Last edited: July 04, 2004

Identity Crisis

Politicians Tried to Define Rhea County by Banning Gays, but their Definition Didn’t Match Reality

Metro Pulse, May 20, 2004
505 Market St., Level 300, Knoxville, TN 37902
Fax: 865-522-2955

By Joe Tarr

Anna Massey and Chris Denton sit at a picnic bench at Rhea County’s Cedar Point Park, munching sandwiches of white bread and processed cold cuts. A high school junior and freshman, respectively, the two just got back from a food run for one of the organizer’s of the county’s first Gay Day.

On the stage underneath the park’s picnic shelter, two hairy men in dresses sing songs and juggle. For today at least, surrounded by a few hundred gay men and lesbians, the two high schoolers are not part of the minority. They’re also probably not who the county commission had in mind when they passed a muddled resolution in March criminalizing homosexuals.

Massey and Denton have been trying to organize a gay and lesbian student group at Rhea County High, with some resistance from the school board.

Denton told a few people he was gay about a year ago. “I was just tired of being someone I wasn’t. I sort of threw up my hands and told a couple of people. It got back to my grandfather and he made me come out of the closet to my family. He’s very judgmental and he hates faggots,” says Denton, who adds that his grandfather hasn’t disowned him, he just doesn’t like to talk about it. “He loves me still.”

Massey came out about two years ago, at the end of her freshman year. Her friends have been supportive, while others have ignored her orientation or been hostile to her. “I’m probably one of the most openly gay students at my high school. I still get called faggot. I look past it,” she says. “My dad ignores the whole idea. He still says, ‘When are you going to bring home a nice boy who will work on the car?’ My mom is getting better. She wants to be involved in my life.”

The leader of the church youth group Massey is active in, well, he doesn’t like it much either, but doesn’t criticize, she says. “He said, ‘You know it’s wrong but I’m not going to judge you.’”

Does Massey believe being gay is wrong? “I believe it is wrong but God created everybody to be who they are so why would he create gay people but say it’s wrong?” she says.

Such are the negotiations of being gay in rural Rhea County. The place has been defined by a lot of people in a lot of different ways in the past few months. The conflict in Rhea County and in the United States over gay rights is so tricky because it has to do with how people define themselves, their families, their communities and their values. Stereotypes of Rhea aboundthe righteous Christian community taking a stand against hedonistic liberal culture, the racist redneck hick town clinging to the past, and everything in-betweenbut none of these portrayals hold up to scrutiny.

Most locals just wish the media and the gay rights groups and Christian soldiers would leave them alone. That’s unlikely. Rhea County and all of its citizens have become symbols to the media, politicians and the liberal and religious activists in the struggle over gay rights.

On March 16, the Rhea County Commission was wrapping up its monthly meeting, having just voted to remove televisions from all county offices. Then commissioner J.C. Fugate asked for the floor and started talking about the gay marriage issue. “I’d like to make a motion that those kind of people cannot live in Rhea County or abide in Rhea county. If they’re caught in Rhea County living together as such, that they be tried for crimes against nature,” he said at the meeting, according to a recording on the Internet.

Several people in the audience applauded, while commissioners laughed. The minutes of the meeting read, “Motion was made by Commissioner Fugate which was duly seconded by Commissioner Raper that pertaining to homosexual marriages that is going on across our country, that those kinds of people can not live in Rhea County or abide in Rhea County, if they are caught in Rhea County living together as such, that they be tried for crimes against nature. That county attorney, Gary Fritts, prepare a resolution and submit to our senator and representative and see if they will prepare a bill for that to go in the criminal code and word it the way it should be worded and bring the resolution back to the next commission meeting.”

The commissioners now claim they thought they were voting for something elsea defense critics say shows they’re incompetent at best, or that they’re lying, at worst.

Commissioner Tom Daviswho is a PR spokesman for Bryan College, the fundamentalist school founded in honor of William Jennings Bryan after the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, the county seatis one of the few commissioners who has spoken publicly since the March meeting.

“Nobody is going to argue the fact that those were the words that came out of Mr. Fugate’s mouth and as soon as he said it, ‘I thought, oh, boy, we’re in trouble.’”

Davis says the discussion that followed Fugate’s motion led him to believe they were voting on something else. “I thought we were calling for a proper resolution. That doesn’t help a whole lot, does it? I thought we were asking the county attorney to sift through all that happened in the last 3-1/2 minutes and bring us something we could vote on.

