Across the country, New Year's 1993 looked like Morning in America for gay people. The first president-elect ever to have openly courted gay voters was about to be sworn into office, and expectations were high for a new administration committed to equality.
But ominous signs were starting to appear. One of Bill Clinton's high-profile promises—a pledge to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military—was drawing conservative fire and a fierce backlash had begun, particularly in Bible Belt states like Tennessee. The newly-formed Tennessee Christian Coalition was preparing a resolution urging Congress to renounce "special rights" for homosexuals by refusing them protection under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the resolution had no force of law, the plan was to get it on as many county commission agendas as possible and use the recorded vote to bludgeon officeholders who failed to toe the line. In February, it made its debut appearance in Blount County and passed unanimously.
On March 22, 1993, the resolution hit Knox County Commission with the force of an F-5 tornado. The call had gone out from pulpits and conservative radio stations that the faithful were needed at the City County Building to defend Christian values from sodomite child molesters, and the faithful responded, jamming more people into the Large Assembly Room than anyone could ever remember seeing at a public meeting there. Moderate and progressive clergy—Unitarian, Catholic, Methodist and Jewish—along with contingents from Knoxville's organized gay and civil liberties communities attempted to muster their side, many wearing pink triangles as memorials to those who were killed in Nazi concentration camps due to their sexual orientation. But they were so greatly outnumbered (by an estimated eight-to-one ratio) that their voices were drowned in a tsunami of vitriol. It was an unforgettable display that was seared into the memories of those who saw it in person, or on Community TV.
Knoxville Chamber President and CEO Mike Edwards was executive director of the Public Building Authority, the agency that runs the City County Building. He frequently attended County Commission meetings. He has vivid memories of this meeting and agrees that the crowd was likely the largest ever gathered there, and probably the angriest. Even the behavior of some commissioners shocked Edwards.
"The one I remember most was [Mike] Ragsdale," he says. "He was doing a lot of grandstanding and showing a lot of anger. I came away thinking there was a lot of meanness in that room."
Twenty years later, many who were present still describe this occasion as the most painful public meeting they have ever witnessed. Some believe that what has come to be remembered as the "gay-bashing meeting" couldn't happen today, pointing to the fact that Madeline Rogero was elected mayor of Knoxville in 2011 on a platform of inclusion; that City Council unanimously passed a non-discrimination ordinance that includes gay and transgendered employees; that Rogero, her top aides, and key members of City Council marched in the PrideFest parade last year; that this Saturday's Knoxville PrideFest 2013 event has a bigger budget, more community support, and is expected to draw the biggest crowd of any Pride event, ever; and finally, that an Equal Employment Opportunity ordinance similar to the city's, sponsored by Commissioner Amy Broyles, was approved in Monday's County Commission workshop without a dissenting vote. It will be passed along to the full Commission on Monday for consideration on first reading.
County Commission Chair Tony Norman (whose father Rex Norman was on the 1993 County Commission and voted for the resolution) has watched some video from the 1993 meeting. He is cautiously optimistic that things are, in fact, different today.
"I would want to confer with lawyers to understand the ramifications, but we tend to look at the issue as ‘We're not going to discriminate against people who are gay,'" Norman says. "I believe we would ask, ‘Is this somebody just trying to drive a wedge into the community?' We are tolerant of people who have other sexual orientations and I would hope we could have a discussion that wasn't dictated by the masses. I think our Commission, which has 11 members instead of 19, could handle it—even if we got inundated by bus-loads of angry people."
Broyles, buoyed by the reception the non-discrimination ordinance got at the workshop (Commissioner Larry Smith, who once voted against approving federal pass-through money for AIDS education, seconded her motion to approve the ordinance, for example), is feeling pretty good about what will happen next week
"I was proud to be a county commissioner today," she says. "I think we did some really good work."
But how far has Knox County really come? To appreciate that distance, it bears recalling what happened at that County Commission meeting in 1993.
Madeline Rogero, who began her political career by serving two terms on Knox County Commission from 1990-1998, remembers being jolted out of bed one February morning in 1993 by some alarming news.
