It's one of those genial June evenings in Knoxville, the night air warm and full of promise, and a cheery scrum of folk—many of them not the usual clubgoers—have gathered in the main hall of the Edge off Kingston Pike to watch a screening of Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride. It's an award-winning documentary about the role of gay pride celebrations in the larger struggle for equality, showing tonight in conjunction with the city's annual PrideFest.
After the movie, chairs shuffle, tables fold, and the stage's luxuriant lavender curtain opens on Xena, the first of the evening's prolifically coiffed, astonishingly endowed drag queens.
"If you want to see just how far our community has come, one way is to look at our drag queens," one longtime scenester offers with a chuckle as Xena vamps around the stage in a black g-string and bikini top, all flawless skin, svelte legs, and C-cups.
The people at the club this evening are a varied lot, from the sensuous girly-men on stage to the starry-eyed fans of both sexes—punks and Goths and tough guys and tough girls and not-so-tough-guys—who pay them homage. And then there's the night's PrideFest VIP guests, such as East Tennessee Equality Council President Todd Cramer, a wholesale HVAC distributor who could pass for a former male model, or the Edge co-owner Mark Floer, a rugged former military man and construction contractor by day who came out after leaving the service in 1991.
A few of the patrons here tonight may also be seen Sunday at one of several area church services friendly to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual community, like the Rocky Hill-area Metropolitan Community Church or the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Still others will avail themselves of various other LGBT recreational opportunities, such as the K-Town Softball League, the season for which is currently in full swing.
And yet still other members of the city's gay community aren't visible on the club scene at all, even on a special movie night. Like many of their straight counterparts, they have settled lives—partners, homes in the suburbs, even kids.
With Pride month upon us, the point of all this is to note that Knoxville would seem to have a more active, more vibrant, more resourceful, and more resource-filled LGBT scene than most people might guess. And that's more or less the point The Advocate magazine tried to make in its Jan. 9 issue, when it famously rated Knoxville number eight on its list of Gayest Cities in America.
Eliminating from consideration usual big-city suspects such as New York and Los Angeles, The Advocate concentrated its third annual list on "the per capita queerness of some less expected locales." While acknowledging some of the Tennessee Legislature's problematic shenanigans, the magazine allowed that Knoxville "has defiantly produced a robust scene, including the University of Tennessee's Commission for LGBT People; a welcoming spot for queer, trans and other marginalized teens at Spectrum Café; gay-affirming churches; and thriving nightlife."
It's high praise, considering the source. But how true is it? Because for all its gay softball, its nightclubs, its handful of impressively liberal churches, Knoxville is also home to a number of less-receptive houses of worship; to a prominent local charity, notorious for its mistreatment of LGBT clients in need; to Stacey Campfield, who poses as a state senator and proposes streams of gay-bashing legislation.
And when one considers that The Advocate list placed Knoxville one place above Atlanta—often looked upon as a sort of gold standard for gay-friendly in this little corner of the Southeast—it raises the question: Is The Advocate list worthy of serious consideration?
How gay are we, really?
In order to understand where Knoxville is now as a livable city for gay residents, it's instructive to look at where it's been. And according to Gene Nutter, an old-school scenester with assertively rosy cheeks and autumnally graying hair, the city has earned a few points on The Advocate's list just for improvement.
In the mid-'80s, Nutter was president of Knoxville's Ten Percent, the first organization to sponsor Pride Week in June. At an early celebration, he says, "we had more protesters against us than marchers. If you had rated Knoxville then, and you could have given a negative number, we would have gotten one."
His memory is long and bitter. Nutter himself was beaten in the middle of 17th Street by five high school football players for walking home with a drunk friend; the Carousel, the city's longest running gay bar, was tear-gassed by an unknown assailant, never caught; police routinely harassed drag queens who strayed outside the safety of the gay bars, arresting them for criminal impersonation.
By contrast, he says, "walking into a gay bar now is like walking into Walmart. It's that easy. No more guns. No more knives. And no more tear gas. And our drag queens don't have to wear a piece of male clothing for fear they'll be arrested."
Bob Galloway, former pastor of the LGBT Metropolitan Community Church, remembers the mid-'80s as a time of almost daily death threats to the church phone lines. It was also the beginning of a change in the city's gay relations, he says, fomented in large part by Knoxville's Ten Percent.
"That's when we really started to develop a sense of a gay community here," he says. "It was a civic social organization—parties, art shows, political stuff—and it drew people from all segments of life, people who didn't usually interact."
But though improvements in the status quo for gay residents have continued, they've been halting and imperfect, with the curve often dipping and lagging before pushing forward again. And as late as 2005, America's eighth-gayest city hadn't celebrated PrideFest in three years.
"We had no Pride, no outlet for groups or community," says Todd Cramer of the East Tennessee Equality Council. "We had only one church that was really actively with us. Very few civic groups. That's quite a difference in a matter of six years.
