On a recent Friday night at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC), about 20 people are crowded into a small sitting room listening to local singer-songwriter S.J. Tucker. The atmosphere is relaxed. Rainbow-colored candles adorn the mantel just below a painting of two nude women. Some people lounge on couches; others sit at small tables. The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee hangs in the air, as people -- gay and straight -- walk in and out of the kitchen to refill their mugs.
But outside this small building in Cooper-Young, a battle is raging. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) Americans are facing some scary stuff. The issues of gay marriage and gay adoption are at the forefront of national and regional politics. During the presidential election, the nation was so divided on such "moral issues" as gay marriage that many voters based their decision on that issue alone. Throughout the campaign, President Bush pushed for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban gay marriage.
Last Thursday, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted 88 to seven to approve placing a measure on the 2006 ballot that could result in a statewide ban on gay marriage. The Senate approved the same measure 29 to three last month. If approved by voters, the resolution would also prevent the state from recognizing gay marriages or civil unions performed in other states.
Gay adoption was also the center of a statewide debate until last Wednesday, when a House committee finally defeated a bill that would have banned gay couples from adopting children. But the 11 to nine vote to defeat the bill came after it was reworded to give preference to heterosexual, married couples. Currently, only one person from a gay couple can legally adopt. The other person has no legal rights to the child.
"We've been fat, dumb, and happy for a while -- sitting back, thinking everything was going to be okay," says Tommy Simmons, who spearheads Initiative: Fairness, a political action group at MGLCC. "I think this has really galvanized the gay and lesbian community. We feel more threatened now than we have since the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic."
Shelby County is home to 1,821 same-sex households, the most reported in the state, according to 2000 census data. That number doesn't include gays who live alone or with someone not their partner.
Back in 2003, economist Richard Florida's book, The Rise of the Creative Class, revealed that cities with the highest populations of "bohemians, immigrants, and gays and lesbians" were also the cities with the highest-paying high-tech jobs. Florida looked at 49 urban areas with populations of at least a million people. Memphis ranked 41st as welcoming to gays and lesbians. Not surprisingly, using Florida's findings, Memphis ranked 48th as a technology center.
So what's it like to be gay in Memphis, the buckle of the Bible Belt? Do locals agree with Florida's theories? Are gays in the Bluff City hiding in the safety of their closets or are they out and proud, basking in the glow of a sweet Southern rainbow?
That all depends on who you talk to and in what part of the city they live.
Midtown Is Gay Memphis
"Midtown is pretty accepting, but outside the 240 loop, I don't go," says Don Anderson-Fisher. "I wouldn't go out there with their mega-churches. I wouldn't want to expose my child to that kind of hatred." Anderson-Fisher has an adopted son.
His friend J.B., who asked that we not use his full name, is sitting on a couch with his partner, Matthew Presley. They are also the proud parents of an adopted son. Their toddler is off playing with Anderson-Fisher's son in the colorful playroom at the Presley home. J.B. speculates on the perceived closed-mindedness in the eastern areas of the city.
"You get one man out in East Jesus and he says people should believe one way, so he convinces his congregation to follow his beliefs," he says.
J.B. doesn't name names, but he's referring to any number of religious leaders at large conservative congregations in Memphis. Certainly, the statement could apply to the Rev. Adrian Rogers, the recently retired pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova. Bellevue hosted a "Battle for Marriage" rally last July, where 10,000 people viewed a simulcast of James Dobson, founder of the conservative Focus on Families group, declaring gay marriage to be an attack on "religious liberty."
Or he could be referring to the Rev. Alton Williams, apostle of World Overcomers Church in Hickory Hill. Williams' church purchased a large ad in The Commercial Appeal in October 2003, referencing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to repeal sodomy laws. The ad read: "Court Says Sodomy (Homosexuality) Is OK, But What Does God Say?"
Anderson-Fisher's statement could also apply to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) leader Bishop G.E. Patterson who, in a November 2003 article in The Commercial Appeal, was quoted as saying in reference to the Episcopal Church's decision to ordain a gay bishop: "The Episcopal Church not only embraced and set an openly gay man at the top, they shamed and disgraced the body of Christ. It's not right. Nobody has the right to be gay."
