Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“A NIGHT AT SWITCH ‘N PLAY”— Satirizing It All

“A Night at Switch ‘n Play”

Satirizing It All

Amos Lassen

At a neighborhood queer bar in Brooklyn, the experimental drag and burlesque show “Switch n’ Play” is host to inventive drag kings, experimental burlesque dancers, and more traditional drag queen acts as well. “A Night at Switch ‘n Play” is a new documentary about the queer collective.

Switch n’ Play is a queer performance collective that stages fabulous subversive drag and burlesque shows. The ensemble blows up traditional gender roles, pushing the limits of what drag and burlesque can be. But more than that, the performers are a tight-knit family of outsiders who welcome queer audiences into their world and create a safe space where everyone can be themselves. In the film we meet the diverse members of the collective and see live performances. 

Directed and edited by Cody Stickels, and features performances from collective members Divina GranSparkle, K.James, Miss Malice, Nyx Nocturne, Pearl Harbor, Vigor Mortis, and Zoe Ziegfeld. This is probably the queerest film I have seen in long time and it is a look at an extraordinary queer performance collective who take over a small neighborhood bar in Brooklyn to shock the eager audience into ecstatic applause.  The acts include experimental burlesque queens,  innovative drag queens, some shockingly performance artistes, and others that defy description.

They play with both their gender and sexuality and refuse to be defined by it in any sense of the word. In their acts they satirize traditional role-playing, and even though this in itself is a serious personal issue to them,  it is done with humor.

The  Collective has created this safe queer and very welcoming space where everyone can be themselves whilst watching the most outrageous performances that are the result their imaginations.

Their performance space looks like someone’s slightly shabby living room and is hosted by Miss Malice, a glam self-confessed queer femme performance persona and “femmecee”. Her sidekick is Zoe Ziegfeld, a partially dressed burlesque dancer and general nightlife mischief-maker with a wicked sense of humor.  Pearl Harbor is a femme looking drag queen with a bizarrely creative act/performance which includes their own poetry

 Switch ‘n Play has been going since 2006 and is not the faint hearted or  mainstream audience : it is for any queers along the spectrum by a group of enlightened and talented  queers. The performances are audacious and very funny and they radiate a sense of family. To go to their show is akin to visiting them at home.

“STATE OF PRIDE”— The LGBTQ Movement and Pride

of Pride

“State of Pride”

The LGBTQ Movement and Pride

Amos Lassen

 Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary, “State of Pride”  looks at the LGBTQ movement and Pride celebrations as we stand ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising this summer.

Activist Raymond Braun tells the tales on camera including his his own emotional story with regards to his coming out. We feel empathy for his pain. To see how Pride has changed, we look at different communities (Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Salt Lake City, Utah and San Francisco, California and others. We get a diverse look at people from all walks of life who are members of the LGBTQ community. San Francisco celebrates Pride for an entire weekend— the Trans March is Friday, the Dyke March is on Saturday, and finally, the weekend wraps up with Pride on Sunday.  In the Deep South, there is Black Pride taking that also takes place.

We meet Jackie, a trans woman who is celebrating her first Trans Pride after coming out the previous August.  She realizes how lucky she is because of her relationship with her family and having the economic resources available to live as she does.  Thanks to Braun, she’s meest Our Lady J, who was  the SF Pride Celebrity Grand Marshall.

While speaking with Raymond Braun, Our Lady J Pride says “Trans Pride feels more like a protest than a celebration.  I think it’s because we still have so far to go.”  In response, Jackie says that she loves the protest part so much when it comes to Pride. 

“In many ways, we’re still fighting for our rights.  The transgender community alone deals with an unproportionate amount of violence.  We really see this with transgender people of color.  We don’t get much more than a glimpse at our community and realize how many members chose not to appear. This is where our work must focus next.

“GAME GIRLS”— A Love Story


A Love Story

Amos Lassen

“Game Girls follows couple Teri Rogers and Tiahna Vince, who over the course of the documentary, deal with the hardships of life on the street in order to find a secure full time job and affordable housing for the two of them.

There are problems ranging from prison time to alcoholism and recurrent mental health issues, yet the pair manage to move away from the streets. Unfortunately, like so many other African Americans who live just above the level of poverty, a place to live doesn’t put an end to their predicament.

