Pride and Prejudice 

As Nashville’s gay community celebrates Pride Week, the question remains: How much progress has been made?

As Nashville’s gay community celebrates Pride Week, the question remains: How much progress has been made?

Few Nashvillians realize that the city’s first gay pride celebration was almost a quarter of a century ago. Still, such commemorations have been far from consistent. Over the past 10 years or so, members of the gay community have organized and celebrated Pride Week only intermittently. No one can even remember how many there’ve been.

In many ways, modest societal progress over the last few decades has ushered in a sort of complacency within Nashville’s gay community. There wouldn’t have been a celebration here this year or last had it not been for the intervention of Deborah Marshall and Raney Pollos and other dedicated community members.

“We have had a problem with leadership in the gay community which has caused a lack of consistency in the past,” says Marshall, 39, co-chair of this year’s Pride Week and a senior systems analyst for Deloitte & Touche in Hermitage.

Nashvillian Jim Bogle, 50, attended the first Pride celebration in Centennial Park in June 1977. “There were about 100 people, and the Nashville Banner, The Tennessean, and channels 2 and 4 all covered the event. About half our group marched around the park, holding hands, two by two, singing ‘We Shall Over-come,’” he recalls.

A gay event of such magnitude in 1977, in the heart of the Bible Belt, being covered by most of the major Nashville media, was nothing short of momentous. It was only eight years before, in June 1969, that New York City saw the Stonewall Rebellion—the watershed event that started the gradual process of gay liberation and gay pride in this country.

If such celebrations were unusual in the mid-’70s, they have become a matter of course in the years since. Across the country, gay people celebrate Pride Week on or around the anniversary of Stonewall. The 2001 event this week—sponsored by Our Pride Encompasses Nashville (OPEN)—is marked not with the familiar parade but with a series of gatherings ranging from a poetry reading and business mixer to a drag show and a writing workshop.

For the gay community, the Stonewall story is one that needs constant retelling, as a reminder of its progress—or lack of it, depending on perspective. The Stonewall Inn was (and still is) a Greenwich Village bar. At the time, it was a dirty, sleazy club for multiethnic drag queen hustlers and their johns. These societal outcasts unintentionally found themselves the international symbol of gay pride when they decided they had endured enough abuse at the hands of the New York City police. At 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, they fought back.

For 10 successive nights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people rioted in the streets of Greenwich Village, fighting the cops, in particular the members of the notorious Sixth Precinct, which grafted a huge cut of the spoils from the Stonewall Inn, according to author Martin Duberman, who wrote Stonewall, the definitive work on the subject.

Three decades later, it might seem that Nashville’s gay community has plenty to celebrate. Nashville has, after all, come a long way since the late ’60s, evolving into a more diverse, more cosmopolitan, and more accepting world-class city.

Or has it?

Just like those in other cities, people in Nashville’s gay community are angry and confused as to why they have no legal protection from being fired from their jobs based solely on their sexual orientation. They are angry because they have no protection from being thrown out of their homes by their landlords just because they’re gay. They are angry because there is no legal validation and recognition of their committed relationships in the eyes of the citizenry or in the laws of Tennessee. Gay people are angry that the hate crimes law on the books is unenforced. But most of all, they’re angry and frustrated with themselves because they are doing precious little about any of this. In fact, there is so much left to do, it’s difficult to know how to advance the activism.

Perhaps not surprisingly, gays often disagree about their quality of life in Nashville now and the degree to which they’ve been emancipated—or not—from a sort of cultural exile. It does, however, speak volumes that only six of the 63 gay Nashvillians the Scene interviewed for this story were willing to be identified by their full names.

“If you think things are bad in Nashville, you should spend some time in Cincinnati,” says Christopher Harris, 41, a physician who works as a pediatrician at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Nashville is really quite progressive by comparison. Cincinnati has the dubious distinction of being the only governmental body in the country to revoke its own gay rights ordinance.” Harris’ burden is a particularly difficult one. In addition to his physician status, he is African American, and being openly gay in the black community traditionally has carried a terrible stigma.

