Carol Ann and Laura Stutte know someone hates them because they're lesbians—and that's why their Vonore house got burned down Sept. 4.
But even though the two and Carol Ann's adult daughter have been left homeless and their earthly possessions are gone, Carol Ann can see the good in the event that spawned an outpouring of support from local and national LGBT-friendly organizations, and financial donations from more than 30 states and three foreign countries.
"Honest to goodness, if this hadn't happened, I would never have been able to meet the Maryville PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] group, and lots of other good folks from Blount County," she says. "They have made us feel like we aren't alone anymore, and it's like a load has been lifted. I have to look at the positives."
Just 14 days after the fire, the experience has also transformed them from an isolated, under-the-radar couple to people ready to stand up and be recognized, come what may. Says Carol Ann, who does most of the public speaking for herself and Laura, who is shy: "What else can be taken from us? We have told PFLAG and various other groups that as far as we're concerned, we have our lives, the three of us, we have each other, we're willing to go out on a limb because that's what we have left to offer: ourselves. Anything they need us to do, we'll speak up. We would love to help with fund-raising, help others in need.
"Hopefully this won't arise for anyone else, but if it does—if we could pay it forward as love and kindness, that would be the best part of all this happening."
What a change from the couple who had lived quietly for five years in Vonore, a town of 1,162 as of the 2000 census that's about 35 miles from Knoxville and three miles from Fort Loudoun. Carol Ann's 47, Laura's 48, and the two met in Oklahoma in their early 30s, when Carol Ann was going through a divorce. They have been together for 16 years now. While they're not legally married, they did celebrate a civil ceremony at the Unitarian Universalist church in Oklahoma City.
They moved here from Oklahoma to enjoy the mountain community atmosphere and the low cost of living. Verbal threats from one neighbor began almost immediately, and continued off and on for years. "One threat that was made over and over was, ‘We take care of things the hillbilly way, and a lot of bodies have never been found in these hills,'" remembers Carol Ann.
Another time the neighbor said she knew how to poison animals, something about wrapping up aspirin in pieces of bread, and the Stuttes' black lab mysteriously got sick and died shortly afterward.
"We suspect that's who did it, but unless she threatened us in an officer's hearing, or someone saw her, it was all things that couldn't be proven. Can I prove it? No. Did it happen? Yes."
Carol Ann does not, however, consider this one neighbor's behavior toward a lesbian couple an indictment of the entire community.
"I would say overall we were treated just fine, though we didn't really act like a couple, either," says Carol Ann.
Most community members just assumed they were sisters, and the Stuttes would let them—Carol even jokes about it with her characteristic black sense of humor. "Everybody would ask, ‘How's your sister?' and for the longest time I thought they were talking about my sister in Oklahoma, cause I'm blonde, and Irish, and Laura's an Indian from the Chickasaw tribe of Oklahoma with this jet black hair. I learned to say, ‘She's fine' but after that I thought, ‘I really don't ever want to act like we're together as a couple or they'll think we're inbreeding.'"
That's been their style all along: careful, never being obvious with their sexual orientation or their union, never confronting those who might disagree. Both were raised Southern Baptist, for example. "When we got together, that's when I came out," says Carol Ann. "I'd been a Sunday school teacher, and I knew from the teachings that they wouldn't appreciate me still attending. But it wasn't like I spoke to the church about it, or publicized it. I kind of walked away quietly."
Same with the threats—no confrontation. Laura, an RN, was gone a lot with her job as a traveling nurse. Carol Ann had always been self-employed as a landscaper and home remodeler ("making things beautiful, really," she says), but she says the threats shaped her entire lifestyle. "Since we moved out into that area by the neighbor, I had been almost like a prisoner there. I knew, from the threats, that if we were gone any extended period of time, there'd be a chance our puppy dogs could get hurt, or worse. So I stayed there and stayed guard, other than necessities like going for groceries or getting gasoline. And then I was always in a hurry."
