How Knoxville's Same-Sex Couples are Faring in Our Straight-Laced Society

The burning of a lesbian couple's home in nearby Vonore vaulted our area into the national eye. What does the scrutiny reveal?

The burning of a lesbian couple's home last month in nearby Vonore vaulted our area into the national eye. From the actions of one apparently homophobic arsonist comes an examination of the larger surrounding society, East Tennessee, and its hub, Knoxville. What does the scrutiny reveal? Are we judgmental, harsh, even cruel to our homosexual, bisexual, and transgender citizens? How do same-sex couples living in our area fare, compared to other mid-size cities, and compared to recent history?

Those are the questions tackled by three nervous-but-willing couples. Two lesbian moms, an older gay male couple, and a transgender woman and her partner bring us up to date on their personal experiences in our area. One question was answered very quickly, as just in the process of researching the article, three separate couples agreed to participate and then decided to withdraw, each feeling that a financial or emotional hardship would ensue if they went completely public with their personal lives. Even the partner of one of our subjects, Carla Lewis, had to abstain for those same reasons. That, say our couples, is just life when you're LGBT and live in these parts: some freedoms, a few fears, and always the consciousness that in East Tennessee, you are not the norm, and sometimes being out means being at-risk.

Are we improving? Everyone profiled sees hope and a fine future for the local LGBT community, though some see it coming sooner, and faster, than others.

Larry and Kenneth Palmer Kitchen: These Days, It's Better

Larry and Kenneth Palmer Kitchen stood side by side at the World's Fair Amphitheater for this past April's "Breaking the Silence" ceremony, quietly watching teens on the stage talk about the stresses of being LGBT in Knoxville, clapping in support, smiling.

But unlike some of the younger same-sex couples, they did not hug or hold hands or kiss for the camera, nor did they take to the stage themselves—these guys stay out of the limelight

They were older than most of the gay men at the event: Larry's 64 and retired, Kenneth's 59 and works for the Election Commission. And while they're active in many LGBT causes locally, and out at work, at church (the über-liberal Tennessee Valley Universalist Unitarian), and among friends, they don't push it.

"We've never experienced any violence or hate, maybe because of our age and how we come across," says Larry. "We remember where we're living—in the South, you don't go around most places holding hands. We're not afraid of showing affection to a point, but we don't flaunt it. I find it interesting that most other countries in the world, when people greet each other they give them a kiss. Except here. It's a Puritan thing, maybe."

The two first met in Chicago, at a party. "He came over to me and said, ‘Wanna dance?' and we've been dancing ever since," says Kenneth. "I was one of those rare people who found love at first sight."

They have been a couple for 27 years. They moved to Knoxville eight years ago after decades in the Windy City to get away from the expense and the extreme weather.

In those days, says Kenneth, the LGBT community in Knoxville was not even in the closet. "They were up in the attic in grandma's trunk. But now, it's growing. People are becoming more politically aware. There are so many more LGBT organizations at UT these past couple of years. And on three different occasions recently I saw same-gender couples holding hands down Gay Street."

The Kitchens still have a wish list: They'd like to see more members of PFLAG who weren't LGBT themselves, and they'd like more support from members of the black community. Larry thinks it would be a good idea for the mayor's office and the police to have some sort of LGBT liaison, like they do in Chicago. And both men would like to see more of their peers come out in the open. "We know one man who's half of a couple who won't even speak to Ken when he sees him downtown," says Larry. "If more people were out, and more straight allies supported our community, there wouldn't be all this guilt by association."

Kenneth says he firmly believes that the LGBT community will slowly turn itself around, and the Kitchens are doing a sort of turnaround themselves. Oh, they'll never be what Larry calls "kissy-kissy." And Kenneth still has "sort of a phobia" about media coverage of his lifestyle, ever since he was caught on camera at a gay rights demonstration in Chicago in the '80s and lost his job the next day. But the two have a renewed commitment to being visible as a couple, and are heavily involved in all matters civil rights in Knoxville—Kenneth has even taken Larry's last name, and uses it exclusively in their church community.

