The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performed for the first time at a candlelight vigil on the night of Harvey Milk's assassination in 1978. Milk became the first openly gay candidate elected to major office in the U.S. when he joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. That year, Milk sponsored a landmark gay civil rights bill that was signed into a law with a lavender pen by San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Nearly 40 years later, the lavender pen remains a symbol of the fight for equality for all. It's also the name of a recent tour by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus through several southern US states that made headlines for harsh anti-LGBTQ legislation. On this episode of Relate, you'll hear the story of an inspiring tour and the quest for equality.
Featured in this episode:
- The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and The Lavender Pen Tour
- On Relate: "How diversity improves work culture and the bottom line"
TAMARA STANNERS: Selma, Alabama, the Edmund Pettus bridge, the site of the bloody Sunday conflict and the historic Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965.
Today the bridge is relatively calm. There is an average amount of car traffic passing by, but slowly a group of marchers pours onto the bridge. There are small flags, rainbow colored, and each of the marchers is wearing a purple shirt. There are police, but unlike 1965, the police are there to prevent any possible violence. The marchers are members and friends and supporters of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, who are in Selma for a special performance as part of the tour of several Southern states. It's called the Lavender Pen Tour. How will the chorus be treated? What's their message? Well, that's what you'll find out today on Relate. I'm Tamara Stanners and this is Relate by Zendesk. Andy Sheppard, what's the background on this one?
ANDY SHEPPARD: So, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus has been around for coming up to 40 years now and they were planning for this big 40th anniversary international tour, they were gonna go over all the world, but they changed their minds.
TAMARA STANNERS: What changed their minds?
ANDY SHEPPARD: The election.
TAMARA STANNERS: Right, of course.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah. So before we get into that-
CHRIS VERDUGO: My name is Chris Verdugo and I am the executive director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Here's a little background on how the chorus came to be.
CHRIS VERDUGO: The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus is the first gay men's chorus, openly gay men's chorus, I mean, I don't know if you have any closed gay men's chorus, but it was the first openly gay men's chorus started in 1978. The chorus had about three rehearsals before it had its first public performance, which was tragically on the steps of City Hall the night that Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated.
SPEAKER 4: It is my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.
ANDY SHEPPARD: So this was a huge tragedy for the community and for the gay rights' movement because Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the history of California.
CHRIS VERDUGO: And from that moment on, a men's chorus was birthed, not just one that would excel in artistry, but one that would be steeped deeply in activism.
TAMARA STANNERS: So this group is truly a part of LGBTQ history.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Absolutely. They sing beautiful music, they have fun, they entertain people, but it's a group that never forgets where it came from, and that's why they decided to cancel plans for their international tour and stay in the US instead. And the idea for the Lavender Pen Tour was hatched.
TAMARA STANNERS: Why is it called the Lavender Pen Tour?
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, here's Chris Verdugo again.
CHRIS VERDUGO: Shortly before his death, Harvey Milk had ushered in a landmark civil rights bill, an LGBT civil rights ordinance that was passed by the supervisors and, once passed, Mayor Moscone went to sign that bill into law and he signed it with a lavender pen that Harvey gave to him. And for us, that a huge symbol, not just of the continued struggle that we are undergoing with civil liberties and with retaining our hard fought rights and gains that we've made over the last 10 to 12 years, but it's also a symbol of hope.
TAMARA STANNERS: Wow, that is the perfect name of this tour. So, where did they go?
ANDY SHEPPARD: The tour just finished a couple days ago and they were in Mississippi and Tennessee and North and South Carolina and Alabama.
TAMARA STANNERS: So, all red states.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, but if you think about it, every state is just a different blend of conservative and liberal, or Democrat and Republican, red and blue. So, really, they should all just be various shades of purple, right?
CHRIS VERDUGO: We're not really talking about red states or blue states, but really about making purple states, but since we're gay, we go with lavender.
TAMARA STANNERS: Of course, and how perfect. So, how did the tour come about?
ANDY SHEPPARD: As I mentioned at the top, it was the election, the political sea change that happened last November.
CHRIS VERDUGO: Well, the idea behind the tour began right after the election, about 24 hours after the election, and so we decided to forego the traveling that we had planned for our 40th season in 2018. And so we decided, I think within 36 hours, that we would embark on this what, at the time, we called a red state tour, which didn't last very long because we realized how many red states there were and we couldn't get to all of them. It was really about these five Southern states who have seen some difficulties throughout the past several years, well, throughout the past several years and the past several hundred years, I should say.
TAMARA STANNERS: So, why these particular states? Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina-
ANDY SHEPPARD: North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, well, so these are all states that have the harshest anti-LBGT legislation, they call these things RFRAs, which are religious freed restoration acts. For example, Mississippi has this one called HB1523, which just became law, and it allows doctors and lawyers and teachers to actually turn people away based on their religious beliefs about-
TAMARA STANNERS: Incredible, yeah.
ANDY SHEPPARD: -marriage or sex or whatever. And North Carolina had HB2, which is that infamous bathroom bill.
TAMARA STANNERS: Right. ANDY SHEPPARD: That denies members of the Trans community the right to use the bathrooms that they feel, whichever ones they feel most comfortable with in their identity. So Mississippi and North Carolina were kind of the bookends of the tour.
