As a lifelong PR guy, when I see a miscue, or a misfire, by a brand or business, I always cringe. "Who let that happen?" is always my first reaction.
I stopped a few erroneous ideas from entering the public arena during my career. Years ago, when I worked for a major retailer, the brand team held an internal meeting to introduce a new marketing campaign. They buoyantly unveiled the new theme, "[Insert brand name] Ignites Ideas for the Home." Most people in the room nodded approvingly. Except me. I raised my hand, and said, "Does anyone think it's frightening to see 'ignite' and 'home' in the same sentence? It sounds like a three-alarm fire."
Needless to say, that slogan never saw the light of day.
Last Thursday, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus posted a video dedicated to those still working against equal rights. The video was a tongue-in-cheek satire about teaching children tolerance, acceptance, and fairness. Almost as if they were anticipating backlash, the video began with a message which said, "As we celebrate Pride and the progress we've made over these past years, there's still work to be done. So, to those of you out there who are still working against equal rights, we have a message for you."
The song jokes about how the LGBTQ+ community will "convert your children... quietly and subtly and you will barely notice it."
In this day and age, satire, particularly from still-marginalized communities like ours who have a target on their back, can have devastating consequences. The rightwing, conservative movement waits for moments like this from our community, and when they saw the video, they pounced. They treated the words in the video as more of a threat, and less of a joke.
The video was picked up by one of the most horrid people on the planet, Alex Jones, and his diabolical Infowars. Needless to say, his rant released a tidal wave of vitriol in the direction of the chorus. These include death threats and intimidation in the form of emails and voicemails to members of SFGMC's administration and singers.
The San Francisco Police Department and FBI have been notified of these threats, and Chris Verdugo, SFGMC's executive director, disabled the video and has also temporarily closed the SFGMC headquarters, sending his staff home this week as a precaution.
Regardless of whether the video was ill-conceived or not is a moot point. People's lives are being threatened by the insipid cruelness of a bigoted liar who stoked his hateful followers by misrepresenting the meaning of the video and referring to the chorus as a cultish group.
Now what matters is confronting the hate that it has unintentionally unleashed, and protecting well-meaning lives.
I spoke to Verdugo about this unfortunate and dangerous situation, and asked him if anyone raised a red flag before posting the video? "For a little bit of background, the song was originally commissioned by the Oakland Symphony about four years ago, and our artistic director heard the song, and thought it would be a great song for the chorus to perform. He reached out to the composers who were thrilled.
"We had performed the song previously and have been performing it for a number of years, and obviously to friendly audiences who were not only in on the joke, but loved the song."
Verdugo explained that the video was specifically created to help celebrate Pride, with a message that preached acceptance and tolerance. "The hate groups and conservatives literally twisted the meaning and the satire of the song. In fact, some actually spliced the video to make it sound and look more threatening."
"Stoking fear and stoking hatred on something that is so innocent is not only offensive, but just so sad and indicative of the abhorrence that exists in this country," Verdugo added. "This is how they spread their message of fear and revulsion from a song that speaks to tolerance and acceptance? They need a lesson in satire."
Verdugo said that the group did not seek out to poke a bear. "We've certainly learned a lesson, but we plan to fight their hate through the media, mobilizing our singers and supporters with messaging, and undertaking a grassroots effort to get the truth out there to counteract this malevolent narrative."
I asked Verdugo how his members are coping? "Everyone is shaken up. Some of these bigoted individuals actually went so far as to find out who the singers were, and where they worked, and have been reaching out to their places of work. They even have spreadsheets on the chorus. This is insane!"
Would the chorus do anything different in the future? "Next time we will seriously rethink our approach, but having said that, we're not hiding," Verdugo defended. "Someone told us that we shouldn't have put our name on the video. What is that supposed to mean? Are we to go back to hiding in the closet? We are always going to be who we are."
To Verdugo and the chorus, they are not only artistic persons but activists as well. "We were the first gay men's chorus, and we stood on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall the day Harvey Milk was murdered. We are talented and provocative."
The chorus is looking forward to getting back together in person again, with rehearsals set to resume in August, for the first time since the pandemic started. They will perform again in December, nearly two years since the last time they sang in public.
However, for Verdugo, there is a more urgent priority. "At the moment though, our main concern is to make sure our singers, staff, and administration and all our people stay safe."
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.