Ironically, it was the anti-gay views of the shooter who killed two members at their church, TVUUC, that led them to be more open. "The shooting was unimaginable—why someone would come with such hate to a church thinking the perception of that church was far too tolerant," says Kenneth. "I felt we were briefly under attack. That moment was our flashpoint; Larry and I decided to get really get behind this church that had always supported us, become more committed. Become more visible."

Being gay has caused each man harsh loss. In 1970s Kalamazoo, Mich., where he grew up, Larry was fired by his own father from the office where he worked when his father and the general manager figured out he preferred men. He was estranged from his father until his death, though he reunited with his mother two years later. He's seen his 42-year-old son from his youthful marriage just twice.

Kenneth, who came out when he was 23, grew up in the Park Ridge suburb of Chicago, a high Roman Catholic. "I was raised that impure thoughts, especially sexual, were a sin, so I struggled with that a long, long time," he said. "I've known since I was 7 I was attracted to males, but there was no reference for me, I didn't understand what my vague feelings meant. Growing up at that time, there were no icons, no one was even using the word, ‘gay.'"

The fallout from coming out? "You name it," says Kenneth. "My family was not happy. My friends deserted me, most of them. It was not a happy event. Still, coming out was a freeing experience. A big struggle, but it was worth it."

When the two first started planning to move to this area, Maryville caught their eye in some publicity about good places to live. But their real estate agents encouraged them to move to North Knoxville, and it was a good choice, says Larry. "We've had no problem at all with our neighbors; we're not real close, and we don't socialize, but we do talk over the fence—even though we don't have a fence. We've had one neighbor over for a barbecue; the guy across the street waves and honks. The people who live kitty corner are not receptive, but we just don't speak. There are no stones in the yard, nobody bothers anybody."

The Kitchens are completely comfortable in Fountain City; Kenneth feels good about wearing the luxurious silk scarves Larry buys him for anniversaries there, for example. "I think people who see us together more than once start to realize we're a couple—I'm not afraid to say ‘hon'," says Larry.

But he also says their comfort doesn't extend to the whole area. "We actively avoid Halls; the attitude there is 180 degrees away from Fountain City. And the East Side—we were going to a Democratic Party function there and I felt a little uncomfortable until we got indoors."

One other thing still gives Larry pause: flying rainbow "pride" flags outside the house during the month of June. "Ken wanted to, but I was a little afraid," he says.

But they proceeded. Some jeered, some gave them the peace sign from their cars, says Kenneth. And two years ago, there was what he characterized as "minor vandalism." "Someone ripped our flags down."

But the flags were just scattered, not damaged, so this June the couple hung them once more.

"We had a car pull into the driveway, someone we didn't recognize," Kenneth says. "A man got out and said, ‘I just wanted to thank you for flying those flags.' He and his partner had just moved here, and they were feeling very alone. He told me, ‘Seeing those flags, now I think it will be all right.'"

Jess and Kris: New Moms in an Old-School Society

Note: Jess and Kris B. are out among friends, family, and staff at the University of Tennessee, where both work. But out of concern for their eight-month-old daughter and their professional and home privacy, they requested that only their first names be used for this article.

Jess B. was reviewing a website a student had helped her create this summer. Just coincidentally, he'd designed the buttons on the home page in rainbow colors. She remarked on the choice, "It looks a little gay." He said, "I didn't notice. Do you want me to change it?"

Jess' eyes are full of humor when she recalls her reply: "I told him, ‘No, that's okay. I'm gay.' He was like, ‘No. You're gay?' And I said, ‘Yes I am.' He was shocked, even though he'd worked with me all the previous spring. He kept saying, ‘I don't care, I just had no idea. You just had a baby!' and I said ‘Um hum.' And he was like, ‘What about that guy you talk to on the phone all the time, your husband?'

"‘You mean my wife, Kris?'"

Jess, who's 35, and Kris, who's 33, have encountered similar reactions since moving to Knoxville in summer '09, and they say that's what makes them ill at ease as lesbian Knoxvillians: Most people here still have no concept that there might be same-sex couples among them, even the ones who would be kindly if they knew.

