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.

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."

Most Shared
via bfmamatalk / facebook

Where did we go wrong as a society to make women feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public?

No one should feel they have the right to tell a woman when, where, and how she can breastfeed. The stigma should be placed on those who have the nerve to tell a woman feeding her child to "Cover up" or to ask "Where's your modesty?"

Breasts were made to feed babies. Yes, they also have a sexual function but anyone who has the maturity of a sixth grader knows the difference between a sexual act and feeding a child.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Instagram / JLo

The Me Too movement has shed light on just how many actresses have been placed in positions that make them feel uncomfortable. Abuse of power has been all too commonplace. Some actresses have been coerced into doing something that made them uncomfortable because they felt they couldn't say no to the director. And it's not always as flagrant as Louis C.K. masturbating in front of an up-and-coming comedian, or Harvey Weinstein forcing himself on actresses in hotel rooms.

But it's important to remember that you can always firmly put your foot down and say no. While speaking at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Actress Roundtable, Jennifer Lopez opened up about her experiences with a director who behaved inappropriately. Laura Dern, Awkwafina, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, and Renee Zellweger were also at the roundtable.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

Life for a shelter dog, even if it's a comfortable shelter administered by the ASPCA with as many amenities as can be afforded, is still not the same as having the comfort and safety of a forever home. Professional violinist Martin Agee knows that and that's why he volunteers himself and his instrument to help.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Courtesy of Macy's

In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

Believe
True
Macy's