What happens when a gay men's choir tours the Deep South? This one decided to find out.
Members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus in Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Gooch.

On a sultry October day in Selma, Alabama, about 300 members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in identical purple shirts. The iconic bridge where civil rights leaders famously stood against racism has seen a lot in its day. But nothing quite like this.

Chorus executive director Chris Verdugo was there, marching high above the meandering Alabama River, gripping his rainbow flag. He affectionately describes looking into the diverse sea of marchers — people of all colors, religions, and walks of life. He pauses while recapping the experience to fight back tears, "I just never expected a moment like that."


The SFGMC crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Photo by Gooch.

Last fall, the SFGMC was arranging an international tour to celebrate its 40th anniversary season. Chorus leaders settled on either China or Europe as the likely destination, and members were buzzing over the opportunity to bring their tunes to the global stage.

Then Donald Trump was elected president.

Chorus leaders — anxious as to how a Trump administration and GOP-controlled Congress would affect LGBTQ rights — immediately looked inward. How could they stand up to bigotry? How could they help, right here at home?

The group scratched their overseas agenda and rolled out a map of America instead. They pinpointed two U.S. states that, in their opinion, had the most egregious homophobic and transphobic laws on the books: North Carolina and Mississippi. These would be essential pit stops. The neighboring states of Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee would round out the seven-day trip.

Through its concerts and a number of community events, the SFGMC set out to open minds, change hearts, and be a beacon of hope to LGBTQ youth in some of the most socially conservative states in the country.

Organizers named it The Lavender Pen Tour after the pen LGBTQ trailblazer Harvey Milk gifted to San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who used it to sign a gay civil rights bill in 1977. The SFGMC booked 23 appearances. They ordered purple shirts. By Oct. 8, chorus members were piling into buses in Jackson, Mississippi.

Members of the SFGMC on its tour bus in Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Gooch.

The idea that some people in these communities wouldn't want the chorus to swing into town is exactly why those tour stops were chosen, says Seelig.

"We immediately started getting requests from people all over the country; 'Come to our state. Come to our state,'" he says. The group also got requests that specifically asked it not to bring its gay agenda (so to speak) to their hometowns. "We [were] like, 'OK, then we're sure going to come there.'"

It was a delicate balance though, Seelig says; the group didn't want to barge into town preaching to their Bible Belt hosts. But it did want to be the spark of social change — inspiring hope, starting tough conversations, showing local queer youth that it truly does get better.

Often, their performances act as the conduit for that process. "We want to use our music to be that battering ram or that soft blanket," Seelig says. "Somewhere in between or both all at once."

The songs end up making a difference, regardless of what corner of the country they're performed in, explains chorus member Stuart Cohen. “No matter what concert we have, we get letters from people in the audience saying it changes their lives," he says.

The SFGMC perform in Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo by Gooch.

The humid, gray morning the SFGMC marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the second day of the weeklong tour, yet the group had already experienced a number of eye-opening moments illustrating exactly why the tour mattered.

At their concert Sunday night, Verdugo overheard a young man and his mom chatting during intermission. "'Could you imagine if something like this would have existed when you were 16 and how you wouldn't have felt so alone?'" he recalls the mom asking her son.

"I thought, that's exactly it," he continues. "That's why we're here: so that those other 16- and 17-year-olds who are in the audience don't feel so alone."

Members of the SFGMC during a stop in Tennessee. Photo by Dave Earl.

That goal in particular — helping LGBTQ youth see a brighter future for themselves — was especially palpable.

Patty Rudolph, a local straight ally and member of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, came out to see the group perform in Birmingham. A mom to a gay son, Rudolph says it's crucial for LGBTQ kids in the South to understand there's a place for them there.

"We live in the Bible Belt; the [LGBTQ] youth here in Alabama really do struggle with issues of substance abuse and homelessness and depression and suicide," she explains. "To see positive role models — people that are living happy lives, productive lives — it’s empowering to the youth."

Seeing that glimmer of hope is important in the most politically conservative region of America. Theses states have few (if any) policies to protect LGBTQ people and their rights, including employment and housing anti-discrimination laws, hate crime legislation, or anti-bullying guidelines for schools. Homophobia and transphobia — at times promoted directly from the pulpit — run rampant, forcing LGBTQ people to keep their identity in the dark.

"We met someone in Mississippi and they summed it up like this: 'You can live in Mississippi and you can be gay in Mississippi, but you have to be willing to give up a part of yourself,'" Verdugo says. "No one should ever have to give up a piece of who they are to be who they are."