"It's like it doesn't even occur to people here that this sort of family exists outside of San Francisco, New York, and Hollywood movies," says Kris. "There's this disconnect with things that are happening in wider America."

And so few of their LGBT peers are out, says Jess. "I know it can't be true that we're the only lesbian couple with a baby in all of Knoxville, but it's how it feels. Some individuals at the university have been very supportive of Kris and I, but I do feel like the university, like the rest of Knoxville, has a cloud of closetedness over it. It makes us feel a little alienated here, like we are the only ones who are comfortable with our sexuality, in our skin, and out in the world. I don't want our daughter having to grow up in that climate. I want it to be different."

Both contend they have never experienced any homophobia in Knoxville directly. "No one's ever yelled, ‘Dykes!' on the street or anything," says Jess.

"There may be a few remarks that get lobbed in our direction, but if so, they're so Southern we aren't getting it," adds Kris.

Neither of the women feel unsafe, in part because they're not the type—they commonly drive into Mexico, for example. They also say being lesbian in the area doesn't seem threatening in a physical sense. "I tell people I'm gay or they find out and they'll usually say, ‘Oh, Knoxville, no one's going to bother you, but I wouldn't go out to any of those little nearby towns,'" says Kris.

Much more troubling to the pair is what they consider the blatant intolerance behind the refusal of the University of Tennessee to offer benefits to same-sex domestic partners, or extend them family leave. "People in our respective departments and upper administration have been supportive when we voice complaints, and I do understand that their hands have been tied by the state Legislature on the matter, but it's quite frustrating," says Jess. Such state policies don't make up the fabric of Jess and Kris's everyday lives, though, and they say confrontations aren't the norm. For her part, Kris says, she may assist in avoiding controversy, simply because she edits her remarks. She's out, but unless she knows someone pretty well and they seem open, she rarely mentions her home life. "I try not to offend people when I don't have to," she says. "I don't want them to have to pause in their day because they feel offended."

Jess has no such compunction: "I don't give a shit if who I love offends people," she says.

Kris did have one mild altercation, but says she's the one who ended up feeling a little bad about it. A group on campus was handing out bags of candy. "I was in a particularly bad mood, or I would have just walked on, but one girl said ‘Come join my church!' I said, ‘Let me ask you a question. I have a wife and kid, do you respect us as a family?' or something garbled like that. She was confused and finally said, ‘I don't see that as being a family.'"

Neither Jess nor Kris had the turmoil East Tennesseans associate with coming out—not with friends or family. Kris knew she was a lesbian when she was 14 and living in Austin, Texas. A forward-thinking group called Out Youth was based in Austin, and Kris worked their national hotline and was a liason for the high school gay-student alliance, sometimes speaking before the school board. When she came out to her mom, she remembers only her laughing and saying, "I'm not surprised."

Jess, who grew up in Toronto, says she didn't feel gay at that same age, which is why she didn't come out until grad school around 11 years ago, the same time she got together with her first girlfriend. "It was all one process, introducing my girlfriend and coming out, and that made it easier. My father did say, ‘But I'd always hoped you'd marry, and have a child.' And here we are."

Kris and Jess had been together for four years when Kris asked Jess to marry her one night while they were doing dishes. "How romantic is that?" Kris jokes.

They got married in Canada, where same-sex marriage has been legal since July 2005, and a 2007 law extends a child's parentage to three individuals, the biological mother and father along with the mother's lesbian partner. Kris recalls the matter-of-factness of it all. "Jess' mom was telling people from their street, neighbors, ‘My daughter got married! This is her wife!' These are just ordinary urban Toronto people, complete strangers, and they were just happy. No shock, nothing to recover from. They might have privately felt, ‘That's not right' and maybe it wouldn't be the same everywhere in Canada, but to us, they were saying ‘Congratulations.' No shame anywhere."

The two are a comfortable couple, easy together, not sitting close but constantly consulting with glances and quick remarks—about the baby's monitor, and their outsized dog's chewy, and where the guest should sit to avoid remnants from the baby's supper underfoot. They live in a cozy house close to downtown, in a neighborhood popular with UT staff, and seem much like any other liberal couple on a weeknight, eating salad from a glazed artisan's bowl and quoting NPR.