Director Alina Skrzeszewska doesn’t avoid portraying the most horrible aspects of life on the streets, even if they are just tales being recounted at group therapy sessions (part of a workshop the director herself founded to help women within this community). Some of what we see is very disturbing particularly accounts of graphic sexual violence including one that was left ignored by the victim’s parent. Society has ignored these women, the horrors they’ve faced have largely gone under reported or just not reported at all.  It’s difficult to listen hear these stories but it’s important that they are finally heard.

The film beautifully balances light and the dark. There is the theme of social unrest being caused by deep-rooted inequality to the sheer sexuality of the individuals and this indeed has major ramifications in their search for a home. Nonetheless, their  relationship still feels heartwarming. Skrzeszewska shows the downsides in their relationship  but doesn’t exploit personal moments yet managing to depict a couple in the midst of an intimate, romantic happiness despite everything else.

Game Girls” may be a bit too intimate for some viewers; Skrzeszewska simply depicts the hardships of the pair’s lives, letting the viewers connect the dots to wider political connotations this a political film but above all else it is a sensitive humanist film that is frequently difficult to watch, but is very worthwhile. The effectively depicts the human cost of regressive social policies is an achievement that chronicles the many ups and downs (mostly the latter) of an African-American lesbian couple in L.A.’s Skid Row neighborhood.

When the film begins, one of the women, Teri, is coping with mental illness, while the other, Tiahna, has been locked up in jail for drug dealing letting us know that this is not an easy film to watch.  We seem to have unlimited access to the lives of Teri and Tiahna over the course of a year or so— we follow them from their happy union after Tiahna’s release to the difficult days they spend trying to scrape by on Skid Row — an area made up of 55 city blocks in downtown Los Angeles, and whose homeless population is estimated to be around 10,000. (None of these figures are provided in the film, which gives us zero background information as it plunges us into the world of its two protagonists.)

Teri is the older and rougher of the two, we see her first dropping a litany of f-words and trying to pick a fight in the street. But they manage to find solace and tenderness in each other’s arms, although soon enough anything seems like an excuse for a major fight. Things seem to be going good for a while, until they quickly go bad again, and the film’s most disturbing scene happens late in the game when the two get in the kind of violent domestic dispute that one often sees on episodes of Cops.

More interesting is how we see the two navigating Los Angeles city bureaucracy in order to receive public assistance, and, later on, the possibility of affordable housing outside the Skid Row area. Neither of the women seems to have gainful employment, with Teri unable to hold down a job due to an (unexplained) behavioral disorder. Yet the city does offer them a way out of the slums, while also allowing them free counseling in the form of group therapy sessions where they act out personal stories using toys.

Teri and Tiahna have a lot to overcome, and the fact that, on their best days, they manage to make things work is a testament to their resilience. But Game Girls doesn’t really go beyond its fly-on-the-wall approach to its heroines, offering us lots of intimacy but nothing that really sets its story within a greater social or political context.



“KILLING PATIENT ZERO”— Zero, the Man and the AIDS Epidemic

“Killing Patient Zero”

Zero, the Man and the AIDS Epidemic

Amos Lassen

Most of us are aware of the phrase “Patient Zero” as the man “responsible” for bringing AIDS to the United States and who has become increasingly forgotten over time. He was so-named in journalist Randy Shilts’ influential nonfiction book “And the Band Played On” which brought the AIDS conversation into the mainstream several years after it began. A French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaetan Dugas was widely believed to be the first person who brought the disease to the USA and around the world. He died three years before the book’s publication, and so didn’t live to see how his place as a footnote in the wider story of the epidemic was so twisted that he became something of a manipulative villain who deliberately spread the disease. Shilts, who died of AIDS related complications himself in 1994, was accused by many of internalized homophobia due to these negative (and seemingly sensationalized) portrayals of Patient Zero within his work.

Dugas may look irresponsible in retrospect in that he refused to take medical advice and continued with his sex life until he had concrete proof as to how the virus was spread. He was not intentionally evil but he was foolish on a catastrophic level, as opposed to being an evil man with intent to harm others. Eventually, it was revealed he was one of many people with the virus and not the originator, but this was years later and the damage had been done— the myth of patient zero has left a lasting impact while the truth of the man has been forgotten.

