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."

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.