They came to Knoxville for Jess' job as an assistant professor at UT. "We moved here because the people in my department were wonderful," says Jess. "It also helped that we have a friend from here, Liz Albertson, who raves about the place." Jess had already accepted the position when Jim David Adkisson entered the sanctuary where children were performing Annie, Jr. at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church and opened fire, killing two and later revealing an anti-gay bias as part of his motivation.

With her characteristic vigor and sailor's vocabulary, Jess remembers almost rescinding her acceptance: "I'm thinking, ‘I can't f--king believe I'm moving to that town.'"

Kris, too, felt, still feels, the horror. "That's a terrifying thing, someone opening fire on a church. I can't even contemplate the philosophy behind why the guy did it. And that was the town I was coming to, to raise a child."

The friendship with Albertson trumped the fear, and a school year later the women came to Knoxville, and entered a world where their lifestyle was no longer openly acknowledged, much less common place, which is what they'd been used to. "In Madison, you couldn't throw a stone without hitting a lesbian mom," says Jess. "My friend from Austin was in a prenatal class and there were five, count them, five other lesbian couples. Where we had our baby in Knoxville, even though they were very good and it was completely comfortable, I felt like I was the first ever lesbian there."

In their previous cities, the queer population was large, diverse, and visible. "Until Knoxville, we've never lived in a place where a community seemed so inaccessible to us," says Jess. "We'd like to know more of our peers."

Adds Kris: "Our primary reason to want to meet other gay couples is so our child isn't raised thinking she's growing up in a creepy family."

The two giggle over being introduced to people they're immediately supposed to hit it off with because they're all gay. "And we know these really cool people who probably would never hang out with us in another city, but they feel they have to here," says Kris.

Even at the university, where colleagues are very concerned about supporting diversity in the student body, very few of the LGBT faculty want to be out themselves, notes Jess. "Some are, but many are not."

She and Jess would feel comfortable holding hands in public, but they don't usually, because Kris isn't into PDA. Still, she says she wishes the option was more open, to her, and to other same-sex couples in the community.

"It's not about whether you actuallly do it; it's about having the freedom," she says, "Other people, straight people, don't realize the many things they don't even have to think about. What I'd like is for all of us not to have to worry about someone taking offense."

Jess admits she can be harsh; she's impatient with closeted Knoxvillians. "Because so many people aren't just out, it makes them hard to meet; it makes my life more difficult."

Yes, she admits with a sigh, that's easy for her to say. "I didn't have to worry when I came out; I knew my family would still love me."

Kris especially understands that the fear of being out in Knoxville has a real basis for some, and she realizes that she and Jess are privileged in this situation, both because of the solid acceptance from everyone they care about, and because their livelihoods or personal safety are never threatened by their sexual orientation. "I may be naive, but I feel like a lot of fear just creates more fear, until now we've got this environment where no one ever tests the water, because the perceived risk is so humongous. That needs to change. Or maybe the risk is so humongous. Maybe Jess and I will find that out. "

They know they are not in Madison, or Austin, or Canada anymore. But just once Kris and Jess would like to dine out in Knoxville without being asked if they'd like to split the bill onto separate checks. "We'll be talking, sitting at the table. It's not like we're having a marital fight, or making out. But we are equally taking care of the baby; she's there, too," says Jess.

It makes her sputter that even the "liberal" restaurants like some of those on Market Square don't consider the possibility that they're a couple on a date. "It's very clear to me that we're a family out for dinner, but no one seems to get it."

Much more encouraging to her is an e-mail she received from a colleague a few weeks back, subject line, "long overdue."

"I came out to my class, and the world's still turning," the text read. "Thanks for the nudge."

Carla Lewis and Partner: I Vowed to Be Out

Carla Lewis began life as Carl Justin Lyle Aldridge, and was known as "Justin" until age 29; Justin was married and had two children, a boy and a girl. Now Carla's 39, a pre-operative transsexual who's been living in Maryville for 10 years with a post-operative transsexual she met at a support group. "She's wearing an engagement ring, and she and I would get married if we could," Lewis says. "We're a committed couple."