Given the actions and statements of some religious leaders, it's easy to see why gays might feel uncomfortable outside Midtown. Most of the city's gay clubs and bars are located in Midtown, along with the city's only gay gift shop, Inz and Outz, and the only gay-themed video rental store, Family Flavors.
And many churches in Midtown are more receptive of homosexuality. Several churches in the area welcome gays and lesbians without the "love the sinner, hate the sin" approach of more conservative churches. First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young hosted a "Freedom to Marry" celebration on Valentine's Day weekend, supporting civil marriage for gay couples. Evergreen Presbyterian, located across from Rhodes College, hosted a four-week study program in January on the ordination of gays and lesbians in the Presbyterian church.
According to Presley, even the First Baptist Church on East Parkway was accepting of his nontraditional family.
"We haven't caught a bit of flack in that place," says Presley. "As a matter of fact, last year, a teacher put a card together that said, 'To Papa and Daddy.' That was just the sweetest thing."
And there are other gay-friendly churches, such as Holy Trinity on Highland.
"We don't do civil marriages at all. I won't sign a license because not all our members are treated fairly and have the same access under the civil code," says Holy Trinity pastor Tim Meadows. "So we do religious Christian ceremonies for gay people and straight people. One day, when everyone's treated fairly, that may change."
But discrimination can still be a problem anywhere in the city, even Midtown. Len Piechowski, president of MGLCC, says the center has been hit with anti-gay graffiti on more than one occasion. Local filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox, whose high school coming-out film, Blue Citrus Hearts, has received national acclaim, says he still gets hassled occasionally.
"I can walk into the corner store at Southern and Cooper and get called a 'faggot' by 14-year-olds. The store owner never says anything," says Fox.
The Visibility Catch-22
Many people the Flyer interviewed said the low profile of gay residents keeps Memphis from being a more gay-friendly city. According to some gay activists, there are too many closeted couples with nice homes and lucrative jobs who fear that outing themselves will disrupt their lifestyle.
"It's a catch-22, because research shows that the more people you know who are GLBT, the more accepting you'll be. But when you don't have protection, it's a lot to ask of people to be out," says Sharon Horne, a professor who teaches methods for counseling GLBT clients at the University of Memphis.
"The only gay people that some straight people think are out there are the ones who fit the stereotype and are flamboyant," says MGLCC vice president Heidi Williams. "If more people would out themselves, it would become an issue that more people would have to deal with. I think some people think there are fewer gay people here than there are."
Her friend Noel Troxell, former secretary for MGLCC, brings up another point: In Tennessee there's no legal protection for gays when it comes to job security.
"Right now, you can be fired for being gay, so I don't know how smart that would be for everybody [to come out] in a city like Memphis," says Troxell. "If my boss wanted to, he could fire me today."
That's the concern of one city school teacher, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. "Kathy Smith" teaches for Memphis City Schools and says she fears she'd "be fired in a New York minute" if she outed herself at work. MCS has a nondiscrimination policy, but it doesn't name sexual orientation in its protections. Smith is a mother of two, both artificially inseminated, and she makes it clear that she's not ashamed of being gay.
"At my son's school, everybody knows us as the family that we are. The kids don't think anything of it. When my kid said he had two moms, half the class piped up and said they did too. But they meant because of divorce," she says. A local coalition of gay activists hopes to convince the city of Memphis to offer some job security for homosexuals. The group has drawn up a proposed nondiscrimination clause for the city that would offer equal access in employment, housing, and public accommodations and is going through the necessary legal routes to get it passed.
Dottie Jones, of the city's office of intergovernmental relations, says the ordinance would "safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to be free from discrimination, including discrimination based on age, race, color, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, marital status, gender, sexual orientation, and/or physical characteristics."
