+
Most Shared

What happens when a gay men's choir tours the Deep South? This one decided to find out.

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus went to the South to open hearts and minds.

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 $100,000for 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."

Nature

Pennsylvania home is the entrance to a cave that’s been closed for 70 years

You can only access the cave from the basement of the home and it’s open for business.

This Pennsylvania home is the entrance to a cave.

Have you ever seen something in a movie or online and thought, "That's totally fake," only to find out it's absolutely a real thing? That's sort of how this house in Pennsylvania comes across. It just seems too fantastical to be real, and yet somehow it actually exists.

The home sits between Greencastle and Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and houses a pretty unique public secret. There's a cave in the basement. Not a man cave or a basement that makes you feel like you're in a cave, but an actual cave that you can't get to unless you go through the house.

Turns out the cave was discovered in the 1830s on the land of John Coffey, according to Uncovering PA, but the story of how it was found is unclear. People would climb down into the cave to explore occasionally until the land was leased about 100 years later and a small structure was built over the cave opening.

Keep ReadingShow less
Joy

34-year-old man is learning to read on TikTok in series of motivational videos

His reading skills have improved so much that he plans to read 100 books this year.

@oliverspeaks1/TikTok

Oliver James is the biggest star on BookTok.

With over 125,000 followers, 34-year-old Oliver James is a star in the BookTok community. And it all started with a very simple goal: Learn to read.

For most kids, school is a place where they can develop a relationship with learning in a safe environment. For James, school was the opposite. Growing up with learning and behavior disabilities subjected him to abusive teaching practices in special education, which, of course, did nothing to help.

"The special education system at the time was more focused on behavioral than educating," he told Good Morning America. "So they spent a lotta time restraining us, a lotta time disciplining us, a lotta times putting us in positions to kinda shape us to just not act out in class."

Keep ReadingShow less
Family

Professional tidier Marie Kondo says she's 'kind of given up' after having three kids

Hearing Kondo say, 'My home is messy,' is sparking joy for moms everywhere.

Marie Kondo playing with her daughters.

Marie Kondo's book, "The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up," has repeatedly made huge waves around the world since it came out in 2010. From eliminating anything that didn't "spark joy" from your house to folding clothes into tiny rectangles and storing them vertically, the KonMari method of maintaining an organized home hit the mark for millions of people. The success of her book even led to two Netflix series.

It also sparked backlash from parents who insisted that keeping a tidy home with children was not so simple. It's one thing to get rid of an old sweater that no longer brings you joy. It's entirely another to toss an old, empty cereal box that sparks zero joy for you, but that your 2-year-old is inexplicably attached to.

To be fair, Kondo never forced her way into anyone's home and made them organize it her way. But also to be fair, she didn't have kids when she wrote her best-selling book on keeping a tidy home. The reality is that keeping a home organized and tidy with children living in it is a whole other ballgame, as Kondo has discovered now that she has three kids of her own.

Keep ReadingShow less
Pop Culture

Buffy Sainte-Marie shares what led to her openly breastfeeding on 'Sesame Street' in 1977

The way she explained to Big Bird what she was doing is still an all-time great example.

"Sesame Street" taught kids about life in addition to letters and numbers.

In 1977, singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie did something revolutionary: She fed her baby on Sesame Street.

The Indigenous Canadian-Ameican singer-songwriter wasn't doing anything millions of other mothers hadn't done—she was simply feeding her baby. But the fact that she was breastfeeding him was significant since breastfeeding in the United States hit an all-time low in 1971 and was just starting to make a comeback. The fact that she did it openly on a children's television program was even more notable, since "What if children see?" has been a key pearl clutch for people who criticize breastfeeding in public.

But the most remarkable thing about the "Sesame Street" segment was the lovely interchange between Big Bird and Sainte-Marie when he asked her what she was doing.

Keep ReadingShow less
via Pexels

A couple celebrates while packing their home.

One of the topics that we like to highlight on Upworthy is people who are redefining what it means to be in a relationship. Recently, we’ve shared the stories of platonic life partners, moms who work together as part of a “mommune” and a polyamorous family with four equally-committed parents.

A growing number of people are reevaluating traditional relationships and entering lifestyles that work for them instead of trying to fit into preexisting roles. It makes sense because the more lifestyle options that are available, the greater chance we have to be happy.

A recent trend in unconventional relationships is married couples "living apart together," or LATs as they are known among mental health professionals.

Actress Helena Bonham Carter and director Tim Burton, actress Gwyneth Paltrow and producer Brad Falchuk, and photographer Annie Leibovitz and activist Susan Sontag are all high-profile couples who’ve embraced the LAT lifestyle.

Keep ReadingShow less
Pop Culture

YouTube star MrBeast sponsors 1,000 people's cataract surgery to help them see again

"I had never heard of MrBeast so I almost hung up. But gratefully did not hang up."

YouTube star sponsors 1,000 people's cataract surgery

Blindness touches people's lives around the world and YouTube star Jimmy Donaldson, more popularly known as MrBeast, is trying to do something about it. Donaldson made it his mission to help 1,000 people regain their eyesight with the help of Dr. Jeff Levenson, an ophthalmologist and surgeon in Jacksonville, Florida.

Levenson has been operating a program called "Gift of Sight" for over 20 years. The program provides free cataract surgery to uninsured people who are legally blind for free, so long as they meet certain criteria. Levenson had never heard of Donaldson, and he almost hung up on him when the YouTube star called to ask about a partnership.

"I had never heard of MrBeast so I almost hung up. But gratefully did not hang up," Levenson told CNN.

After figuring out that Donaldson was indeed a real person who wanted to help others, the duo called around the Jacksonville area to determine the people who needed help the most. They got their list of clients from free clinics and homeless shelters, which covered the United States portion of the surgeries.

Keep ReadingShow less