"People were afraid to be associated with our community, and that had a lot to do with the political climate. We were looking at a federal marriage amendment. I feel the atmosphere really did not make it a welcome place anywhere, much less in a predominantly red state where we had no organization and no community."
When ETEC—Cramer is a founding member—sponsored its first Pride event in 2007, the attitude shift was palpable. "You could see an immediate difference in confidence and belief in themselves the people who attended had," Cramer says. "They knew they weren't alone."
The first ETEC PrideFest celebration drew about 25 protesters; since then, the celebration has grown by more than a factor of five—drawing more than 6,000 throughout the day last year—while the number of protesters dropped to zero in 2011. This year's event (June 23) promises to be bigger yet, with an expansion from Market Square into Krutch Park and a 30 percent increase in vendors. It's one indicator that Knoxville isn't ashamed of its LGBT population.
But PrideFest only comes once a year, and there's life outside that single day's celebration and the few weeks of special events that surround it.
Living in a well-appointed home off Northshore, Bill Folley and Bill Myers differ from other suburban fathers in one important respect: they aren't married to suburban mothers. Rather, they married each other, in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, in 2004, and have since parented more than tolerably charming tow-headed twins, Rex and Penny, now five, through a surrogate.
As Rex and Penny tear up the backyard with plastic lawn tools, breathlessly anticipating a pool party later in the afternoon, Folley (papa) and Myers (dad) relate that it's sometimes difficult to set life in Knoxville apart from the oppressive tenor set in Nashville's General Assembly.
"I guess it doesn't feel really gay here to me," says Myers, when asked for his own assessment of the city he calls home.
Says Folley, "It's all about what the laws are. A city that's livable for gay people should have laws that reflect what's actually happening. They tried to pass the ‘don't say gay bill.' Does that mean our kids wouldn't be able to say ‘we have two dads?' So you have a movement afoot toward laws that shame our family. And our marriage isn't recognized by the state."
Their qualms have been balanced, to some degree, by friendly neighbors, helpful employers (Folley works at a local hospital, Myers works for HGTV; he received maternity leave when the twins were born), and by finding a church with a powerful LGBT outreach in the aforementioned TVUUC.
"What Knoxville needs more than anything else is simply more time," says Folley. "Because the only thing that will help is generational change—when our kids grow up and become voters. Otherwise, it is what you make of it."
Cynthia Hall and Dusty Bernard, who celebrated their Holy Union ceremony at MCC on May 12, have likewise experienced difficulties—though of a different sort—living as a gay couple in Knoxville. They've also seen change.
When they first arrived in 2001, the two found that their neighborhood was not universally accepting. "We had a bit of trouble," says Bernard. "The car was vandalized. People gossiped. People tried to cause us trouble.
"But over the years, many families have been very accepting. We have several neighbors now who are very accepting and affirming."
Hall chose to come out publicly for the first time when she arrived in Knoxville; she got through the early days in large part because she and Bernard discovered MCC. "I think we got started out on the right foot because we investigated Metropolitan Community Church," she says. "We felt immediately accepted, and we've been going ever since.
"I think Knoxville is like the country as a whole. The atmosphere is changing. Younger people are more accepting overall than older people, but older people are coming around. People are starting to realize there isn't anything to fear from us."
Seated in the MCC annex, the Rev. Jill Sizemore fairly wrestles with the question of Knoxville's gay-fluency, like Jacob wrestling with the angel Peniel.
"I think we're very gay," she says, asked about The Advocate rankings. "The problem is we have two obstacles. One is our own internal homophobia, the fear that keeps us from claiming our culture. I think we try to fit in so hard: ‘We're just like everybody else.' And in one way we are. But in another way we're not. We've learned to love outside human boundaries and constrictions.
"The second obstacle is the culture of violence coming from the pulpit here in the Bible Belt, which comes from people who are too lazy to do their homework on the Scriptures. I think people here are overwhelmingly gentle and loving, and those with half a heart understand that violence from the pulpit is wrong. And that we're raised in this culture of fear. If we can get past that judgment and create real dialogue, people will realize we're not who these preachers say we are."
There are a number of expressly gay-friendly churches in the area—including MCC, several Unitarian branches, the Church of the Savior United Church of Christ, and the Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan—and others that are openly tolerant.
Still others, not so much. The straight secretary at MCC reveals that fellow members of her home church, a Protestant denomination, "believe I'm going to hell" for working there. And one of the city's church-affiliated charitable organizations is mentioned time and again as being hostile toward, even rejecting of, would-be clients who are gay.
Partly in response to that hostility, Galloway operates St. Ninian's, a small Christian community for gays and lesbians who've fallen on hard times. St. Ninian's also fills what Galloway sees as one of the biggest gaps in Knoxville's LGBT outreach—a safe place for outcast youth.
