“GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH”
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.