Director Laurie Lynd looks at “Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic” by Richard McKay and this film is the result. While the film criticizes  Dugas for his actions, it is dedicated to his memory. It puts his reckless behavior in the context of the gay liberation movement and shows why so many gay men refused to give up one of the few joys they had in a culture hostile to their existence. 

Lynd has conducted more than 40 interviews for this documentary, many of whom were subjects in Shilts’ original book. He was searching for the truths behind the harmful myths. The media’s depiction of the “gay cancer” at the time was seemingly designed to reinforce harmful stereotypes of gay men and their sex lives, with conservative governments across the world refusing to even acknowledge the crisis due to a hatred of gay people. As many interviewers state that if this were disproportionately affecting straight men, there would have been an urgency to find a cure a lot sooner. An interview with Shilts’ original publisher, who convinced him to divorce the minor Patient Zero story from the book and sell it to the conservative tabloid the New York Post, shows that in order to get this story into the public consciousness, the worst stereotypes had to be indulged to make headlines. A man who wanted to find the human story behind the headlines had to sacrifice his own findings to get noticed, and the result was harmful to the LGBT community.

Much of the film’s first half is dedicated to discussing the sexual freedoms of the 70’s, following the Stonewall riots that closed the previous decade. Within this context, it makes the spread of the disease and the reluctance to step away from sex lives understandable if not justifiable. It puts the promiscuity considered by many people in polite society at the time to be a sinful trait under a lens that removes all judgement. For years, trips to nightclubs and bathhouses were the only joys in life away from the scorn of the wider world, you can see why there’d be a reluctance to step away from that lifestyle. Through various talking head interviews, Lynd helps younger audiences understand why this disease was able to spread so widely, without judging as to the reasons why this was able to happen.

“Killing Patient Zero” is important to our understanding of the AIDS crisis.  “People who are young do not understand in any real way, even if they know the fact, that homosexuality was against the law,” says author and activist Fran Leibowitz in the film. “It was against the law—not just that your parents didn’t like you or people you went to school with didn’t like you. It was actually a crime.” Leibowitz encapsulates the pervasive homophobia that allowed the AIDS crisis to devastate the gay community while the powers that be failed to take action. More significantly, Leibowitz’s comment highlights the significance of the period of euphoria that shortly preceded the AIDS outbreak as gay men and women enjoyed hard fought sexual liberation after being considered criminal deviants simply for whom they loved. It’s in this context that one must appreciate the life of Gaétan Dugas, who didn’t waste a second of his freedom.

Forget everything you thought you knew about the man known as “Patient Zero.”  “Killing Patient Zero” says goodbye to the falsehoods that have characterized Gaétan Dugas, who unwittingly became the “face” of the AIDS crisis when a typo marked him as the point of origin for the virus as it devastated the gay community in the 1980s. Dugas was not the catalyst for the deadly contagion, but rather, like far too many members of the queer community, a victim of it. The film explains how the “zero” that marked Dugas like the scarlet letter was actually an “O” to signify him as “Out of California” in an elaborate cluster graph charting early known cases of HIV/AIDS. Lynd’s film reveals that Dugas was labelled “Patient O” (not “zero”) because he provided invaluable help to researchers trying to study and understand the virus. 

This film puts Dugas’ personality and joie de vivre at the forefront and  humanizes a man who has been demonized throughout history. Dugas’ peers rebuild “Patient Zero” as a young man who was flamboyantly and vivaciously open about his sexuality and could pick up any man he wanted, gay or straight, and enjoyed an incalculable number of partners during this era of free love. They all speak of him with uniform positivity.

Despite appearing in only 11 pages of “And the Band Played On, Dugas life was stolen and re-framed. The film shows us the complexity of the falsehoods that compounded one another as misinformation spread while researchers tried to understand the virus in its early phases. 

The film contextualizes the social movements that preceded the AIDS outbreak and inspired Dugas to live openly and fully. The interviewees   share some wonderful and heartbreaking coming out stories and tales of finding relief in the ability to live without feeling like they were hiding. There are open and candid discussions of sexuality, the opposite of  the kind of bashfulness that prevented a swift response to the AIDS outbreak. 

“BECOMING LESLIE”— Keeping Austin Weird

“Becoming Leslie”

Keeping Austin Weird

Amos Lassen

Leslie Cochrane was a very loud middle-aged scantily clad cross-dressing homeless man who was the self-styled leader of a movement called “Keep Austin Weird”. Tracey Frazier’s documentary takes us behind Leslie’s very public outrageous displays of self-promotion and his more serious social activism  to show that Leslie was a man who was trying to forge a future by suppressing what we eventually learn was his very dark past.