“On March 16, we were right in the middle of San Francisco, Oregon, Chicago talking about issuing marriage licenses to gay couples contrary to state law. What I was looking for, what I think we should have made clear, is we would have been directing our county clerk not to break state law.

“What I don’t understand is how anybody can think a county commission would do something so blatantly that was so patently crazy. If we really indeed said homosexuals cannot live in Rhea Countythat’s off the charts. That’s nuts. In this country we don’t tell people you can’t live here. The Supreme Court took care of that a long time ago,” he adds.

Nevertheless, none of the commissioners defended civil rights at the meeting or said gay people were welcome in Rhea County.

Ironically, Davis feels just as attacked as some homosexuals have. “It’s been disappointing because of the viciousness of the response. There’s a certain amount of that directed to both sides. On the one side, you have people telling us what incompetents and idiots we are. On the other hand, you’ve got people screaming at those people,” he says.

County Mayor Billy Ray Patton, who doesn’t vote on commission resolutions, says he was confused about the proposal. “I really couldn’t say what the motion was about because there was so much commotion. If I’d been voting on it, I’d have voted ‘no.’ The meeting just got out of hand,” he says.

The commission rescinded the incendiary resolution two days later, but the news had spread around the world. Much was made of the fact that Dayton was also the location of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.

“It’s already tarnished the county’s image,” Patton says of the anti-gay resolution. “For the first three or four days, we probably received 1,000 phone calls here.... This is not what Rhea County is all about. Rhea County is not a hateful county, by no means.”

Doug Landreth logged onto his computer one morning in Navarre, Fla., a small community near Fort Walton Beach. He was startled by something about Rhea County that he found on Landreth grew up in Rhea County, and most of his family still lives there.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I knew the climate surrounding Rhea County, but the fact that they would take it to such an extreme I found very hostile. I became physically ill.”

Landreth knew at a very young age that he was gay. When he went to college, he slowly began the process of coming out. When he was 30, he told his parents. “I never felt there’d be any personal shame. I went to counseling to learn how to deal with it if I was disowned by my family. I didn’t want to do anything to my family to cause them problems. It wasn’t until I was partnered and bought a home and my parents were coming down for a visit that I came out. I didn’t have the strength for myself but I didn’t want to put my partner in a separate bedroom and pretend.”

Now 40 years old, Landreth works as a media director for a Metropolitan Community Church (a Christian church with a special outreach to the gay and transgender people) and is a founder of CoastalPRIDE of Northwest Florida. With a thick goatee and a muscular build, Landreth doesn’t look like he’s easily pushed around. His hometown government’s action upset him, but he resolved to fight it. In a letter sent to every commissioner, he promised to move back and sue the county if it didn’t rescind the action.

His public action in his hometown stirred up new tension with his family. His fatherfine with his son being out-of-the-closet a day’s drive awaywasn’t cool with it at home, Landreth says. “He said I don’t live here and this is their backyard. He said, ‘You need to make a choice, your family or this gay shit.’ I told him, ‘No, you have to decide.’”

He and his partner stayed at a hotel last weekend during Gay Day. “The ball’s in his court,” Landreth says. “He’s the one that’s got to come to terms with the fact that I have to be true to myself.”

Human rights and gay activists around the country started hearing about the Rhea County debacle and it wasn’t long before they started connecting with locals and planning the first annual Rhea County Gay Day.

A week after the commission meeting, plans were announced for a gay pride day in Dayton.

Plenty of localsstraight and gaywere outraged too. Ilaeka Villa, who has lived in Spring City for four years (and whose family has lived there for 30) called for their resignation and started a recall petition (which is non-binding).

Kristi Bacon, a lesbian who had moved to Rhea County six months prior, got involved in organizing the festival. Until May 8, no one really knew what to expect. There were rumors that Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell would show up.

There was also fear that gay bashers would violently strike back.

Brad Putt, who opened Main Stage Music, a guitar and music shop across the street from the courthouse last summer, says he heard a rumor that there was a party in Pikeville to raise money for some kids who were planning to hit the Gay Day with paintguns. “The fundraiser was to pay for their bail. They researched what the bail would be,” he says. “When I heard thatthat’s just so wrong.”

Michael Lowe is nervous. So is Paul Balo. And Rick Sawyer. And Kip Williams. And Jeff Berke. And a few others.

It’s four days before the big Gay Day in Rhea County and Equality Knoxville has organized a meeting at the Bean Tree and Coffee House to talk about non-violent protest and how they’ll handle themselves in the presumably hostile territory.

