ever given my daughter, because she’s going to learn more about her mom through your autobiography than we ever could have told her.’”
The charismatic septuagenarian’s whirlwind of a life, separated into two parts, is immortalized in his new page-turning book. It’s a testament to the power of living your truth, and serves as a guide to anyone who is fearful of that challenge. “I want this story told. Even if you come out and someone wants the worst things to happen to you, it won’t happen,” he says passionately. “As my mom and dad said in their later years, ‘Honey, you’ve had a greater ministry than you would have ever had if you had stayed in the church.’ That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 30 years: healing myself and others who have also been wounded by organized religion. I was out there alone on the cliff. Thank goodness I had the gumption to climb up it instead of fall down.”
For more information on Dr. Tim Seelig, visit timseelig.com.
This article appears in the July 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.