Leslie got to Austin in 1996 and the city was moving out of recession and wanted to reclaim the downtown area back from the homeless people that had moved in.  Rather than creating a social program to facilitate this, the City Council  passed a law that made it illegal for any homeless person to sit in a park bench let alone sleep on the streets.  Leslie took on the cause which started his running battle with the Police and his countless arrests which made him famous.

 Leslie ran for Mayor three times and became such a local celebrity that people paid to have photographs taken with him, and somebody even developed a dress-up-doll fridge magnet set based on his colorful persona.  He attracted both followers and friends but away from the street he was  difficult and demanding and because of this, his friends felt fell away.


Leslie refused to talk about his past so director Frazier  had to dig dip to piece it all together from the few clues she had.  Leslie was born in Miami and  suffered sexual and physical abuse by both of his parents, had briefly lived as a roadkill scavenger known as Trapper Al in Oak Creek, Colorado  where he had the first of two) very traumatic head injuries. He unwittingly committed bigamy when he wed an already married drug addict. Leslie declared he had never touched drugs but he was a very serious alcoholic and this was the real reason he was often arrested since his intoxication made him a danger to himself.   His inability to stop drinking contributed to his failing health at the end.

Frazier had a wealth of archival material to work with thanks mainly to local photographer/hairdresser Ruby C. Martin who began filming Cochran in 2005 when interviewing him in exchange for cutting and styling his hair.  What she found was man who was very skilled at putting on a brave face and never sharing his pain even when he was demanding more handouts from his friends.

Leslie’s sexuality was never spoken about and beyond the mention of a marriage, there was no talk of any other sexual partners.  He was a flamboyant cross-dresser in an era before the whole dialogue about gender identity was ever begun. When he died in 2012 at the age of 60, Leslie’s funeral and memorial service were packed and the Mayor even officially declared it was Leslie’s day. 

This is a compelling film, and as much as we so fascinated by Leslie the man, we see that he was extremely difficult to be with at times. Leslie  was a balding, goateed man who hung out on street corners wearing skirts and fake boobs, often accompanied by a giant handwritten cardboard sign detailing some injustice done by local police officers. He was often drunk.  He made it clear how little he wanted to discuss his real identity or his youth. We know that he left home at 16 and put himself through high school, then joined the Navy. In the film we see how Austin reacted to this  thong-wearing drifter who arrived in 1996 on a three-wheel bicycle. From the very beginning, he created friction — getting roughed up when he’d loiter in the parking lots of businesses that didn’t want him. The real antagonism arose between Leslie and the Austin Police Department. The police had to enforce a controversial new anti-camping ordinance and officers arrested Leslie many, many times.  Frazier has photos of him parading around in a thong with “APD Kiss This” written on his butt. In their defense, officers were often just keeping a very intoxicated Cochran from getting himself hit by a car or suffering similar mishaps.

Frazier interviews the many tolerant locals (mostly women) who let Leslie camp in their backyards or loaned him money when he needed it (We’re told he was good about repaying these debts.).  Nearly all his benefactors would ban him from time to time, growing tired of late-night scenes, but many forgave him later, and describe him as a warm, more sincere man than the character he was on the streets.

The film moves toward the years of decline. Cochran was hospitalized for a head injury in 2009 — perhaps the result of an attack, maybe a seizure — and as his health deteriorated he began, as one friend puts it, to look like an ordinary homeless person. It’s unpleasant to see Leslie age rapidly in these scenes, though even here, there’s more to the story than outside observers knew.


“Confessions of a Gay Poet”

Meet Wade Radford

Amos Lassen

Several years ago I met Wade Radford on line and learned that he was a young actor and poet. I reviewed some of his work and was impressed but then he disappeared. His reemergence came with this film, “Confessions of a Gay Poet”, a documentary about his life and work as a poet, underground filmmaker and actor. Radford became known for his controversial role in “Twink” as well as other film gay film credits like “Sex Lies and Depravity”, “1 Last Chance at Paradise” and the “Boys Behind Bars” series. He is never afraid to push the envelope just a little more than others. We go behind the scenes with Wade and learn that he has been releasing poetry anthologies and spoken word recordings for the last eight years. This film explores the themes of Wade’s work and introduces the audience to this complex and candid individual. Up until now Radford has hidden behind the mask of his work; but those days are over and he is now out to the world. He is now preparing for his latest anthology release “Disequilibrium” and will be hitting the open road in the hope that he can finally close some of the chapters of love, heartbreak and disillusions that have haunted his most recent works.