The Stuttes did finally report to the Monroe County Sheriff's Department a few weeks before the arson, telling them of a confrontation where their neighbor threatened to kill them and burn their house down. "This wasn't the first burn and killing threat, but this was the first where she got up on us and started to poke and point on us," says Carol Ann, who admits it took a lot of prompting from family and friends before they made the police report. "We were to the point where we were pretty much going to pack up and leave, put the house on the market, and never look back. But our family and out-of-state friends were saying, ‘Get down there now. Don't make us come and drag you.'"
This aspect has puzzled their loved ones and people who read about the case, and Carol Ann can see why. On the surface it doesn't make much sense: Why would anyone endure the threats?
"You get worn down, way out here, living around a neighbor like that," she says. "We just got more and more reclusive, trying to guard the house, but we kept thinking, maybe if we kind of ignore it, it will blow over. It was the elephant in the room, and we just kept hoping to wait it out, turn the other cheek."
Carol Ann says even after they made the report, neither of them actually thought the neighbor would act on the threat, but while the two were celebrating an anniversary in Nashville, their house was burned to the ground. Whoever set the fire, which has been deemed an arson, also painted "queers" in large letters on the side of the garage. And while investigators haven't yet determined if this qualifies as a "hate crime," Carol Ann says they know who's been making the threats all these years, and she can feel the hatred.
It scares her. "I don't even want to drive into Monroe County," she says, "and I'm fearful of this person's relatives, a lot of whom live in the area." She frets that someone will learn the location of the safe house where she and Laura are living. Laura hopes to be back at work by the end of this week. They have a computer, and Carol Ann jokes about her "briefcase"—a plastic grocery store bag that holds her personal documents and paperwork.
She grows somber when she talks about being grateful they took that trip to Nashville; it almost didn't happen. Her daughter joined the excursion only at the last minute. "She had been sick, and missed a lot of work, and we'd thought about canceling," she says. "I'm really glad we headed out Saturday, and she came too, because seeing the house—she would not have been alive after that fire. I can only go by what the neighbors have told me, this isn't an official statement, but they heard explosions. If we'd been there, none of us would have been alive."
The MCSD and the FBI are investigating the crime as a possible hate crime, and the state Bomb and Arson squad is also conducting interviews, but nothing conclusive has been determined. Carol Ann would like to see the crime solved and arrests made, so she and Laura can decide if they want to live somewhere in this vicinity, probably in Knoxville or Maryville. At first the couple just wanted to go far, far away. "At this point, we're going hour by hour—I'd like to say day by day, but that's not the case—on the decision of where to live. We've met a lot of good folks from Blount County, and people have bragged on the Knox County area. From what I understand, Knoxville is a safe place. But it all depends on when we hear or find out about the investigation."
She'd like to see the arsonist taken care of. "We really hope the investigators can go forward; we know who wrote those threats," she says. "But goodness, get them some help! Anyone who could go so far as to paint those hateful letters and burn someone else's house down, they really are disturbed."
There is no cell service in much of Vonore, and Carol Ann says lots of the people they know from the area don't have home computers. "Living where we have lived, we have not been that in touch with national issues, and we haven't been, as far as we know, around any other gay people in the past five years."
Those days are over. When LGBT activist Carla Lewis of Maryville learned of the Stuttes' plight from a mutual friend, she rallied local groups to rush to the Stuttes' aid, from Maryville PFLAG to the Knoxville Equality Project and the Tennessee Valley Universalist Unitarian Church. They've set up a fund for the couple, and gathered clothes and other essentials. Lewis also put out an APB to every media friend she has, and the Stuttes' story has been covered by several local media outlets and national LGBT-friendly blogs. The Stuttes say they're amazed and humbled by all the coverage, but spend most of their energy on the hatred that led to the crime—and not letting it bleed into their family. "Daggum it, they're not going to get through to us," Carol Ann says. "I'm looking forward to laughing and joking here in the near future.
"You know, hate is hate, whether it's directed towards Hispanics, African Americans, or gays and lesbians. It's all a heart condition. I don't know what we can do about it, except just stick together and make sure it doesn't happen to people we know and love—live life simply and do unto others as we'd have them do unto us."
A name has been removed from this article at the subject's request.