Despite the best efforts of bullies and state legislators, it's a different world today for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Tennesseans from the plague years and paranoia of the late 1980s. In a telling anecdote, Nashville photographer Tommy Lawson remembers one early gay-pride event booked aboard the Music City Queen riverboat. Ironically enough, it failed when partiers showed up at the riverfront dock — and decided they didn't want to risk being seen or photographed disembarking.
By contrast, this weekend's 25th anniversary Nashville Pride Week — the city's out-and-proud celebration of LGBT life — will be commemorated with parties, a parade, live music and dance, and a number of family-friendly daytime activities. (See more info here.) The relative openness may make younger Nashvillians, gay or straight, wonder why such an event is even needed. But that freedom is a relatively new development, as a remarkable civic history project makes clear.
Think of the Brooks Fund History Project as a time machine that unlocks a secret chronicle of Nashville: a world of carefully constructed covers, of teens trying desperately to conform, of bygone bars and night spots passed along like secret handshakes. It documents a city where closeted businessmen brokered weddings to lesbians to deflect their bosses' suspicion, where devout LGBT citizens sought to reconcile faith and family — and where, as one subject wryly puts it, you "could always tell a gay in Nashville because their tires were worn on the right side" from cruising the downtown district between Third and Seventh avenues.
Such details are what project chair Iris Buhl hoped for when she began raising funds for the project more than a year ago. It's a longtime goal of The H. Franklin Brooks Philanthropic Fund of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, which funds projects specifically addressing the LGBT community. The impetus for the project came in 2005 with the death of Herbert Fox, whose status as founding Nfocus editor and former Hee Haw writer only hints at his social breadth. With the fondly remembered Fox vanished an entire social history of Nashville gay life, and Buhl, a steadfast supporter of Nashville CARES since 1987 — "Jerry Falwell made me do it," she says mischievously — recognized the need to preserve as much of that history as possible.
"You don't appreciate how much life has changed unless you know how they lived," says Buhl, handing over a neat small stack of transcripts on her kitchen table. She spearheaded the project along with author John Bridges (a close friend she notes as an inspiration), attorney Robyn Smith and Vanderbilt English professor Roger Moore, with consultation from Vanderbilt sociologist Dan Cornfield.
The project's first phase, meant to document LGBT life in Middle Tennessee before New York's landmark Stonewall uprising in 1969, consists of recorded and transcribed interviews with some 28 subjects ranging in age from 63 to 85. Sadly, some did not live to see the project's conclusion — it will be donated to the Nashville Public Library later this summer.
Some are men, others women, while still others defy gender labels: They are black, white; rich, poor; worldly, sheltered; high-school dropouts and Ph.D.s. Stonewall, to many, was just a Civil War general. The subjects were drawn mostly from "networking," Buhl says, and the interviews (conducted by filmmaker Deidre Duker and producer Phil Bell) will also figure in a documentary later this year. For Bell, the project hit close to home.
"Back in the late 1980s I had a friend and colleague who worked in broadcast news," Bell writes via email. "He was young. He died of AIDS. He was gay. His family was embarrassed about how he died and even told many family members it was 'cancer.' I'm still saddened by that dishonesty, which, in its course, left the world with no real memory of many meaningful aspects of his life that included being caring, giving and a joy to be around. It was all about getting him buried and hiding the 'nasty secret' of his life. This was an inspiration for being a part of this project."
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are often discussed as a faceless bloc. But if any generality can be drawn from the interviews, Buhl says, it's how specific the subjects' experiences were. The criteria were that they had to have turned 30 before 1969, and had to have lived 10 years prior to that year in Middle Tennessee. Most interviewees warmed quickly after initial reluctance; only a few backed out.
Buhl expected the remembrances to cluster along lines of gender or class. Instead, pressed for a common thread, she says, "They had a common characteristic even the people themselves didn't recognize — courage."
Nevertheless, other common themes emerge from the excerpted interviews the Scene read. "I used to wonder why I was like I was," says a subject born in 1937. (The project asked that the subjects' names not be printed before the formal presentation later this summer.) Even though he went on to become a Navy man, he grew up with brothers who called him "little sister," gravitated toward "feathers and furs" and isolated himself at the movies with Tarzan and Gene Autry. When his brothers learned he was gay, they cut off contact with him.
Other subjects recall feeling early confusion, then relief as they discovered their sexuality — and that they weren't alone. A black transsexual female, born in 1942, encountered a kind teacher who told the bewildered middle-school boy that he'd actually been born female. Instead of reporting the child — as legislators tried to demand this year in Tennessee — she cautioned him to watch out for predatory straight kids who'd try to use him on the downlow. Oftentimes, Deidre Duker says, teachers "knew more about the interviewees than they knew about themselves," such as the sympathetic instructor who discreetly slipped one suffering student a copy of Radclyffe Hall's pioneering lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.
Beatings, slurs and threats are remembered, but not as often as you might expect. The peer pressure recalled was often more insidious — as with a woman born in 1942 who remembers being pressed by the yearbook staff to ask an effeminate math teacher to pose next to the square root of 69 for a joke. No stranger to the snickers of others, the teacher frostily declined. Another subject, then a closeted lesbian teen, recalls being asked along by straight friends from Hillsboro High who were going for a ride. They thought it would be a hoot to taunt and gawk at gays downtown. She went.
"It's easy for people today to think people in the past had a simpler life and a less complex view of the world and its challenges," Duker says. The most eye-opening aspect, to her, is how the subjects "did a lot of emotional work around their gayness" — protecting their private lives, finding makeshift families and communities, even locating accommodating churches. Men went to bars to meet other guys, Duker found; women met more through work, friends, sports or house parties.
The details of LGBT nightlife provide some of the most colorful details. Cruising downtown extended along a circuit from Seventh to Church, then down Third or Fifth to Commerce Street's notorious red-light district — home to jumping joints such as the legendary gay bar Juanita's, the speakeasy Arlene's, and the Green Lantern, a straight bar handy for picking up soldiers fresh from the nearby Greyhound station. If those weren't secluded enough, word of mouth supplied other rendezvous points: the balconies at the Loews and Paramount Theaters, the lake at Centennial Park, or the well-trafficked ground-floor bathroom of the state Capitol. In the '70s, as attitudes loosened slightly, Second Avenue brought hangouts like the Watch Your Hat and Coat Saloon, perhaps the city's first drag bar, and the leather bar the Toolbox.
If anyone expects a sustained wail of misery, they'll be pleasantly disappointed — though the hard facts of what Duker calls "being gay at a time it wasn't OK to be gay" ring clearly and painfully. "Some of it was a downer but not all," Bell says. "More than one person I talked with told me they were accepted for who they were by friends and family, even back during the '40s and '50s, which surprised me." Iris Buhl was glad to note how many of the subjects reconciled with and maintained loving relationships with their families.
That includes the Navy man mentioned above. Ten years after his brothers ostracized him, he was surprised one Christmas to receive out of the blue an outpouring of cards and presents from his family.
"I thought, well, maybe they matured or understood or outgrew or had gay friends," he tells his interviewers. "You'd be surprised ..."
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