“It’s really repressed here,” says C.J., 26, a lesbian who has lived in Nashville all her life. “Every time I get a chance, I hightail it to Atlanta, and I feel really happy and alive and a part of the world until I come home. Then, when I get back, I realize how shut down and depressed I am living here. But I can’t leave. All my family lives here.”

Eric, 43, is bisexual. He has lived in Nashville since 1969. For 13 years, he has been married—and monogamous—to an unusually supportive, heterosexual woman who knows he is bisexual. Eric started a bisexual support group in Nashville called Bi the Way in August 1999. There were five people at the first meeting. Today, the group numbers approximately 15. “I have to say that while there has been a lot of progress elsewhere in the country, I’m not sure there has been much measurable progress here in Nashville, at least as far as bisexuals are concerned,” he says. “Bisexual folks are always caught in the middle. Gays don’t trust us. Straights don’t trust us. And it’s not easier to get a date on a Saturday night, either, like everyone is always saying.”

Carlton Cornett, 40, a psychotherapist and openly gay candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 5th District congressional seat, says that “Changes are happening much faster in other parts of the country as far as the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people is concerned.” But, he says, “Nashville is much further advanced on gay issues than, say, Alabama or Mississippi. Or even East Tennessee. We have one of the oldest established community centers in the South, the oldest established gay youth support group, and one of the earliest Pride celebrations, among many other distinctions.”

“I remember what things used to be like in the late ’80s around the Chute and the Warehouse,” says Tom, 40, a housekeeper. “The Berry Hill police harassed everyone who was gay. They used to toss you into the backseat of their patrol cars for no reason and yell over their radio, ‘Come on over and see the fag I just picked up.’ They don’t do that in Berry Hill anymore, at least as far as I know, but that’s the only change I can think of. Otherwise, I think things are just like they’ve always been.”

Actually, Berry Hill has undergone considerable change, in part because The Center for LGBT life has been there for 13 years. (This month, however, The Center will move to East Nashville for more space and better parking facilities.)

Darryl, 53, a musician, offers one possible explanation for why gay life in Nashville is different than other cities: “You have to remember, you are standing on the buckle of the Bible Belt, and even though I know so many people who are gay and in the Christian music business—which is where I make my living—we don’t dare open our mouths. It is so hypocritical,” he says. “People know we’re gay, and they want to use our talent to play and to sing praises to the Lord...but we’d just better not talk about who we really are.”

Dan, an Asian American man of 23, came to Nashville from San Francisco to attend school three years ago. “Gay life here sucks,” he says, “especially for Asian people. The gay bars here are disgusting. They are like something out of a bad ’70s movie. People are always telling me, ‘If you don’t like it, leave.’ Well, I’m going to, as soon as I graduate.

“The sad thing is,” he adds, “I really love living in Nashville. I just wish [gay people] had some of the rights I have when I go back home. Like the fact you can’t be fired just because you are gay. And there is a domestic partnership ordinance [in San Francisco]...and lots of other things that put gay people on the same level as straights.”

Abby Rubenfeld, 47, a gay activist, attorney, and—along with her partner of 14 years, Debra Alberts—a mother of two daughters, has been a Nashville resident for 21 years. “I can remember in ’80 or ’81, a judge who did not know I’m lesbian told me in his chambers that he thought all gay people should be taken out, lined up, and shot. Now, when I’m in court, judges are much more respectful of us and our relationships. Some have even referred to our spouses as ‘partners,’ which is real progress.”

Still, she says, “Nashville is suffering from a lack of strong leadership. People have been unwilling to step forward and provide the vision necessary for us to get where we need to go.”

Rubenfeld knows what she’s talking about. She’s been one of the few gay Nashvillians who has provided continued leadership over the past two decades. Tennessee’s sodomy laws were repealed in 1995, for example, largely because of her efforts.

“I think it’s important that people get energized and mobilized and join groups and give money to the gay community,” she says. “And during gay Pride, it’s a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come—and on all there is left for us to do.”

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