And although her partner would not participate in this article due to concerns over losing some clients at her small business, Lewis is out, all the time, whether she's working at the computer service company she owns with a friend or attending PrideFest in Knoxville. "My life is an open book, I'm not hiding anything," she says.

That draws some looks and remarks, says Lewis. "I must seem like an outgoing member of the transgender community. I may seem invulnerable to personal attack. It may seem I have no fear of the hate-mongers and homophobes that are so prevalent in this region of the country."

So why isn't she more scared? Because she's thankful to be alive at all, says Lewis, who attempted suicide in 1999 by dissolving 240 sleeping pills in Kool-Aid and drinking it. That was after Lewis—who was at the time still Carl Aldridge and living in Morristown—learned her wife was leaving and taking the kids, and possibly using knowledge of Lewis' "tendencies" to gain advantage in family court.

"At some point I awoke laying in my own vomit while having a seizure and horrible hallucinations," says Lewis. "The pain was more than I could describe." She was rescued by her boss at Phillips Electronics, who broke down the door and found a lifeless form.

Four days later, Lewis woke up at UT Medical Center, where, she remembers, the only visitor from her church, Manley Baptist in Morristown, came to tell her it was a good thing she survived or she'd be burning in hell. "Such is the source of my cynicism," she quips.

The battle for life in the hospital changed Lewis' perspective forever. "Several weeks of physical therapy, coma, dialysis, and other personal losses hardened me against a world that can be very cruel. I faced death of my own design and lived, and I vowed then to always be true to me and never afraid."

Out of the hospital, Aldridge became Lewis, and returned to her job at Phillips. "The transition didn't go as well as I'd hoped," she says. "I had a sympathetic ear at HR, but there was nothing they would do officially for me."

Outside of work, it was more of the same. "People that were closest to you are the ones hating you the most," she says simply. "And the ones you didn't know very well have come to be pretty close friends."

In 2000, Lewis left Phillips and formed a private company based in Maryville with one of those friends. She works throughout Sevier, Knox, Blount, and Loudon counties. "I go to homes and businesses, and I give up no opportunity to come out," she says. One good icebreaker topic is her children, who asked to live with Lewis five years after her divorce was final. "If someone asks do I have kids, I'm like, ‘Oh yes, I'm the father of two.' I can't say I've ever had a bad experience with those conversations."

Part of the reason she's so comfortable with conversations that could result in a physical altercation is that she's physically able to look after herself, says Lewis. "My son had a friend over to the house and he was just kind of looking at me as I lifted a 300-pound air conditioner. His friend looked at him and my son said, ‘She works out! A lot.'"

As a couple, Lewis and her partner aren't quite as bold, but they've gotten more and more comfortable in the East Tennessee social climate the past few years, she says. "We don't go to Monroe or Loudon County together, but we hold hands in West Town Mall, or at Turkey Creek, or in Pigeon Forge. We didn't start holding hands in public until about 2007, that's when it started feeling okay. We still get looks, but now there are more wry smiles. Of course, some still look totally disgusted."

She is also secretary for the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and for the newly formed East Tennessee Equality Council—and a de facto counselor for local transgenders. "I get calls about once every six months about discrimination, but it never makes the news, because the people who are victims don't want to out themselves," she says. "But I've got a big mouth, and I'm willing to call and ‘suggest solutions' to the employer or the school, and in every case so far eventually everything's worked out."

She and her partner bought a house in 2004, but it's in Lewis' name only. "Some things you don't even try," she says.

The two have a decent relationship with their neighbors, though. "I know our neighbors have to know we're together because we're the only two people there," she says. "And we do occasionally get asked to a neighborhood potluck, but we don't go—not because we don't feel welcome but because we've got other stuff to do."

Lewis readily acknowledges acceptance comes easier for a female couple, too. "There's always that patriarchal erotic thing about two lesbians together, or that easy explanation of ‘They're friends, they're special friends.' It's just easier to ignore than two guys."