Around 200 members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, together with some 50 singers from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, gathered on the steps of the State Capitol Building in Jackson, MS to sing a message of love and unity on Sunday.
The gesture kicked off a concert and outreach tour of five southern states -- Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina -- and was intended as a powerful message to state legislators just days before a controversial law, House Bill 1523, takes effect across the state.
Also known as "The Religious Liberty Accommodations Act," HB 1523 gives businesses the right to refuse service to LGBTQ people due to religious views or preferences.
"As of this week it will be legal for any business owner in Mississippi to tell your pastor he can’t have lunch in their establishment, to tell me I can’t sleep in their inn, to tell me I can’t buy from their shelves," said Robert Lowry, pastor of Fondren Presbyterian Church in Jackson. Lowry spoke with passion about the bill during his Sunday morning sermon, at which select Gay Men's Chorus members sang. Lowry is gay.
Lowry said this week is a turning point for Mississippi because of the passing of the highly-contested bill, and that the Bay Area singers' visit sends a powerful message.
"The religious liberty law is really a law for discrimination," Lowry said in an interview before the service. "It's important the choir is visiting right now, coming and celebrating and sharing their gifts and bringing this message of wholeness and peace and community into our community."
Spreading a sense of hope and solidarity to some of the most vulnerable parts of the country's LGBTQ community is one of the main goals of the Gay Men's Chorus's "Lavender Pen" tour. The chorus canceled its 40th anniversary international tour plans a few days after last November’s presidential elections in order to undertake what the organization felt was a more pressing outreach mission at home.
"We wanted to be more radically inclusive," said Gay Men's Chorus staffer and former singer with the group, Peter Zimmerman. (Zimmerman even dyed his hair lavender in honor of the tour's title.)
Zimmerman said his organization expects around 800 people to attend Sunday evening's concert at Jackson's Thalia Mara Hall. All proceeds from ticket sales and donations will benefit non-profit, LGBTQ support organizations. These include Project One America, the transgender education and advocacy program of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the AIDS Services Coalition based in Hattiesburg.
The Gay Men's Chorus has also offered some partner organizations free tickets. These include My Brother's Keeper, which provides health services to minority and marginalized communities in the region, and is bringing around 150 of its patients to the concert.
"Many of the patients that we serve have never been to a concert or even set foot in Thalia Mara Hall," said Deja Abdul-Haqq, director of organizational development at My Brother's Keeper. "So it's a really exciting opportunity for us."
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus “Lavender Pen Tour” visits various locations in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina Oct. 8 - 14. More information here.