They pass a picture of a truck with large sign on the back that reads “Homosexuals and Lesbians are called Dogs in the Bible.” One of them took the picture on the highway in East Tennessee. They mention the UT student who was beaten coming home from the Carousel Club one night in March.

“I’m seriously worried about getting assaulted or killed myself this weekend,” confesses Berke, who is new to activism. Nightmare scenarios play out in their heads.

“You go to the bathroom, three or four guys come in after you and bash your head against the wall and leave you to bleed to death. Nobody sees anything,” Lowe says.

“At best there could be a counter-protest on the horizon like storm clouds and a picnic for the rest of us,” Lowe says. “Then there’s the thought that people could get hurt or you go to your car and it’s been keyed or you have two flat tires.”

June Griffin, a zealous fundamentalist Christian who lives in Rhea County, causes them concern. She’s been a vocal antagonist to many leftist protest groups. Her group, Citizen-Soldiers for the Atomic Bomb, sent a press release out about the anti-nuclear group Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, that read “we pray for their untimely deaths.”

Williams has had interactions with her through his anti-nuclear activism and he urges the others not to confront her. “There’s this gross sort of hatred that I don’t understand that’s going to be represented at this action that I don’t know how it is going to work itself out. That concerns me because nobody needs to be hurt,” says Williams, who keeps his hair cut in a short mohawk.

“Having interacted with [Griffin] I have the deepest sense of compassion and sadness for her. I don’t understand how anybody can be that hateful. But you’re still dealing with a human being. She may not treat you like one,” he adds.

Their fear is palpable. They talk about sticking together in pairs, about trusting the police, not showing any nudity and being conservative in showing public affection. No alcohol is allowed. And no swimming, someone says.

“We can’t pollute their water,” Williams jokes.

Dayton doesn’t appear to rank all that high on the hick-scale. On the outskirts of town, there’s a typical sprawling strip of fast-food restaurants, gas stations and a Wal-Mart. Several antique shops and homegrown restaurants clutter the main drag downtown, where there’s a quaint folksiness that would appeal to tourists and yuppies from the big city.

Walk into Putt’s music shop across the street from the historic courthouse and you might hear the Sex Pistols, Radiohead, Esquivel or The Darkness playing on the stereo and kids from the local rock bands drop by. When people were holding protest and apocalyptic signs across the street, Putt stood outside his shop with one that read “Buy A Guitar.”

Everyone is sick of the media, and it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been interviewed a couple of times. CNN, the L.A. Times, and several foreign journalists have all been here. Bacon was trailed for a few days by a Seattle journalist. Putt’s been interviewed four or five times. “They want me to say something mean,” he says of reporters.

A few journalists have also visited the Eagle Nest Barbershop across from the courthouse. On Tuesday after the Gay Day, the barber snips away an older man’s hair, while another waits his turn with his wife. A piece of wood with the name “Bobby Beard” carved into it sits on the mirror. “I don’t know where he’s at. I was waiting here for a haircut myself,” the barber jokes, never saying whether he’s Beard.

A reporter’s questions are met with evident mistrust and caution, but they’re answered politely, bemusedly. “I think the county commission made a mistake, I really do,” the barber says. When asked if he’ll vote for them again in 2006, he says, “Awww, c’mon? Are you going to vote for Bush? All you news guys are all liberals.”

“I didn’t attend no rally,” the barber says with a laugh. The man in the chair frowns and keeps his eyes closed, as the electric clipper buzzes up and down his neck, but he sporadically chimes in.

The barber doesn’t agree with what the commission did, but says it’s been blown out of proportion. Most of the people at Saturday’s rally were out-of-towners, he says.

Massey and Denton show that there certainly are gays here. She and her friends are trying to start Legends of the Fall, a group where gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and straight students could go to talk about sexuality, orientation and other issues.

“What we’re trying to do is organize a safe place for gay and straight students to meet if they have questions,” she says. “We have to go through the process of getting school board approval, which probably won’t happen.

“The school board isn’t very helpful. They’re not looking at it the way we see it. They don’t have to go through the harassment we go through at football games and stuff,” Massey says. “The teachers see the harassment, but they don’t do anything about it. I’m hoping [the school board] will allow it because it’ll change the school for the better.”