"One morning I woke up and the news came on the radio that the Blount County Commission had passed a resolution opposed to adding sexual orientation to the 1964 Civil Rights Act," she says. "I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness. Next it will be on our agenda.' And I predicted who would bring it—someone from the 9th District."
She would be proven right on both counts. The resolution (actually, there were two of them, the second being a lesser-publicized companion resolution endorsing public prayer) urging U.S. Senators Jim Sasser and Harlan Mathews and U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan to reject "special rights" for gay people, who practice an "immoral and unacceptable lifestyle" deemed "morally offensive" to "the citizens presently protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1994," showed up on the March agenda. The sponsors were Fred Flenniken, Howard "Nookie" Pinkston, and Robert Bratton, the three South Knox County commissioners from the 9th District.
The first thing Rogero did after she got wind of the resolution was to call Jim Richards, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church (a Christian church that ministers to the gay community) to sound the alarm.
"I told him, ‘You guys need to know what's coming down the pike,'" Rogero says.
The late winter of '93 brought historically bad weather to East Tennessee, but Rogero, Richards, and others formed an informal task force that met and strategized throughout March (Commission meets the fourth week of the month). She gave them a primer on how the County Commission process works, and when they started researching the issue, they learned that similar resolutions were being introduced all over the country.
She decided that when it came time to vote, she wouldn't.
"I certainly didn't want this to pass, but I also didn't want it to become a big fight in the community," Rogero says. "We started considering ways to defeat this resolution and how we could avoid the gay bashing that would come out of a heated confrontation. I knew it was going to be difficult to get a no vote, so my strategy was to try to limit the opportunity to grandstand, because this would open the door to all the other wedge issues that politicians use to ingratiate themselves—issues we don't have any control over in Knox County.
"My strategy was to try to get other commissioners to pass. We needed to focus on schools, roads, neighborhoods, and jobs, and I started reaching out to like-minded people. I hoped it would give some commissioners a way out."
But by the day of the meeting, there was no neutral ground, no way out. Rogero's appeals to reason couldn't combat the altar call from pulpits and radio stations or defuse a confrontation framed in terms of good versus evil.
The standing-room-only crowd that showed up that day was loud, angry, and dominated by members of conservative church congregations, many of whom had been bused to the City County Building to applaud their pastors' denunciations of gays as perverts and pedophiles. They shouted down Unitarian minister Lynn Strauss and Methodist minister John Rice, and jeered Rogero and her colleague Bee DeSelm for speaking against the resolution.
A relative newcomer to local politics, Amy Broyles wasn't around for the March 1993 meeting, but has seen the videotape that Ed White—a historian of Knoxville's gay community who also spoke in opposition to the resolution that day—has made available online. Broyles says watching the video was "soul crushing," and that she was offended by the disrespect shown not only to representatives of the gay community, but to commissioners and clergy who did not support the resolution.
"Listening to those comments today made my stomach hurt. I can only imagine how painful if must have been for any gay or lesbian individuals who were there, or who were watching on TV," Broyles says. "Still, I think we have grown as a community, and certainly some individuals have grown. I know I would not want to be judged today by my actions from 20 years ago."
The Large Assembly Room at the City County Building seats 310 on the floor and 136 in the balcony. Perhaps as many as twice that number piled in for the March County Commission meeting. Spectators lined the walls and crammed into the balcony. There was no official nose count, but Commissioner Rudy Dirl commented that this was not only the biggest crowd he had ever seen, but also the most emotional. He lamented the lack of civility being shown to Bee DeSelm.
By the time Commission Chair Leo Cooper called for the meeting to order, the crowd was too big and too angry to be cowed by his gavel.
Thirty-six minutes into the meeting, DeSelm asked for a brief recess, something that was usually granted automatically when a commissioner needed a restroom break or a few minutes to regroup. Commissioner Ragsdale objected and demanded a vote. DeSelm's request was voted down. The crowd roared.
"I'll be glad to trade a recess for a lack of demonstration," DeSelm said.
