A City Divided
Greenville stages morality playBY BECCI ROBBINS
Surreal is what it is.
Music thumps out from a set of loudspeakers flanking a low stage, and a black drag queen in boots and a red leather get-up lip-synchs "We Are Family" while bumping and grinding and carrying on in front of a big crowd -- in broad daylight! -- right here in downtown Greenville.
In Greenville, for God's sake, buttoned-down, uptight, holier-than-thou Greenville, South Carolina, where they don't like queers -- not even a little bit. They don't like them so much they made it official, you may remember, by passing a county resolution last spring condemning homosexuality, a move that cost them the Olympic torch, the Tour DuPont bike race and Special Olympics events. It threw the Upstate into a bitter debate and split the community into neat, angry camps.
For a year now they've been lobbing loaded words ("pervert," "bigot," "sodomite," "homophobe") even though each side long ago stopped hearing anything the other has to say. One side thinks the other is going straight to hell, and is under direct orders from the Almighty to keep that from happening. The other thinks it's already had a glimpse of hell, and it has an area code of 864.
By all indications, a warming of relations looks a long way off. In fact, things promise to get worse before they get better.
Which brings us back to the drag queen and why she's dancing in front of City Hall in progressively fewer clothes on what otherwise is a sleepy Saturday afternoon. What she's doing, of course, is kicking off the rally at the eighth annual South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride March, which organizers moved from Columbia to Greenville this year as sort of a single-fingered salute to all those people who wish all "those people" would just go away.
"Those people," and their friends and relatives -- some 3,500 of them: gay, straight, transgendered, transcendent, babies, babes, teenagers, old folks, long-hairs, nappy heads, shaved heads, men of the cloth, ladies of the night, rednecks, red-blooded American families and a poodle with a pink afro -- together rode, rolled, strolled, strutted, boogied and shimmied their way down Main Street.
Carrying banners, rainbow flags and hand-made signs, the marchers blew bubbles and threw kisses, beat drums, shook tambourines and chanted things like "God is good, God is great; she ain't white and she ain't straight," "We're here, we're queer, we're not going shopping" and "Black, white, gay, straight; same struggle, same fight." A dozen women in t-shirts that read SNATCH THE POWER sang "Oh when the dykes go marching in, oh when the dyyyyyykes go maarrrrching iinnnnn," trying to drown out a Bible-waving man loping alongside them screaming, "Jesus loves you but hates your sin!"
The marchers wound down the street -- dykes on bikes in the lead, the Pride Queen's court bringing up the rear -- and packed into the main square to hear speakers Kerry Lobel, head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and David Mixner, who helped deliver the gay vote to the Clinton campaign, as well as several local gay activists.
Unlike last year's Pride March, which was disrupted by anti-gay demonstrators rowdy enough to require police intervention, this year's event was met with only a handful of protesters. Their numbers were down because would-be demonstrators had been warned to stay out of Greenville.
Craig urged conservatives to not protest the march and instead attend the Traditional Family Values Rally the following weekend, an event his group organized as a response to the "gay assault on Greenville." The governor and several conservative legislators were expected to speak.
That news didn't sit well with many of the people at the Pride March; in fact it prompted some of them to show up in solidarity with the gay community. Jandy Green, who marched with her mother, sister and several children, said she was offended by the governor's plans to attend the anti-gay rally. "I voted for Beasley. I won't do it again."
Those threats, apparently, carried little weight.
On April 26, a chilly, wet Saturday, the road leading to Greenville's Memorial Stadium is jammed with cars, buses, church vans and police vehicles. People stream into the ballpark -- young and old; in suits and sportswear; white and, well, very white. They fill the stadium, which seats more than 7,000; hundreds more stand outside, peering through the chainlink fence.
A table at the stadium entrance sells T-shirts and videos, and offers free literature, petitions to pressure the local ABC affiliate to cancel the coming out episode of "Ellen," and the newsletter of the Carolina Family Alliance, which "has been carefully developing a detailed strategy to effectively address the problem of pornographic imagery and the homosexual agenda at every level."
The crowd settles in while the Bob Jones University's band plays "America the Beautiful," which is followed by Greenville Mayor Knox White's welcome, a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and "The Star-Spangled Banner." An offering is passed.
The first speaker is Jerry Thacker, whose wife contracted HIV while undergoing a Caesarean and transmitted the virus to their newborn. Why Thacker has been invited to speak at an anti-gay/pro-family rally isn't clear until he has finished his heart-wrenching story and makes his point: "The sins of a society affect the entire society."
U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-Greenville) is next at the microphone. He has come, he says, because he is outraged that gays "are marching in our streets," and vows to fight "the homosexual agenda." He will not accept the moral decay that is creeping South, evidenced by the recent announcement that Charlotte-based NationsBank Corp., First Union Corp. and Duke Power Co. are joining forces to oust politicians in next year's elections in favor of, as the companies describe them, "pro-diversity, pro-tolerance leaders."
"We have a real threat on our hands," Inglis says. "Some things are right, and some things are wrong, and we're going to say it."
He gets a standing ovation.
Councilman Scott Case, who led the push for the anti-gay resolution, says he is glad to live in a place "where the Council had the backbone to pass a pro-family resolution" and is "proud to live in a state whose governor's policies indeed put families first." At that, he introduces the governor himself.
His advisors warned him not to attend today's rally, Beasley says, but he came anyway. "We must draw a moral line in the sand that we will not cross. You people give us the strength to draw that line."
The governor gets a standing ovation too.
The rally ends with everyone standing to sing "God Bless America."
The crowd, it seems, got exactly what it wanted.
Tina Pringle, who came with her husband and two small children, thinks the rally shows that America is regaining the morality it lost in the past couple of decades.
"I'm excited to live in a place where people stand up for what we believe in." She is proud of her community, proud of her elected officials. "It's awesome to have those kind of people in government."
Bob Jones student and band member Todd Townsend, who after the rally is in the parking lot hawking copies of the band's CDs, says he can't believe how many people showed up. "I thought it was pretty neat. I especially liked hearing from the governor and Inglis."
Shirley Auwarter, of Fountain Inn, is passing out copies of a conservative newspaper. She, too, thinks the rally was a huge success.
She is very politically active, she says, and sometimes gets discouraged. Events like this give her hope. "We've got to get the Gospel out. That's what I believe."