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