Some Christians are very threatened by the increasingly vocal gay rights movement and the push for same-sex marriages. The day before Gay Day, the Rev. Franklin Raddish of Capitol Hill Independent Baptist Ministries staged a protest against gay rights at the Rhea County Courthouse. About 30 people reportedly showed up for it.

From Raddish’s viewpoint, homosexuality is a cultish lifestyle that is unnatural. The political activism is not about civil rights or equality, Raddish says, but about something elserecruitment.

“[Homosexuals] want to represent themselves as good neighbors, dress themselves up and say, ‘don’t worry, we’re just your neighbor next door.’ These people aren’t the good neighbor next door, they’re out to target young children. They must recruit their heritage,” he says.

“No one is born a homosexual,” he says. “As many of them will die from AIDS, the only way they can keep their numbers is to recruit. Pedophiles and men dressing like ladies, their objective is recruitment of children.”

Raddish advocates a Constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, and he’d also like to see states’ anti-sodomy laws upheld. He applauded the county commission’s resolution. “I think what the county commission was trying to say is ‘Yes, you can live here, but you cannot practice the lifestyle of sodomy...because it’s against God, nature and humanity.’”

“When we elect our leaders we expect them to provide a clean environment and even set up some moral standards. If they don’t, the group that comes in sets the moral standards. One way or the other, it gets set,” he says.

Plenty of Christians hold less extreme views, and some are supportive. A church youth group, while not taking any stance on the issue, passes out free water to everyone at Gay Day.

Several students from Bryan Collegewhich held graduation that day walked throughand talked to the Gay Day celebrants. One strikes up an hour-long discussion with Williams about philosophy, worldviews, and their interpretation of Pauline Gospels.

The Bryan College student doesn’t proselytize, but tries to understand Williams’ viewpoint and express his own.

Williams says he rejects the battle and war like analogies that many in Western culture use in defining their spiritual paths. The Bryan College student says he believes any spiritual message must be presented in loving ways. But he says that he believes Satan and evil exist in the world and they must be countered.

“If you believe that I’m on the wrong path and you don’t warn me, you’re not a loving person,” Williams says.

When they part, the two hug and wish each other well.

Jeff Berke knows well the arguments and rhetoric of the fundamentalist Christians. For years, he was one, as he repressed every sexual urge in his body.

He grew up in the Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of Mentor, and remembers the first time he was aware of the word homosexual. He was about 15 and his older brother said, “Oh, homosexual is something terrible.” It didn’t really register at the time, but a few months later, when a friend called him gay, Berke says, “At that point, I thought my life had ended.”

“I was isolated with this horrible, shameful secret. In my mind, the secret was gay,” he says.

He was a good student, a good kid, but he dreaded school. “I was pushed around, I was mocked. A locker mate slammed my head against the locker a few times... I was a little wallflower of a kid. I was petrified to go to school. I realized a few years ago I was shut down, I would not confront anybody.”

As he grew older, he mostly kept to himself. “The more I tried to repress my feelings the stronger they became. I did not have any friends. I would not let myself get close to anyone,” he says.

When he was 27, he worked next to someone who was a devout Christian. She lent him a prophecy book. “The book seemed like it had all the answers. Everything was so clear. I decided to give my life to Jesus, who I still believe is the Christ. At first, it was really wonderful.”

In church, however, he heard caustic, harsh things about gays.

In 1984, he moved to Raleigh, N.C., where he immediately joined a Southern Baptist Church. After a while there, he confided to the pastor that he had feelings for men.

“He picked up on the fact that I could not receive anything. I had never asked for help. I was this rock, this frozen rock,” Berke says. The pastor referred him to a Christian counselor who got him into a Homosexual Anonymous group. Similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, it is a 12-step program that claimed to be able to cure homosexuals of their “disease.” The man leading the group had been “straight” for five years and was now married. “The group became my life. I thought, ‘This is it. There’s hope. I can turn my life around.’”

The groupusually about five to 10 peoplewas mostly made up of men. He was in his 30s, but Berke had yet to have any sexual experiences aside from masturbation. He was startled by the behavior of others in the group. “There were people in this group going to bookstores and picking up men,” he says. “I was a little frustrated. It seemed to me like everybody in the group was being promiscuous.”

In 1986, the group’s leader was caught in a scandal. He had been asking men in private therapy sessions to undress for him and getting off on it. “I really felt betrayed,” he says.

After that things got particularly bad for him. He was having constant panic attacks10 or more a dayand was struggling to cope with day-to-day life. In 1987, he went to see a secular counselor.