The Politics of Homosexuality
According to Piechowski, Mayor Willie Herenton has been supportive of the local gay community. He attended the MGLCC's ribbon-cutting for its Cooper-Young facility in 2003, and he attended a symposium on gay hate crimes several years back. After the event, Piechowski began talking with the mayor about the need for a nondiscrimination ordinance. He says Herenton expressed support.
"The mayor believes in civil rights for all people, and he believes discrimination in any form is wrong," says mayoral spokesperson Gale Jones Carson. "When he was approached [about the ordinance], he supported Len on it."
Piechowski also told the mayor that other major cities had a liaison to the gay community in city government. Herenton created the position and appointed Piechowski to it.
"The last time we talked, I wanted to brief him that we were doing some gay-rights demonstrations on the corner of McLean and Union," says Piechowski. "He was very supportive, and he assured me that if I needed some type of protection at that location, I should not hesitate to contact him."
But not all local politicians are as supportive of the gay community. County mayor A C Wharton hasn't been blatantly unsupportive, but in a New York Times article about Memphis' creative class, he was quoted by writer John Leland as saying it wasn't government's job to welcome gays and lesbians.
Kevin Gallagher, spokesman for Wharton, said that what the mayor meant was that he hadn't heard a call for county support for gays and lesbians and didn't believe it was the position of the county to set up programs for them at this time.
On a national level, Representative Harold Ford Jr. hasn't been a beacon of gay support either. While he originally opposed Bush's push for an amendment banning gay marriage, he later flip-flopped and voted for it. As a result, local gay political activist Jim Maynard organized a grassroots write-in campaign to challenge Ford in the November election. Maynard's signs featured a rainbow flag and were mainly placed in gay businesses, bars, and clubs. He only garnered 166 votes.
"My purpose was not to win," says Maynard. "When Harold Ford Jr. caved in on the federal marriage amendment, I thought it was important to provide an option. I didn't want to vote for him after that."
Maynard says he's thinking about running for the position again in 2006, only this time with a better organized campaign.
There are currently no openly gay or lesbian politicians in Memphis, although state senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) is probably the strongest ally gays have in state government. Cohen and state senator John Ford (D-Memphis) were two of three senators to vote against the resolution to ban gay marriage in Tennessee. Cohen even attempted to amend the resolution to allow for civil unions and employee benefits for couples who had entered into such contracts. His amendment was voted down 25 to six.
It Starts in the Schools
Discriminatory attitudes are often formed early, as children adopt their parents' beliefs. Those attitudes are then carried into the schools. Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools do not include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies. Several gay and lesbian students told the Flyer that their teachers don't do enough to stop harassment.
Trevor Rush was pulled out of Craigmont Junior High School at age 13 by his legal guardian grandparents after he was beaten by a group of boys because he was gay. A tendon in his leg snapped during the assault. The perpetrators received a three-day suspension, but Rush, now 18, says the beating was an extreme example of the harassment he faced daily.
"People would take stuff from me in the lunchroom and in the hall, and they'd throw it in my face. The teachers literally ignored it," says Rush. "One told me it was my own damn fault."
Rush and a few friends tried to put together a school-wide gay/straight alliance, but he says administrators wouldn't allow it. Vince McCaskill in MCS public affairs says there are no school-sponsored gay/straight alliances in city schools, although he says there may be some student-led groups.
At a recent Memphis Area Gay and Lesbian Youth (MAGY) meeting, an 18-year-old teen who requested anonymity identifies himself as bisexual. He says he occasionally dresses in drag when not in school, and talked about problems he's seen with administrators at Bartlett High School. He says a couple of his lesbian friends were holding hands outside the school one day when the assistant principal ordered them to her office. School policy prohibits public displays of affection regardless of sexual orientation, but Cox says the administrator told the girls their act was "disgusting."
Some schools have better reputations. When an 18-year-old lesbian came out at White Station High, she says some kids were "iffy about it," but she only encountered one student who has said anything hurtful. In fact, the White Station drama department is putting on The Laramie Project, a play that chronicles the 1998 murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard. It runs from April 6th to 8th, and the school is donating all the funds from the April 8th performance to MAGY.