"Young people often face issues with parents," he says. "We still see those issues; that really hasn't changed. And sometimes they get kicked out because they're gay. For years, that was a killer for youth. They thought they were alone, that there was no one else like them."
Galloway says the outlook has improved, albeit slowly: MCC added an anonymous helpline; the Internet fostered more connectedness; then, in more recent years, TVUUC helped create gay-straight alliances at a few area high schools.
Still, youth services remain one of the community's pressing needs. "I'd like to see more resources for teenagers and young adults who are questioning their sexuality," says Cynthia Hall.
It might surprise hipsters who perpetually complain that Knoxville has "nothing to do," but many gay residents—not to mention The Advocate staff—apparently consider Knoxville a reasonably happening place. In addition to six gay clubs currently in operation, Cramer notes the city features "several sports leagues, a number of religious organizations and welcoming congregations, a university that has embraced us with an LGBT resource center, and many, many civic groups."
The latter include several PFLAG groups, the Spectrum Café for gay youth, the fledgling Gay Men's Chorus, Gyrlgroove (womyn's dance), and the East Tennessee Gay-Straight Alliance, to name but a few.
"When I saw the Advocate article, I was surprised until I read it," Cramer says. "Then I saw what they were trying to do, to look outside some of the most obvious gay cities, and look at some of the things we've accomplished. Then I looked at what they were trying to accomplish, and at where we were compared to where we are. And it made much more sense to me."
New England transplant Bill Myers allows that "Knoxville has fulfilled the reasons we wanted to live here. It's easy to get around and affordable. But you also have good movie theaters, Market Square—everything you want, you can find here."
And yet, no matter how culturally interesting or diverse Knoxville may be, Myers, with his two-kids, two-dads, decidedly non-traditional home, provides a pointed reminder that the state's don't-say-gay political climate still hangs over the city like a gloomy thunderhead, especially with rabble-rousing State Sen. Stacey Campfield calling it home.
Then again, maybe Campfield's wrongheaded legislative efforts and puerile notions of how the AIDs virus spread are serving a higher purpose. Though he doesn't look old enough, MCC Interim Music Director Christopher Hamblin remembers old photos of '80s orange-juice shill Anita Bryant—an outspoken gay-basher—getting hit in the face with a pie. Campfield, he says, is Knoxville's 2012 version of Bryant, sans the o.j. and the red dress and the June Cleaver 'do.
"Every cause has to have its Judas goat, and Stacey Campfield is it," he says. "Before, no one knew where to throw the pie. Now, they know. I don't think we could have formed the Knoxville Gay Men's Chorus without Stacey Campfield. Everyone wants to see that son of a bitch lose. He's the best thing that ever happened to our cause. I hope he never goes away."
Meanwhile, Campfield's malignant clown act has been balanced in recent months by the seating of new Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero. Signaling a new era in gay-straight relations, Rogero introduced, and got the unanimous approval by City Council of, an expansion of the city's anti-discrimination ordinance in May, prohibiting discrimination against LGBT applicants in the city's hiring practices.
She's also scheduled to appear in the PrideFest parade, the first mayor to do so. She had recognized the gay community in her mayoral campaign, and many gay residents see her actions as follow-through on campaign promises, of a sort.
"Thank God for Madeline Rogero," says Hamblin. "Because local politicians were not traditionally concerned about me or my community, I always assumed, they weren't going to take me seriously. And I never got involved. And now that's starting to change."
A full-time cook on Market Square, Sam Hull puts it thus: "For the first time in a while, I'm excited about the future. And it's Madeline Rogero's fault. She made a point of mentioning gay people in her acceptance speech. More than anything, I'm excited to see where we're going."
So what does it all mean? How gay are we? We have culture, a gaggle of gay resources, a healthy club scene, a surprising (some might say) number of open-minded houses of worship, sports leagues and civic groups, and a forward thinking mayor who has already broken new ground more than once with her initiative and her forthrightness.
Yet we're still rooted in a culture of pulpit-pounding malevolence; burdened by the albatross of a state senator who thinks gay men sleep with monkeys; mired in a state where the legislative agenda can politely be described as Kafka-esque.
Local singer/songwriter and PrideFest performer Karen Reynolds suggests that, given all of its assets, Knoxville stands head and shoulders above its sister cities in Tennessee. "Simply put, Knoxville is leading Tennessee in the fight for equality," she says. "Sure, discrimination and bigotry still exist, but it's the exception rather than the rule. So, is Knoxville gay-friendly? Certainly, because Knoxville is ‘friendly,' period."
Hamblin, for his part, says he was angry when first saw the Advocate piece. "Because a lot of times, it feels so untrue," he admits. "But it made me feel like we have to step up our game. If someone else thinks it's true, wouldn't it be nice if we could prove them right?"