His film is an exploration of his life’s journey of love and loss, triumph and tragedy and it is very personal, inspiring and moving. This is a candid, poetic exposé into a complex soul who is an “LGBT Voice, Loud, Proud and Uncensored.”

Those who know Wade Radford known him for his controversial roles in his films. I personally find him delightful and a breath of fresh air.

“DUDE FOR A DAY”— A Workshop


A Workshop

Amos Lassen

We are all aware of the attention on gender identity these days. It seems more people are now focusing inwards and looking at themselves on a scale and in a manner that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.  One of the options of doing this are workshops like the one we see here and that is  run by Tracey Erin Smith, the director of Soulo Theater in Toronto.  Smith explains that her one day course “Dude For A Day” is not about transitioning but for the women participating to find an energy that may have been latent and dormant and allowing it to come out and make a fuller person.

It is a full day of immersive experiences and in the film we see the diverse group of women start by sharing their personal stories and some of their hopes and dreams  and as the day unfolds Smith has them dressing and acting in drag to bring out their inner ‘man’ so they can for once experience a masculine stance on life.

This is both intriguing and enlightening and although this may not be the way for everyone questioning gender, it certainly seems to suit this particular group that we see here.


“Bigger Like Me: The Extended Director’s Cut”
Is Bigger Better?
Amos Lassen

“Bigger Like Me: The Extended Director’s Cut” with emphasis on “extended” is a look at the age old topic of penis size. Greg Bergman is a straight comedian who is obsessed with the small size of his penis and is determined to enlarge it. (That’s it, that’s the movie). Bergman has had several failed experiment— using pills, pumps and other so-called methods, so he decides. to travel to a surgeon in Tijuana, Mexico, where he risks everything (his marriage included) to do what he feels he must and to fulfil what he sees as his destiny. There is no plot per se but what there is plenty of humor. The film has been described as a “straight dude’s dark descent into phallocentric delirium.” It is often dark but, all in all. It is fun. I wish I had more to say about it other then sit back and enjoy the face that not just gay men are size queens.

“FELIX AUSTRIA”— The Journey of a Lifetime

“Felix Austria!”

The Journey of a Lifetime

Amos Lassen

American aesthete Felix Pfeifle received an inheritance of a mysterious box of letters and  begins a journey of a lifetime. He wants to find the source of the correspondence who is the last heir of the Holy Roman Emperors, aging Archduke Otto von Habsburg. However,  time is of the essence since Felix’s father is dying of Huntington’s Disease, an incurable genetic disease that Felix has a fifty percent chance of developing. Quite basically this is a universal story about a person’s passions, fears, and triumphs when one dares to dream and how he is defined by them.

Brian Scott Pfeifle is a gay man from Modesto, California who has to deal with an incurable genetic disease. He changes his name to Felix Etienne-Edouard, enters psychoanalysis to interpret his crazy dreams and sets out to befriend the would-be ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Otto von Habsburg. His quest takes him all the way to Vienna as he works through personal identity, escapism, class distinctions and fantasy in this candid adventure of self-discovery.

We go on a whirlwind treasure hunt as one academic tries to piece together a peculiar mystery between an ordinary American and the last descendant of the Holy Roman Empire. Christine Beebe directed this  colorful and eccentric character study that is filled with heart.

Felix is an entertaining film subject. Like the best university professors, Felix loves to share his knowledge with his pupils and he displays his passion and his breadth of information with each address to the camera. The film lets Felix explain his intense fascination with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was piqued by the surprise inheritance of correspondence between Herbert Hinkel, an ordinary American, and Otto von Hapsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary. The invaluable archive that Felix receives from Hinkel is a history buff’s goldmine. The letters—approximately sixty years of correspondence between the two men—offer an extremely rare glimpse into the character, personality, and humanity of a monarch.