MAGY, a social support group for GLBT adolescents, meets every Friday at a Midtown location its adult moderators have asked the Flyer not to reveal. They've also asked us not to reveal the names of the youths we interviewed. The moderators say that although the kids may be out, they're still living with their parents, and they do not want to create any problems for their families. MAGY meetings, which include occasional guest speakers and discussion groups, attract around 30 participants a week.
Support From Within
Outside of Midtown, Memphis may not have much to offer gays and lesbians, but the local gay community has formed an infrastructure that offers support, information, and recreation.
The MGLCC has technically been in existence for 16 years, but up until 2003, it had no permanent building. A few Madison Avenue storefronts were utilized over the years, but the group never really took off until its board of directors secured the converted house on Cooper. The center hosts a number of groups, including the Stonewall Democrats, Mid-South Gay and Lesbian Republicans (formerly the Log Cabin Republicans), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Alcoholics Anonymous.
The center also houses Lavender University -- gay-themed public-education classes -- for several months a year. During "Sunday Afternoon at the Gaiety," the center features gay and lesbian-themed films, and Friday nights are coffeehouse nights, with occasional free live music.
Memphis is home to two free gay-themed periodicals --The Triangle Journal, a monthly GLBT newspaper, and Family and Friends, a monthly magazine. In recent years, both have expanded distribution to include more mainstream locations.
The Triangle Journal includes both regional and national gay news, as well as a what-to-do, where-to-go guide of gay-friendly venues and events in Memphis. It has a circulation of 4,000 copies per month.
Family and Friends, with a circulation of 5,000 copies a month, also boasts regional and national news and coverage of local events. A popular section in the back of the magazine functions as the R.S.V.P. of the local gay community, with several pages of photos of people at bars, clubs, and events. Publishers Anita Moyt and Patty Pair say they pride themselves on offering grittier, harder news than their competitor.
"Some people in the community have some issues with us because we're not a propaganda magazine," says Pair. "If somebody in the community screws up, we'll run a story. As journalists, we have a duty to report."
Eight bars are listed in Midtown in Family and Friends' "Rainbow Directory," a guide to gay resources. One, the Paragon Lounge, is at an East Memphis location on Walnut Grove; another, Allusions, boasts a North Memphis address. Backstreet, the city's largest gay nightclub, draws hundreds of 20-to-30-somethings each weekend.
Several people interviewed say the bar scene is the most progressive aspect of gay Memphis. Moyt says many straight people hang out at Backstreet because "the music's better than in straight clubs." It's not uncommon to see about half as many straight couples as gay couples there. But many in the gay community wish that attitude of acceptance wasn't limited to a trendy bar scene.
"The gay community here is almost in a ghetto of gay bars and gay churches. I'm more interested in politics and civil rights," says Maynard, who says Memphis lacks gay activism. "It just seems like most people in the community are more interested in socializing in the bars and clubs."
In the future, the MGLCC hopes to offer much more to the GLBT community. The volunteer board of directors, which currently boasts eight members, drafted a 20-year mission statement, called "MGLCC 2023." It envisions a number of facilities along Cooper offering specialized support, such as a counseling center, elder-care for gay senior citizens, legal and medical services, and a youth home.
"Youth services would provide counseling and housing services for children who have been put out of their homes by homophobic parents," says Piechowski. "Every once in a while, a kid will come to our door who has had to turn to the streets and turn tricks just to survive. There's no service in the Mid-South that can handle displaced or rejected gay youth."
Meanwhile, the gay community will likely continue to grow and become more visible. Many say they've already seen more cohesion in the community since the recent gay marriage and gay adoption issues have gained the spotlight.
"Memphis has come a long way in the six years I've been open," says Ray Casteel, owner of Inz and Outz. "I have a lot of straight people that come in and buy cards and gifts." Horne says things can only improve as more people come out. She likens the gay rights fight to the civil rights battles of the past.
"There are plenty of countries that have had legalized gay marriage for years," says Horne. "I think 50 years from now, we'll look back on this time in shock."