Last edited: April 18, 2004

In South, Issue of Gay Marriage Exposes Hate and Fear

Chicago Tribune, April 8, 2004
435 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611
Fax: 312-222-2598 Email:,1,6180810.story

By Dahleen Glanton, Tribune national correspondent

DAYTON, Tenn.—As a longtime crusader for conservative Christian values in this Bible Belt town, June Griffin has taken on everything from preserving anti-sodomy laws to fighting the state lottery. But the biggest challenge yet, she said, is the issue of same-sex marriage.

“They are forcing their way into our towns, breaking our doors down, saying, ‘We are sodomites and there is nothing you can do about it.’ They want to be able to commit sodomy without it being called a crime, and then cover up their sins with our tax dollars,” said Griffin, 64, a Dayton minister.

“We still have mountain boys living here,” she said, “and they might not know much about giving speeches, but if you come across their property, they will fill you with lead. This is a God-fearing place, and we don’t see anything wrong with running [homosexuals] out of town.”

Last month, the Rhea County commissioners moved to ban homosexuals from living in the county, but rescinded the motion two days later after an outpouring of opposition.

While many Christians are calling for tolerance, some evangelicals see homosexuality and same-sex marriage as an assault on the most sacred values of their religion. Nowhere has the opposition to gay marriage been more intense than in the South, where conservative Christian values are firmly ingrained.

Already angry over failed efforts to display the 10 Commandments in public buildings and offer prayer in schools, evangelical Protestants have deemed gay marriage their No.1 concern among social issues when it comes to choosing a candidate to vote for, surpassing abortion and gun control, according to polls.

As gay couples have obtained marriage licenses in places such as San Francisco and upstate New York, local governments in the South are scurrying to find ways to keep from legally recognizing them.

Last week, Georgia, which already has a law banning gay marriage, approved a constitutional amendment ensuring that same-sex couples would not be allowed to wed. The amendment will appear on the November ballot, and is likely to energize Christian conservatives at the polls, according to political science experts.

“We are overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex marriage and we are overwhelmingly in support of a federal constitutional amendment to ban it,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “The courts are trying to force us to redefine the nature of the family, the basic building block of human society. It’s a dangerous move, and people won’t allow it.”

The message is being spread throughout the South that homosexuality is not acceptable.

Sinful, destructive lifestyle

The Southern Baptist Convention, with more than 16 million members and 42,000 churches nationwide, has undertaken an initiative to convince gays that they can become heterosexual if they accept Jesus Christ and reject their “sinful, destructive lifestyle.” The “hate the sin but love the sinner” message is being taught in thousands of adult Sunday school classes across the country.

In New Orleans, fundamentalist Christians tried to ban the annual Southern Decadence festival, or “gay Mardi Gras,” an event that draws thousands of homosexuals. A conservative Christian lobbying group has vowed to end the popular Gay Days at Disney World in Florida, equating the annual gathering to “a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan.” Across the South, churches are holding rallies and preachers are denouncing homosexuality from the pulpit.

In Wilmington, N.C., parents complained that the elementary school library carried the children’s book “King & King,” in which a prince falls in love with another prince. The Atlanta Human Relations Commission recently found that Druid Hills Golf Club, a private country club, discriminated against gay couples by refusing to provide spousal memberships as it does for straight couples. In Lafayette, La., a teacher scolded a 7-year-old boy in front of his classmates and sent him to a school behavioral clinic for telling another student about his lesbian mothers.

But one of the most direct actions against homosexuality was what happened in Dayton — a town of about 6,000 residents located about 25 miles north of Chattanooga. Dayton is best known as the site of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which John Scopes, represented by Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow, was convicted of teaching evolution in school.

Rhea County commissioners said they thought they were passing a resolution supporting a constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriage, but instead, the motion sought state legislative approval to charge homosexuals with crimes against nature. It also gave the county attorney authority to come up with a law to ban homosexuals from living in the county.

“We need to keep them out of here,” Commissioner J.C. Fugate said when introducing the motion. His comment was met with laughter and applause from the audience.

Two days later, after thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls from throughout the world, they rescinded the motion.