CHRIS VERDUGO: And then we really looked and tried to create a journey that would connect with our message, and so Birmingham just kinda became the next one, and then we just kinda plotted it out and Tennessee makes sense for many reasons. In some ways, the tour chose us, we were really like definitive about, okay, we need to get to these two places, but in some ways, certain cities chose us which, for us, was like okay, well, this is exactly where we need to be.
TAMARA STANNERS: So, what were they expecting in terms of reception when they'd get to these places?
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, again these states tilt in a certain direction politically, but they're not monolithic, so they expected it to be controversial on some levels, but also-
CHRIS VERDUGO: That we're gonna be greeted with open arms and a lot of love and I expect that we'll have protestors at certain things, we've been told to expect that and so we will, and to that note, we have a security detail that is traveling with us, for those moments where we walk across the bridge in Selma, we have police presence there. So we have taken care of making sure that everyone feels safe. We really don't expect anything to happen and, even the members of that community will tell you, we don't expect anything to happen either. So, but, yeah, we're prepared.
We are working with our community partners in these cities to invite folks who might not necessarily agree with our viewpoint, or our message necessarily, but perhaps can meet us halfway at the artistic point, because I think once we get there, then we're on a level playing field and we can start to have a deeper dialogue about the issues we think separate us. And it certainly is about touching, transforming hearts and minds, it's even also maybe just about cracking the heart. It doesn't have to be transformed in that moment, but sometimes you just need the genesis, you need that initial crack that makes you realize, oh, wait a second.
TAMARA STANNERS: And what about the actual concerts?
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, they went really, really well, I mean, I want to introduce you to Michael Tate, who's a member of the chorus.
MICHAEL TATE: The concert is Jackson was pretty amazing. Just being in the space and being in such a historic city, when the curtain opened up and the crowd kind of went wild, and I think we didn't know to expect, whether there were gonna be 5 people or 500 people, and it was an enthusiastic crowd who clearly wanted more. So I felt like, even though it was just the first stop, the work was already happening.
TAMARA STANNERS: I honestly get goosebumps just thinking about that moment and how incredible it would be. But what about the people who wouldn't be so enthusiastic and so excited about a choir of gay men performing in their city?
ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, the interesting part of this is that they're really not going into these places to berate the other side. They're going in, first and foremost, to share a love of music and community with the idea and the hope that people will see that the members of the chorus are human beings and not just stereotypes, or the enemy for that matter. And they also understand that they might be challenged, like the members of the chorus, they might be challenged in their understanding of people from the South.
CHRIS VERDUGO: It's also about our preconceived notions here, in San Francisco, and not just in San Francisco, we have supporters from around the world. One of the stipulations that we made about this tour as well is that we would come back and we would share the stories with you, so that perhaps in the storytelling of what we heard and what we saw and what we experience, you might be, you being members of the San Francisco community, might see that you have some preconceived notions about this, and things aren't the way that you perceived them, and we may come back and say some of these things are the way we thought they were.
TAMARA STANNERS: There's obviously an intentional overlap here, with the Civil Rights movement and the African-American community. How does that work out?
ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, there's definitely this overlap, but it's not cut and dry. Since there are elements of, particularly the black religious that are hesitant with the LGBT community because of religious beliefs, but in so many ways, the two movements should be and really are aligned because it's really all about human rights.
CHRIS VERDUGO: There are two sides to that coin. We are being really well received, and then I can tell you that the president of the ACLU chapter in Birmingham was called out by other preachers for supporting and working with HRC and LGBT people.
ANDY SHEPPARD: Jeff Benson is another member of the chorus and he was a key organizer for the Alabama portion of the tour, but he's also directly connected to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s through his family.
JEFF BENSON: My relatives were civil rights organizers. My grandmother was in original Brown v. Board of Education, plaintiff, she was one of the original 13 plaintiffs. My mother was a grandchild plaintiff in that legendary lawsuit, so I carry forth that energy. So that's part of the tapestry of why I'm here, as well, so we're using our voices to basically effect change in areas where it's needed the most. And we're really here to build bridges and create friendships and relationships along the way as well.
ANDY SHEPPARD: And you know there's a real hope that these relationships will continue because, as Chris Verdugo can attest, there are plenty of great people and lots of great food in the South.
CHRIS VERDUGO: I've been on two trips and I can tell you, my attitude has changed, so much so that I'm not coming home for a week. I'm actually staying and doing my own tour of the South because I've been so endeared by it, that and the Southern fried chicken, who wouldn't be. I came back from my last advance trip, I kid you not, I kid you not, I was only there six days, I came back six pounds heavier.
TAMARA STANNERS: Thanks so much for this, Andy.
ANDY SHEPPARD: You bet.
TAMARA STANNERS: And if you want to learn more about the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and the Lavender Pen Tour, go to sfgmc.org. And all the music you've heard in this story comes from recordings by the chorus, which are all available on iTunes or wherever you find great music.
Building bridges between social groups is key, not only for better community relationships, but it's also better for business. There's an article over on the Relate Online Magazine called "How Diversity Improves Work Culture and the Bottom Line," and it explains how hiring people from different walks of life can make a big difference in company profits. You can find that article and tons more at relate.zendesk.com.
That's it for Relate this week, but there's so much more coming. Next week, we talk to a 94 year old author and activist, who started a podcast to connect with a younger generation. He wants to help them avoid the mistakes of history that he personally witnessed. So subscribe to Relate on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to get that episode and more.
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