Leaning on his cane in Cedar Point Park, he marvels at the person he was then. Smiling slightly to think about the first interview with three psychologists, he says, “I remember the look on their faces was like, ‘What rock did he crawl out of?’”

His mental state then was extremely agitated. “I was ready to explode. I was just so angry. My reactions were either very submissive or very aggressive.”

As his therapy progressed, he finally revealed his secret to one of the counselors. “I said in my nice, shy way, ‘I think there’s a possibility I might be a homosexual.’ Right away, I was ready to jump under the table because I thought he was going to explode. He said, ‘Is that something you might want to explore?’ I thought, ‘No one’s ever put it to me that way before.’”

Soon after that he started attending an MCC church, where he made a few friends. It took years, but he slowly started leading a more normal life, making friends, dating, coming out to his family, getting involved in the community. Which is what led him, despite his fear, to come to the Gay Day. “I don’t want to be a doormat any more. I don’t want to go back in the closet. I need to be seen. I’m pretty much a normal person.”

As we talk, a pastor from the MCC church in Chattanooga gives a short sermon on love, responsibility, and judgment. The talk drones on as people continue chattering, and Berke’s mind drifts too.

“I’ve kind of learned to turn it off. After I got out of the church, I was really anti-God,” he says. “I’m more open now. I’ve gotten over the hate God stuff. I’ve got so many doubts, why should I hate something I’m not sure of?”

After a while, the pastor leads the audience in singing “Amazing Grace.” Not many chime in, but Berke does. “I think I can do this. Singing is OK to me,” he says.

Berke still gets pangs of residual guilt from his years as a fundamentalist. “I felt attracted to someone today, and I felt the old finger wagging, ‘No, no, noyou can look but don’t touch,’” he says.

“I believe fundamentalismwhether Christian or Islamic or any religionthey’re all very cultish. A lot of people in these churches are very sweet, but I believe a lot of them are like me with horrible secrets they’re hiding behind.”

Despite the humorousand threateningpossibilities of having a large gay pride festival in the belly of the Bible Belt, the event itself is a little boring. Neither Ellen nor Rosie show up. Neither do any kids brandishing paintball guns. The water bordering the park is closed to boats, and no cars are allowed to drive through the park during the event. Picket signs are prohibited, out of fear they might be used as weapons.

With volunteer police coming from all over East Tennessee, there are about 150 to 165 officers on hand, says Rocky Potter, a Rhea County Sheriff investigator. A couple of Christian protesters are charged with disorderly conduct outside the park. And one of the bands is charged with possession of marijuana, Potter says.

The crowds never reach the 3,000 to 5,000 organizers predicted. But over the day, they count 893 people coming into the park, not including vendors, organizers or police.

Marcus Ellsworth, a student at UT Chattanooga, who helped coordinate the event’s entertainment, is thrilled with the turnout.

“I know for a fact that a lot of people from the gay community didn’t come out,” says Ellsworth. “The main reason they didn’t come out was because of fear. But I think this shows we can do this kind of thing anywhere.”

There aren’t many flamboyant people among those that do show up. There aren’t any drag queens. Some same-sex couples hold hands, kiss and hug, but there aren’t any heavy makeout sessions. There are several information booths, a few vendors, and a dunking booth. Mostly it’s people laying on blankets, drinking water and munching on snacks.

The impression from many townies is that all the people at the event aren’t from Rhea County. Lisa Nichole Keylon, a straight woman who lived in Rhea County for a spell, but now lives in Chattanooga, helped organize it. She says she was outside the park earlier in the day when some people she knows asked, “What do they look like?” Keylon responded that they were 10 feet tall and purple. “It’s like they think we bused in a bunch of liberals, and this has nothing to do with the people who live here,” she says. “I still have family here and I visit a lot. I can’t put it into words but you cross the Rhea County line and it’s like you went back in time.”

There are many out-of-towners here, but also plenty of locals. As the day winds down and most of the people have left, an exhausted Berke waits to get on the bus that will take him back to Knoxville. He’s ready to go to sleep, but looking around the park, he’s struck by how beautiful it is and how tame the event was.

“It was just people getting together. Did we prove our point? I don’t know. I’m going to have to reflect on that,” he says.

But the day meant a lot to Denton. He was at school when he first heard about the Rhea County Commission’s resolution. “I started making copies of the newspaper clips and passing them out. It made me so mad,” he says.

“Look at it now,” he adds. “Look what all their efforts went to.”

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