Ragsdale, who would later serve two terms as Knox County mayor, smiled and addressed the audience: "I like the ruckus. Keep it up!"
Mike Edwards says public displays like the '93 meeting are not only unpleasant, but also bad for business.
"I had really not seen that sort of anger and hostility in a public meeting, and it escalated during the course of the meeting," he says. "No one wants to locate in a community where the public discourse is people against people, whether it's racism, elitism, homophobia, or whatever. Businesses have a tough enough go, and it's awful easy for a business to take a real bad hit. Majoring in the minor is a distraction from being able to attract great employees. This doesn't mean people can't have opinions, but when the public discourse is to condemn groups of people, particularly to gain or keep power, you're not talking about issues that are really important to governance."
Before it came time to vote, Ragsdale whipped up the crowd one more time:
"Good government begins in the courthouse—not in the White House," he said. "We need to send a message to our elected officials how the majority of our citizens feel about these two issues. This is critically important... I don't think there's a person sitting here who does not detest discrimination in any form—equal rights for all, special rights for none!"
Julia Tucker, who was a leader in the battle against the AIDS epidemic, remembers the room as "hate-filled."
"My daughter was with me at first, but she had to leave because the atmosphere was so toxic," Tucker says. Like Edwards, she says Mike Ragsdale's behavior is what she remembers most.
"I remember him lifting his arms toward heaven, exhorting that crowd like an old-time evangelist," she says. "He was appealing to the mob mentality. I remember people getting off those yellow school buses, some of them from other counties, waving Bibles. It was an organized riot. I was hurt to the core that my fellow citizens would react that way and be led by mean people. It scared me."
She also remembers a portly preacher approaching her after the meeting and asking what her name was: "He said, ‘And who are you, little lady?' I said, ‘I'm your worst nightmare—a mother whose son died of AIDS.' He turned purple and got away from me fast as he could."
Tucker's son Bill Powell died in 1991.
Radio station owner John Hanna, the founding president of the Tennessee Christian Coalition, led the pro-resolution crowd. He was backed up by two prominent Baptist ministers, the Rev. Matt Prince and Rev. Doug Sager.
Hanna was the most vitriolic speaker of the day and said he was there "to speak for the children."
"The homosexual community is actively engaged in the recruitment of children into their lifestyle, and that I oppose," he said, segueing into a horrifying quote from something he identified as the "Gay Community News" that included pledges to "sodomize your sons, and seduce them in your schools and your locker rooms..."
He concluded with a passage from Matthew quoting Christ's warning to those who would harm children:
"It would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and to dropped into the depths of the sea..."
Two hours and nine minutes into the discussion, Cooper called for a ceasefire so Law Director Richard Beeler could make an important announcement. Beeler informed the commissioners that the state Supreme Court had just handed down its ruling in the "Small Schools" lawsuit, also called the "Robin Hood" suit because it sought to equalize the quality of public education in Tennessee by taking away state Basic Education Plan money from the relatively wealthy urban counties and giving it to small, impoverished rural school systems. Knox County was on the losing side, and Beeler predicted that the ruling could cost Knox County taxpayers $20-$25 million. It took him under three minutes to deliver the news.
The prospect of having to raise $20 million in new money just to maintain the status quo in Knox County schools barely caused a ripple in the large audience, most of whom seemed anxious to get back to the business of denouncing the homosexual agenda. The crowd grew restless after Beeler's announcement, perhaps because a string of anti-ordinance speakers took the lectern. Robert Bratton, one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, urged Commission Chair Leo Cooper to enforce order or have hecklers thrown out of the room.
When it was the Rev. Jim Richards' turn to speak, he addressed the ramifications of government singling out a specific group of people for non-inclusion.
"As a pastor I can testify to the unconscionable destructiveness of any governmental action which inherently grants permission for violence against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals," he said. "And the resolution being considered by this Commission is precisely that kind of permission-granting action. ... Any action by the County Commission based on the incorrect assumption that there is no need to protect the civil rights of gay persons is tantamount to granting free rein to those who wish to abuse and persecute persons who are gay. Such actions clear the way for bigoted individuals and groups to violate the entire community."
