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    Behind the Lavender Pen

    Photo By Christopher Turner

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    Hopefully you have been watching, reading, and hearing all about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ Lavender Pen Tour. The sheer magnitude of the undertaking was staggering: almost 300 travelers, six buses, three vans plus security vehicles. We did nearly 30 appearances, sang to thousands of people across five states and raised tens of thousands of dollars, which we left in each city to help them continue the amazing work they are doing.

    There were five huge concerts and interfaith services in churches at each stop, as well as university appearances and seminars given by experts among our members on PrEP, our transgender world and coming out. We held “World Café’s,” where leaders of the local community came together to discuss how they could advance their work more effectively. 

    One of the best things that happened on this tour was that we fell in love with Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and their amazing director, Terrance Kelly. We basically served as their opening act! The audiences everywhere absolutely went crazy when they took the stage. It was a match made in heaven.

    It was seven days absolutely crammed with activities. It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, of course. Even Hurricane Nate, arriving on the very day we flew from SFO to Jackson, Mississippi, couldn’t stop us! Exhaustion doesn’t adequately describe our state of mind, but the singers were bionic and just kept going.

    There were protesters along the way, of course. We had abusive phone messages here at our offices and in cities we visited, e-mail threats and a few tense moments with one venue being swept (not with a broom) between our tech rehearsal and performance. Those pale in comparison to the rousing and heartfelt welcome from the majority and the tour went without incident. The months of detailed planning paid off.

    Whew. Breathe.

    There is no way to share every moment. That would take longer than the actual tour. But I would love to give you a few of my personal highlights, things you didn’t read in the press releases. Every single member has his/her own highlight reel, but go with me. I’m going to try to choose one highlight per day and a song—in bold—that we sang along the way and a picture that accompany it!

    Day 1

    Stand with us on the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol in the sweltering southern sun—even in October. It is only two days after it was announced that HB1523 would become law. Protesting one of the nation’s worst discriminatory laws in decades is why we came and why we named the tour Lavender Pen. We began our tour raising our voices in protest of discrimination however and wherever is still exists.

    “Singing for our Lives”

    Day 2

    We arrive in Selma with full police escort. We drive through a town in the direst of conditions, then through the very projects that protected the church in the early 60s. Walking past protesters into the historic Brown Chapel, we filled the chapel to the brim. We all knew we were entering a sacred space as we listened to speakers who were there in the months leading up to “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. We sat in the pews where the courageous men and women literally planned a revolution. Singing “We Shall Overcome” will never again be as powerful as in that space. We then moved to the Edmund Pettus bridge for a reenactment of the Freedom March—accompanied by several who had marched with Martin Luther King.

    “Love Can Build a Bridge”

    Day 3

    This was the day of our first big interfaith service. It was noon. It was the First Methodist Church. We had invited speakers from all religions to join us. We didn’t know if anyone would show up. After conducting the first song, I turned to see the sanctuary filled with beautiful people—the majority of whom were senior citizens. It looked like my dad’s Sunday School class. I was stunned. They were there to send us a message, and not the other way around. As the Pastor said to us, these folks are going to stand up, protect and love their grandchildren unconditionally and with every breath they have. We were their grandkids for an hour.

    “Amazing Grace”

    Day 4

    Hitting 5 states in 8 days left us with a lot of “share time” on our buses. Being resourceful gays, this time was not wasted. One of the highlights was Bus Aisle Drag Karaoke! Oh, yes. Singers had to dress in whatever they could fit into their very small personal carry-on bag—the definition of booger drag! The most special of those happened between Alabama and Tennessee. All 6 buses stopped at the big “Welcome to Tennessee” Information Center and Rest Stop! I’m not sure we were all that welcome, but it sure was fun watching the locals!

    “Proud Mary”

    Day 5

    We spent time with young people throughout the trip—both high school and college students. We spent a lot of time on the University of Tennessee campus, from seminars, to painting their famous rock, to an interfaith service and finally a joint rehearsal with the venerable University of Tennessee Men’s Chorale. They sang for us. We sang for them. There were tears and cheers on both sides. The head of choral studies stood, in tears, to say that she never dreamed of a day when her students would get to experience something like this. “This is what music is all about.”

    “True Colors/Brave”

    Day 6

    This was one of the most anticipated days of the entire trip—right up there with Day 2 in Selma. A few months ago, we made contact with the gorgeous—and huge—First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina. They invited us to give a concert there. We didn’t believe it, but went with it. And, it happened. Once they publicized the concert, they received incredible hate from near and far. The pastor, Dr. Jim Dant, and congregation stood firm. After our afternoon rehearsal, we gathered for a meal before moving back to the sanctuary for the concert. We had no idea how many people would attend. As we entered the back of the auditorium, we were blown away to see the church was packed—standing room only—bringing in overflow chairs. As the singers began down the aisles to the altar to sing, the audience literally jumped to its feet as one and applauded until the last singer reached the stage. We wept at this. Two things that should not go together in nature: gays and Southern Baptists. And yet, here we were.  They loved the concert. The impact of that evening will last in our hearts and in that community and beyond for a very long time.

    “God Help the Outcasts/Give Me Your Tired Your Poor”

    Day 7

    Feeding the 300 was a challenge. In many places, we were hosted by local groups and even churches. They all wanted to make sure we got to taste the local cuisine. Our week began with fried chicken and ended with fried chicken. We ate more fried food in one week than perhaps in a year: fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, fried okra—just to mention a few. Biscuits were definitely the bread of choice, and dessert meant either peach cobbler or pecan pie. I was in heaven. Our last day in Charlotte featured a raise-the-roof interfaith service after which they served us fried chicken and ended with a magnificent concert that night, before which we were served fried chicken! It was a great day.

    “Celebrate”

    We shed a lot of tears on this tour. Every time Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and SFGMC joined to sing “There Are No Orphans of God,we were moved. No matter what singer or listener might believe about god, we all realized in those moments that we were not alone. “There are no strangers. There are no outcasts. There are no orphans.”

    The tour was so much more than music and sharing, drag and pie, buses and motels. We went hoping to encourage our LGBTQ brothers, sisters and allies. We were there to give them a musical Vitamin B-12 shot with our voices and the funds we raised for them. In the end, we brought home far more souvenirs than the gifts we left behind. The greatest among those was what we learned. I think I can speak for the entire group when I say that, for most people, the perception of “people in the south” was altered. Those we met along the way were wonderfully warm, accepting and beyond eager to hear our message.

    The repercussions of this tour will last lifetimes. Thank you for your interest, support and encouragement. Not to worry: We’re doing a one-night-only welcome home concert at Davies Symphony Hall on March 29, or you can hear most of the music on our new recording 40.

    Finally, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. We’ll see you at one of our 9 Bay Area concerts!

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.