Anti-gay resolution sparks bitter debate in the Upstate

"Who is next?"



Supporters and opponents of the anti-gay resolution passed in May by Greenville County Council packed the council meeting on June 4 hoping they might sway the results of a second vote on the matter.

When they filed outside after the meeting, a brilliant rainbow stretched across the Greenville skyline.

"Look," one woman said, pointing up. "God must have agreed with council's decision."

"I don't think so," shot back a man who overheard the remark. "Don't you know what a rainbow symbolizes?"

The exchange came just after Greenville County Council voted on June 4 to stand firm on the anti-gay resolution it had passed two weeks earlier. Council reaffirmed its position in spite of growing pressure from members of the gay, business and religious communities to repeal the resolution, which has polarized the Upstate and has sparked fiery debate over the proper role of religion in politics.

"The radical right has been tearing down, little by little, the wall between church and state," said Greenville resident Candy Kern after the council meeting. "Tonight they just drove a bulldozer through it."

"Write this in your little notebook," said a man who had offered a running commentary all evening but who refused to give his name. "The people of Greenville went home happy tonight."

Much like the rainbow which some claimed as a sign that God was on their side and which others saw as a symbol of diversity and gay pride the resolution means profoundly different things depending on where you stand.

The resolution passed after Spartanburg County Council rescinded an identical measure when it became clear that such a move would mean losing out on Olympic-related events, denounces homosexuality as "incompatible" with community standards.

The resolution is just the latest challenge to gays and lesbians in Greenville, who have long been the target of hostility from religious conservatives in the area. Two years ago, fundamentalists fought the opening of a home in Greenville for people with AIDS. This year, they blocked plans by a predominantly gay church to renovate and move into an old school.

Unlike its neighbors in Spartanburg, Greenville County Council is willing to risk losing the Olympic torch relay in the Upstate as well as the Tour DuPont bike race.

Olympic officials have yet to decide whether to reroute the torch. A DuPont spokesperson said the anti-gay stand may affect whether the bike race returns to Greenville next year.

M.K. Smith, who was selected to carry the torch in the Upstate in late June, has helped organize against the resolution. Now she is ambivalent about taking part in the Olympic run.

"One of the proudest moments of my life was when I was chosen as a torch bearer," Smith said. "I don't want the torch to come through Greenville at the pain of other people, but if I do get to carry it, I will be carrying it for people who support diversity and tolerance, not for the Nasty Nine," referring to the council members who voted for the resolution.

Since the original vote on May 21, business and religious leaders including the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, Furman University and a group of 100 pastors, rabbis and nuns have issued statements condemning the anti-gay resolution, fearing it is polarizing the community and tarnishing the image of Greenville County.

"I've been sur-prised by the depth of support we have seen over this," said David Watkins, who helped organize Pro Justice, a group dedicated to repealing the anti-gay measure.

"People are just very upset with the resolution," he said. "We have everyone from people in the business and religious communities as well as constitutional conservatives good old Republicans outraged at this intrusion into the private lives of citizens."

When Pro Justice called a rally in late May to discuss how to respond to council's attack on gays, even the most optimistic among them were stunned at the turnout. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which seats 400, was packed, with people standing in the overflow rooms at the back of the church.

Roger Bell was among the speakers who addressed the crowd. "The religious right is stirring up prejudice and hatred for their own political end," Bell said. "The Upstate is as homophobic today as it was racist 40 years ago. Now laws and resolutions are being passed to legally make us second-class citizens. We cannot and will not be silent."

When one of the three council members who voted against the resolution came to the podium, he was greeted with a standing ovation. "I was outraged by the action of council the other night," Fletcher Smith said. "We will stand together, black and white, gay and straight, and fight this. This is our country, and we will take it back from those who try to take it from us."

That sense of alarm has rippled out across the Upstate. It has mobilized some people; demoralized others.

Dave Ridings knows two people who are leaving Greenville in disgust. "They're thinking: Who is next?'"

Melanie Williams, who has gay friends, is at a loss as to how to explain recent events to them. She is considering moving elsewhere. "As a citizen of Greenville, this is intolerable."

At the June 4 meeting, those against the resolution outnumbered supporters, judging by the response to seven citizens who were allotted five minutes each to address council.

The speakers, who were scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis, all opposed the resolution. More than 100 people had asked to speak, but council allowed only 30 minutes of public comment.

