It was the second day of a week-long tour that took the singers through Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina. The six blue buses bearing some 250 singers and around 50 family members, organizers, reporters, a documentary team, and various other hangers on, swept importantly into the quiet town on an overcast Monday afternoon. Cops stopped cars at a few intersections. The locals didn’t seem otherwise inconvenienced.
Except for two individuals.
I encountered R.J. and Ashley outside the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. The picturesque, brown-brick national landmark was the kick-off point for a series of civil rights marches from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery in 1965, which played a major role in bringing about the adoption of the the Voting Rights Act, a piece of federal legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.
The choruses had just spent a euphoric hour singing energetic gospel, torch and protest songs in the famous church. Attendees also got to hear rousing speeches from civil rights, civic and religious leaders, including the soft-spoken and sparkly activist Lawrence F. Huggins, who had participated in the marches and taken a police baton to the gut for his pains. (“It bounced right off,” he said to the delight of the assembly. “I had a six-pack back then.”)
Many singers were in a state of high emotion as they exited the church. Some were crying. San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus artistic director Tim Seelig called the experience a “mountain top moment." As we hopped back onto the waiting buses, people paid little attention to the two African-American teens, standing under an umbrella in the rain.
They stood serenely, saying little, allowing the slogans on their billboards to do the talking: “The Bible clearly states that HOMOSEXUALITY IS A SIN.” “Warning someone of eternal circumstances is not hate, it’s LOVE.” “If it weren’t for heterosexuals you wouldn’t be here.” If it weren’t for the unfashionable zeal of their message, the photogenic pair might have been picked up by a modeling scout for a spread in Vogue.
“We just heard what was going on here and decided to come down,” said R.J., who lives in Montgomery. “We’re not here to hate, but to love, and the greatest way to show that love is to correct somebody. You know. Dr. King said homosexuality is a problem. He was a Christian. We’re here to tell people there’s a way out. We’re here to help.”
But it was Ashley who shared the most revelatory information of the day. When I tilted my microphone towards the pretty, bespectacled young woman, she barreled headlong into a story about herself with the loquacity of someone who wants to share, but isn’t often asked to. “I’ve gone through this before,” she said, eagerly. “This was a struggle for me for years. I had felt that I was gay. I’ve felt how horrible and demeaning it can be when someone comes up to you, they don’t even know you, and asks ‘are you gay?’”
Ashley shook her head and continued. “I’ve never actually been with a girl. But I’ve had these feelings, like I belong with a girl. I didn’t want to be that way because I know for a fact that it’s wrong in the Bible. So I did my best to stray away from that lifestyle. My religion says that’s wrong. So I wasn’t going to go against my religion for that.” Then Ashley turned to R.J. and put her hand gently on his shoulder. “Which is why I found the best person on Earth next to me!” She giggled. “It’s a blessing.”
I asked Ashley and R.J. which church they attended. R.J. said they didn’t go to church. “We are independent.” I asked them why they decided to go their own way. R.J said, “Most churches don’t preach the Bible like it’s supposed to be preached.”
R.J. said he might start his own church someday. When, that evening, I looked more closely at the photograph I had hastily snapped of the couple with my smartphone, I noticed for the first time the unhappy look on Ashley’s face. Perhaps she was showing her negative feelings towards gay people, journalists, or the muggy, wet weather. Or perhaps it was a look of resignation about a heterosexual future.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus decided to undertake its “Lavender Pen Tour” to five southern states just days after last November’s presidential elections. “We’re doing this because we’re aware the events of last Tuesday have left many in the LGBTQ community feeling either unsafe or wondering about what their future holds, and if their rights are at stake,” Chris Verdugo, the chorus’s executive director, said when the plan was announced. “We in San Francisco and other urban cities are fortunate to have the support of large LGBTQ organizations like GLAAD. These states in the South don’t have that kind of support. So it was obvious that we needed to take to our own backyard and bring a message of hope, equality and perseverance to our brothers and sisters.”
The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir saw a match between the Gay Men’s Chorus’ mission and its own, and decided to join the 200 male singers with around 50 of its own vocalists, male and female, on the road.
The vocal ensembles did a lot of ground work ahead of the journey. They met with local LGBTQ, civil rights and religious organizations. They chose partners in the various cities they planned to visit that would receive the proceeds from the box office and donations after each concert. They offered abundant free tickets to organizations and individuals too, including a cab driver who gave me a ride between venues one morning. One Mississippi healthcare nonprofit I spoke with brought around 200 of its patients, many of which, I was told, had never been to a concert before, let alone set foot in Jackson’s 2,000-plus-seat Thalia Mara hall.
So far, the Bay Area choruses have been greeted for their efforts with an outpouring of gratitude and love. The atmosphere at the packed concerts in Jackson and Birmingham I have witnessed so far has been an intoxicating mixture of religious revival rally and gay cabaret.
The singers are tight and talented. They know how to deliver the repertoire of gospel, showtunes, and unity-and-acceptance anthems with just the right balance of earnestness and humor. The diction, as highly-polished as a drag queen’s manicure, helps. As does an audience hungry for what the choirs have to offer. The performers got a standing ovation before they’d even sung a note in Jackson. The crowd later begged for an encore, even after listening for two and a half hours.
Clearly the choirs are tapping into a yearning for greater inclusivity here in the South. At this time, religious organizations I spoke with, like one Knoxville, Tennessee-based Presbyterian Church, are deeply divided between “those that believe homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of Christ,” as one congregant told me, and those that want to be more inclusive. Several states, most prominently North Carolina, are grappling with stringent anti-transgender bathroom laws. And the LGBTQ community in Mississippi is bracing for controversial House Bill 1523 -- the so-called “Religious Liberty Accommodations Act” -- which permits business owners to discriminate against anyone they don’t want to do business with due to “religious views or preferences.” The legislation takes effect this week despite major opposition.
But nothing speaks of the current crisis of civil rights to me as much as the look on Ashley's face. I wish I could have spent more time with her, away from her forthright beau. I would love to learn more about her life, the turns its taken so far from thinking she might be attracted to women, to shaking off that feeling, to apparently taking refuge in a form of Christian fundamentalism. I wonder even more what path she will take from here.
Even though their presence in the South sends out a strong message about the ongoing struggle for both racial and sexual rights, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir didn’t seem to reach Ashley.
Changing hearts and minds is largely, and probably sensibly, beyond the scope of the "Lavender Pen Tour." The organizers know it takes a lot more than a symbolic, two-hour visit to a couple of civil rights landmarks to get Ashley and others like her to rethink their ideas. (Though one transgender singer told me he plans to wear a T-shirt with the slogan "You Can Pee Next to Me" in the men's restroom in North Carolina to try to spark conversations about bathroom laws.)
Then again, who knows what impression 300 people of all skin colors, religious beliefs and sexual orientations wearing matching, purple "Love Can Build A Bridge" T-shirts and striding purposefully out of one of the country's most iconic churches will ultimately leave on Ashley. After all, she's someone who is willing to acknowledge her questions and doubts.