Curiosity transforms Felix’s enthusiasm into an adventure as he sets forth to learn more about Hinkel and discover the relationship between Hinkel and Hapsburg that he reads in the letters. He eventually packs a case of colorful suits, ties, and ascots as he flies to Europe for a one-on-one with Otto von Hapsburg himself. The encounter with Hapsburg is especially important for Felix since his interest in Austro-Hungarian Empire has morphed into a kind of mania that is in his subconscious and manifests itself as all sorts of actions. We see his dreams as very funny animated interludes.

The dream sequences also tie together the various threads of Felix’s life. The plot outlines Felix’s connection to his father, who is dying of Huntington’s brain disease that  carries a genetic probability of fifty percent, so Felix knows that  he will probably see the same fate as his father. Felix is reluctant to discuss the looming fear of Huntington’s directly, but the dream sequences show unspoken fears and conflicts of identity. The quest to uncover the mystery of the pen pal relationship between Hinkel and Hapsburg, implicitly reveals something about Felix himself, therefore has a limited timeframe. If Felix’s mind deteriorates at the rate of Huntington’s power, then the significance of his archive of correspondence could be lost forever.

The film is a collage of biography and fantasy, history and art; an adventure of escapism and self-discovery.



On Tour

Amos Lassen

In response to a wave of discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws and the divisive 2016 election, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus under the leadership of Dr. Timothy Seelig, Artistic Director and Christopher Verdugo, Executive Director embarks on a tour of the American Deep South.  “Gay Chorus Deep South” is a documentary film that chronicles SFGMC’s life-changing Lavender Pen Tour, as it came to be known, through five southern states in the fall of 2017. Director and writer David Charles Rodrigues, writer Jeff Gilbert, producers Bud Johnston and Jesse Moss, and director of photography Adam Hobbs followed the 300 members of the chorus along with special guests from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir as they traveled on an unprecedented bus tour through the Deep South, celebrating music, challenging intolerance, and confronting their own dark coming out stories as they faced a resurgence of anti-LGBTQ laws.

The group made 23 appearances across Mississippi (Hattiesburg and Jackson), Alabama (Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham), Tennessee (Knoxville), South Carolina (Greenville) and North Carolina (Greensboro and Charlotte) from October 7–14, 2017. The tour helped to share SFGMC’s mission of community, activism and compassion throughout the South, supporting its LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters and promoting acceptance and love through music. SFGMC also joined with local non-profits and LGBTQ+ groups to help raise much-needed funds in support of their vital work to take down biased and discriminatory laws.

Christopher Verdugo, SFGMC Executive Director states,  “The Lavender Pen Tour allowed us to use our collective powerful, positive voices to empower LGBTQ+ residents in areas where they are not always able to be heard. The heart of the tour, showcased beautifully in the documentary, are the bridges that were built, the stereotypes that were crushed and the love that was shared amongst all people.  It’s wonderful for SFGMC to be able to further spread that message of positivity and inclusivity by showcasing “Gay Chorus Deep South” at such a prestigious film festival. We look forward to sharing it across the nation at other upcoming festivals.”

The tour took its name from the actions of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay candidate elected to major office in the U.S., who has often been referred to as the patron saint of SFGMC. In 1977, a year before his death, Harvey sponsored a landmark gay civil rights bill. Mayor George Moscone signed that bill into law with a lavender pen given to him by Harvey. The Lavender Pen remains a symbol of the fight for equality for all and the reason for the tour’s name.

The tour brought a message of music, love and acceptance to communities and individuals confronting intolerance. Over 300 singers travelled from Mississippi to Tennessee through the Carolinas and over the bridge in Selma. They performed in churches, community centers and concert halls in hopes of uniting us in a time of difference. The journey also challenged chorus members who fled the South to confront their own fears, pain and prejudices on a journey towards reconciliation. The conversations and connections that emerge offer a glimpse of a less divided America, where the things that divide us-faith, politics, sexual identity-are set aside by the soaring power of music, humanity and a little drag.

The chorus 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. 

The group received requests that specifically asked it not to bring its gay agenda 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. The 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 heard the mom asking her son. 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. These states have few (if any) policies to protect LGBTQ people and their rights. Homophobia and transphobia — at times promoted directly from the pulpit are everywhere, forcing LGBTQ people to keep their identity in the dark. 

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 that will continue to spread hope where it’s needed long after the Lavender Pen Tour passed through town.