The atmosphere was a blend of circus and pep rally, the audience a sea of waving American flags and posters that read:

"I'm gay and I vote."

"Protect children from sodomy."

"Save our children from bigotry."

And "Cheer up sodomites! Since we're all terminal, you'll soon enough have a chance to present your arguments to the one who wrote the original sodomy is abomination' resolution."

Just before the meeting started, resolution supporters broke into a hymn. That prompted the other side to launch into the "Star Spangled Banner." By "the rockets' red glare" the competition had fallen silent.

When the speakers addressed council during the public comment period, they did so with fervor.

"I demand you respect our constitution that you've taken an oath to defend," said Roger Finch, pounding the table with his fist. "You cannot legislate morality."

Greenville resident Mike Cubelo said, "When we elect 12 people to county council, we don't expect you to preach like the 12 apostles. Beware of Bible bigots who claim to love the sinner but hate the sin. These are the same type of people who claimed to love African Americans but they didn't want African Americans to go to their schools or churches."

Martin Wertheim, who described himself as a heterosexual and a grandfather, said, "I am not here to defend the rights of gays and lesbians only; I'm here to defend my rights as a free citizen of a free country.

"Into this enlightened environment Greenville County Council has seen fit to introduce a resolution setting some of its hard-working, law-abiding citizens apart from the rest, a resolution that recalls the bigotry and ignorance of the past.

"In spite of what you may have heard on local talk radio or through the rumor mills, gays are not saying Be like us;' they are saying "Let us be.'"

Margie Candler, the mother of two gay sons, said her children did not choose to be homosexual. "One son prayed to God to make him straight," she said, her voice breaking. "This person is not what society has told you he is. I urge each of you tonight to get to know the gay community and learn for yourself."

The speakers did not sway council, which voted 8 3 (a member who had voted for the measure was absent) to stand firm. Council member Scott Case, who said he didn't like the way the issue was dominating the council's agenda, pushed to vote on the resolution, which he called a courageous stand for family values.

"We've heard that we ought to rescind the resolution in favor of tolerance," Case said. "The question is: What next do you want us to tolerate?' If we are asked to tolerate homosexuals today, we'll be asked to tolerate more later. I think it is high time as government leaders that we take a stand for morality."

After the vote, supporters cheered. The other side sang "We Shall Overcome."

Many people milled about the parking lot long after the meeting adjourned. Supporters of the resolution basked in their victory. Pro Justice supporters vowed to keep fighting. Neither side really believes the battle is over.

Harry Elstop, who came from Greer to attend the meeting, was happy at its outcome. "It irritates the daylights out of me, them trying to put their values on us. That whole Olympic thing where do they get off telling people what is moral? This is a democracy. This is what the majority in this area feels."

Kern begs to differ. "I think the majority of people in Greenville believe government should stay out of private lives. Council voted the way they did because they feel safe. I don't think they are."

That much remains to be seen. Seven council members are up for reelection this month.

In spite of council's actions, Pro Justice organizers remain remarkably upbeat, even giddy. "The resolution is the best thing to happen to the gay community," said Paul Evensen. "It's a paradox, but it's true."

Not only has the resolution solidified and mobilized the gay community, it has angered many in the straight community as well.

"We consider it a great gift," Watkins said. "Passing the resolution again was like pouring salt in the wound. I've had 60 to 65 phone calls today from people saying, What can I do? I'm ready to get on the bandwagon.'"

Watkins said Pro Justice is in it for the long haul. "Our strategy over the next week is to formulate a structure for Pro Justice, putting a steering committee together, and reaching out to all sectors of the community."

Members of Pro Justice plan to keep going to council meetings and speaking during the public comment period until a new resolution is drafted.

The publicity Watkins has gotten while fighting the resolution has worried his family, who fear for his business and his safety.

"I told my dad that there are times in life you just have to stand up," Watkins said. "For years we have given our power away because of fear, but there is nothing to fear. In the last two weeks I have had nothing but praise from the entire community, from people I don't even know.

"For too long we have allowed them to define who we are, in nasty, ugly terms. Now we can stand up and say, I am a good person. I have a relationship with God. I pay taxes. I make a positive and valuable contribution to this community.'"


To get involved or for information on Pro Justice, call 864-421-9611.

"The radical right has been tearing down, little by little, the wall between curch and state. Tonight they just drove a bulldozer through it."

Candy Kern

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 6/13/96