DeSelm, now 88 years old and living with Alzheimer's Disease, has vivid memories of the meeting and also of the tough re-election campaign she faced the following year, when Christian Coalition candidate Jannah Dalton ran against her in the Republican primary. Dalton framed her campaign as a "David and Goliath" battle, a metaphor that fell somewhat flat when applied to the small-framed, grandmotherly DeSelm.
DeSelm believes that she drew an opponent specifically because of her vote on the gay bashing resolution, but acknowledges that she didn't help herself much by doing things like voting against an ordinance to ban nude dancing because she believed it to be unconstitutional.
"I became very vulnerable to the Christian Right," DeSelm says. "Some scandal sheets went out saying that I was homosexual, in spite of my family, husband and children and grandchildren and all, and I don't know what people thought of me. It was a pretty close race and I had to work hard. That was my last election, because at that point, I realized I was slipping—but I wasn't willing to leave that seat to a person I saw as extreme. That's why I worked so hard."
On election night, a supporter distributed T-shirts to sporting a super-sized DeSelm flexing a massive bicep and saying "Just call me Goliath."
In the end, only DeSelm and Frank Bowden, a tough and seasoned veteran of the civil rights movement who refused to be intimidated by the raucous crowd, voted no. Rogero and Dirl passed. Everyone else voted for it, and the resolution was approved 14-2-2. Commissioner Joe May was not present for the vote, but showed up for the rest of the meeting.
Rogero says that she'd gone so far trying to persuade her colleagues not to vote on the resolution that she couldn't ethically change course when she cast her own vote.
"In hindsight, and in light of what happened, I wish I had changed my vote to a no," she says.
DeSelm says that Ragsdale apologized to her for his behavior some 10 years later and that she's pretty much forgiven him for helping recruit Janna Dalton to run against her—mainly because she supported someone who ran against Ragsdale.
"I support a lot of opponents of incumbents," she says. "There wasn't any point in supporting somebody who would just cancel my vote, was there?"
Ed White, who identified himself that day with his rarely used first name Ron, was one of the last speakers. He chided the crowd for its behavior, which he termed "negative and mean-spirited."
"There is enough room in this world for everyone," he said. "In the end, it will take all of us to ensure a safe future for all of us and for all our generations."
David McNabb, a lawyer who identified himself as David Abramson, the name he took when he converted to Judaism, pronounced the benediction:
"This Commission does not have its mandate from God. It has its mandate from the constitution and laws of this state, and nothing more. The people voted you in—not God."
Mike Ragsdale did not respond to a request for comment. Former Commissioners Howard Pinkston, Rex Norman, Mary Lou Horner, and Ralph Teague have all since died, as have David McNabb, Jim Richards, John Hanna, and Matt Prince.
RESOLUTION NO. R-93-3-121
March 22, 1993
"Resolution of the Commission of Knox County, Tennessee requesting Congressman Duncan and Senators Sasser and Matthews to vote against proposed legislation amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of affectional or sexual orientation.
"WHEREAS, it is the belief of the Knox County Commission that government should not sanction or encourage acts which violate moral and ethical standards of the majority of its citizens; and
"WHEREAS, such legislation would provide the protection of the United States government and an implied approval to an immoral and unacceptable lifestyle; and
"WHEREAS, it is the belief of the members of the Knox County Commission that homosexual or bisexual citizens currently have the same basic Constitutional rights as all other citizens and that bestowing legal status as minority citizens is morally offensive to the citizens presently protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE COMMISSION OF KNOX COUNTY AS FOLLOWS:
"This Commission encourages Representative John Duncan, Jr. and Senators James Sasser and Harlan Matthews to actively oppose legislation to include homosexuals or bisexuals in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, upon passage of this Resolution that the Knox County Clerk forward a copy of this Resolution to each member of the Knox County Legislative Delegation.
"BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that this Resolution take effect as provided by the Charter of Knox County, Tennessee, the public welfare requiring it."