“We couldn’t have paid $2 million to get this kind of publicity, but it’s the kind of thing that never goes away,” said Rhea County Atty. Gary Fritts, who said he planned to rework the motion to reflect the county’s opposition to gay marriage. “This [gay marriage] has caused irreparable harm all over the world. Some people are embarrassed and want to look down on us, but a lot of people have called and said, ‘Hey, go to it, boy.’”

Some sympathize

Gay activists have gotten involved in the controversy, and recently 300 people showed up at the county courthouse to protest. There has been talk of having a “gay float” in the annual Strawberry Festival parade and holding a “Rhea County Gay Day” this summer that would attract homosexuals from all over the country. A Chattanooga radio station drew angry callers who promised that visiting gays would be met with violence.

As a conservative evangelical Christian, Kenneth Daniel Miller does not condone violence, but he sees homosexuality and same-sex marriage as “a sin that goes against God’s command.”

“They want us to endorse the homosexual lifestyle, but Christians will never do that,” said Miller, 23, who graduated with a degree in Bible from Bryan College, a religious institution in Dayton. “If we allow gay marriage, it will dehumanize people and they will be no different than some kind of mechanized cog.”

Bobbi Riggles, 48, and her husband, Steve, 54, said they are appalled at the way their neighbors are carrying on over gay marriage. They believe the commissioners are out of touch with many people who live in Rhea County.

“The entire county does not think like that, and most of us were shocked that something like that was said,” said Bobbi Riggles, who moved to Dayton with her husband from New Jersey 10 years ago. “This has drawn a line between the fundamentalist people and those of us who are more accepting. And we are just embarrassed by it all.”

Josh Runyon, 27, who grew up in Dayton, used to believe he would go to hell because he is gay. Everywhere he went, people reminded him of it — on the street, in the fast-food restaurant where he worked and in the church where he worshiped.

Since he came out at age 14, Runyon, the son of a preacher, has grown used to Christians telling him that his sexual orientation is an abomination and quoting the Bible to make their point. Some offered to pray for him; others threatened to burn a cross on his front lawn if he didn’t renounce his sexuality.

“Christianity stopped making sense to me, so when I turned 18, I left the church. I just didn’t feel welcome,” said Runyon, who later moved to Chattanooga. “People are locked in ideas from 20 years ago. I was taught that homosexuality is a sin and that gay people were going to hell. So I decided to stop going to church and just be gay.”

Rev. Matthew Nevels, a former Southern Baptist minister, said he left the convention after church members shunned his son when he was dying of AIDS. Nevels, of Chattanooga, is president of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

‘Fear is based on ignorance’

“So many pastors have master’s degrees in divinity or PhDs in theology, but they follow a prescribed course of study in seminaries that don’t offer any research on sexuality. There is an unwillingness to look at things in an open-minded way,” said Nevels, associate pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church in Chattanooga.

“The fear is based on ignorance,” he said. “And the majority of people in the churches just accept what society dishes out without challenging it. They accept that being gay is a sin because of one or two verses in the Bible, which often are misinterpreted.”

Bill Watson, 36, and his partner, Jason McDowell, 25, can’t understand why people are so angry over same-sex marriage. They live in an apartment in Chattanooga where they are raising McDowell’s 5-year-old nephew. Recently they flew to San Francisco to get married, and now they hope to adopt the child, whose mother is too ill to care for him.

They said they are prepared to go to court to challenge Tennessee’s anti-gay-marriage law as well as the law that prohibits same-sex couples from jointly adopting children.

“People used to criticize gays for being promiscuous, and here we are trying to have a monogamous relationship and people are upset about that,” said McDowell, a nurse. “When people come to our home, they see this is a normal family. We are not running around in tutus like you see on TV. We are boring. We come home, put the baby to bed and go to sleep. If we are lucky, we can get a movie in.”

Steve White, director of Chattanooga CARES, an AIDS resource center, said images of same-sex couples have sparked fear and furor among fundamentalist Christians. “There is a certain level of fear and loathing in places such as Rhea County, and they use that fear as an excuse to hate,” White said. “These are rural people who want to be separate from the people in New York and San Francisco. So any sort of differences are discouraged.”

“We are at a crossroads here, and it is not going to be a gentle discussion. It is going to be a fight,” he said. “But if you look throughout history, people who are afraid lose the battles, and people who have courage win. I think we have seen the faces of the people who are afraid.”

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