Members of the SFGMC go in for a group hug in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Gooch.

The chorus netted more than $100,000 for local LGBTQ nonprofits through ticket sales and audience donations on the trip. The funds benefited 21 groups — organizations like Birmingham AIDS Outreach, PFLAG Charlotte, and Time Out Youth Center for trans kids. These groups will continue to spread hope where it's needed long after the Lavender Pen Tour passed through town.

If there’s one thing that fueled the tour, it’s the belief that tomorrow can be better than today.

"That's really the underlying goals of this tour, to poke the bear, so to speak, have conversations, share hope, try to inspire folks and [let them] know that they're not alone," says Verdugo. "If you need someone's shoulder, we're here. You need to be carried? We'll carry you. You need someone to lean on? You can lean on us."

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Shopping sustainably is increasingly important given the severity of the climate crisis, but sometimes it's hard to know where to turn. Thankfully, Amazon is making it a little easier to browse thousands of products that have one or more of 19 sustainability certifications that help preserve the natural world.

The online retailer recently announced Climate Pledge Friendly, a program to make it easier for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products. To determine the sustainability of a product, the program partnered with third-party certifications, including governmental agencies, nonprofits, and independent labs.

With a selection of items spanning grocery, household, fashion, beauty, and personal electronics, you'll be able to shop more sustainably not just for the holiday season, but throughout the year for your essentials, as well.

You can browse all of the Climate Pledge Friendly products here, labeled with an icon and which certification(s) they meet. To get you on your way to shopping more sustainably, we've rounded up eight of our favorite Climate Pledge Friendly-products that will make great gifts all year long.

Amazon

Jack Wolfskin Women's North York Coat

Give the gift of warmth and style with this coat, available in a variety of colors. Sustainability is built into all Jack Wolfskin products and each item comes with a code that lets you trace back to its origins and understand how it was made.

Bluesign: Bluesign products are responsibly manufactured by using safer chemicals and fewer resources, including less energy, in production.


Amazon

Amazon All-new Echo Dot (4th Gen)

For the tech-obsessed. This Alexa smart speaker, which comes in a sleek, compact design, lets you voice control your entertainment and your smart home as well as connect with others.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.


Amazon

Burt's Bees Family Jammies Matching Holiday Organic Cotton Pajamas

Get into the holiday spirit with these fun matching PJs for the whole family. Perfect for pictures that even Fido can get in on.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

Naturistick 5-Pack Lip Balm Gift Set

With 100% natural ingredients that are gentle on ultra-sensitive lips, this gift is a great gift for the whole family.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.


Amazon

Arus Women's GOTS Certified Organic Cotton Hooded Full Length Turkish Bathrobe

For those who love to lounge around, this full-length organic cotton bathrobe is the way to go. Available in five different colors, it has comfortable cuffed sleeves, a hood, pockets, and adjustable belt.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

L'Occitane Extra-Gentle Vegetable Based Soap

This luxe soap, made with moisturizing shea butter and scented with verbena, is perfect for the self-care obsessed.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.

Amazon

Goodthreads Men's Sweater-Knit Fleece Long-Sleeve Bomber

For the fashionable men in your life, this fashion-forward knit bomber is an excellent choice. The sweater material keeps it cozy and warm, while the bomber jacket-cut, zip front, and rib-trim neck make it look elevated.

Recycled Claim Standard 100: Products with this certification use materials made from at least 95% recycled content.

Amazon

All-new Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote

Make it even easier to access your favorite movies and shows this holiday season. The new Fire TV Stick lets you use your voice to search across apps. Plus it controls the power and volume on your TV, so you'll never need to leave the couch! Except for snacks.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.

In the hours before he was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, then-President-elect Biden was sent a letter signed by 17 freshmen GOP members of the House of Representatives.

In sharp contrast to the 121 Republican House members who voted against the certification of Biden's electoral votes—a constitutional procedure merely check-marking the state certifications that had already taken place—this letter expresses a desire to "rise above the partisan fray" and work together with Biden as he takes over the presidency.

The letter reads:

Dear President-elect Biden,

Congratulations on the beginning of your administration and presidency. As members of this freshman class, we trust that the next four years will present your administration and the 117thCongress with numerous challenges and successes, and we are hopeful that – despite our ideological differences – we may work together on behalf of the American people we are each so fortunate to serve.

After two impeachments, lengthy inter-branch investigations, and, most recently, the horrific attack on our nation's capital, it is clear that the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans does not serve a single American.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.