Gay in the South
"I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E.M. Forster, Lorca, B.W Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag HammarskjoldÉThese are not invisible men." Ñ The Normal Heart by Larry KramerPrior to the summer of 1969, homosexuality was the love that dared not speak its name. That summer riots occurred in New York City at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, and the United States was never to be the same.Pride marches began in large cities in 1970, student organizations formed on campuses, while other organizations promoted the interests of homosexuals and the virtue of tolerance. In the late 1970s, gay rights ordinances were approved in several cities and counties and, predictably, opposition movements began to counter the homophile successes.During the 1980s, AIDS, which initially affected young gay men in urban centers, became a household word and fear gripped many heterosexual people. As a result, opposition grew even stronger to the emerging gay rights movement. Several marches by gays and lesbians were held in Washington, D.C.In April of this year, South Carolina gays and lesbians hosted their eighth pride march in Greenville. On April 30, actress and comedian Ellen DeGeneres made television history by coming out during her weekly prime time series. Gays and lesbians, it seems, are now everywhere.Who are they? Where do they come from? What do they want? How do they live their lives? Free Times interviewed four gay Columbians, two lesbians and two gay men, in an effort to answer these and many other questions.A large portion of each interview centered around acceptance. All of those interviewed expressed at least some degree of self-acceptance. Acceptance by family and by society as a whole varied greatly from person to person. "It broke my heart, because she worked for the church and she didn't take up for me," Sparkle Clark said, concerning the first woman on whom she had a crush. Sparkle was asked to leave the church and her parents were advised to send her to a psychiatrist.John had a different experience. He never faced the loss of a friend or relative because of his sexuality. "I think I am lucky," he said. "I have found myself in situations where it is easy for me to be openly gay." Ed J. has found it difficult to come out to many people in his life, essentially for economic reasons.Of the four people interviewed, Martha Cooke probably had the most emotionally trying experience with acceptance of her homosexuality.Martha remembers standing in a mall talking to an old friend about the friend's upcoming wedding. Sensing an awkwardness in the conversation. Martha asked rhetorically, "Are you going to invite me to the wedding?""No," the friend replied. "You are the second friend of mine that has done this to me." Earlier that day, Martha had come out as a lesbian to her friend."I have not seen or spoken to her since," Martha said. The four Columbians who were interviewed are unique inviduals. They have their own strong and weak points. Perhaps that is what must be learned about the gay community Ñthere is no stereotypical homosexual.Ed is a pseudonym for a man who prefers to hide his sexual identity to the outside world. Ed spends seven days a week, 24 hours a day, attempting to live in two worlds. To some of his friends and to his family, he is a divorced, 43-year-old African-American heterosexual. To a special group of friends who know the truth, he is a gay man."I wish I could come out," Ed says. "I really do, but my jobÉI have no doubt that I would lose my job. I was in school forever and I have a ton of student loans to pay off. What would I do, if I lost my job? It just can't happen."Ed was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina. He has one older brother. He knows at least two cousins are gay and suspects that two aunts, who never married, were lesbians."Homosexuality is on both sides of my family," Ed says. "I came by this naturally. I believe it is largely a genetic thing. I know in my heart it is a genetic thing."Ed has few memories of his younger years. The ones he does have are those of being different and not fitting with either his family or with his class at school."I remember very clearly thinking that my mother must have had an affair, because I didn't think I could possibly be my father's child. We were so different. I'm not sure that we had anything in common, except our gender and our last name." Ed had his first crush on a man when he was in the sixth grade. The man was a teacher at the elementary school that Ed attended. "He was such a warm and welcoming person," Ed recalls. "I could talk to him about the things that were going on at home. I wasn't thinking sexually at the point in time, but I really, really liked being around this guy. It was the first time in my life that I remember feeling cared about."By Christmas of his sixth grade year, he felt conflict between his feelings for the teacher and the Baptist Church in which he was being raised. It was this conflict between faith and feelings that was to lead him into a struggle that continues to this day: Can someone be both homosexual and Christian?"I have never discussed being gay with a minister, but we all know what the Baptist Church says about homosexuals. I don't think I could take being kicked out of the Church. I just couldn't deal with it. The Church means so much to me."Ed's conflict was so deep and so strong that he did not have his first homosexual experience until age 32. By this time, he had been married for six years and divorced for three."It's odd how it happened," Ed remembers. "I was at a bar, a heterosexual bar. I wasn't drunk or anything, but it just hit me. I needed to be held by a man. I went to the only gay bar that I knew about. I sat outside in my car for two hours before I got the nerve to go in. I was extremely vulnerable. Thank God I met a gentle and caring man. He was incredibly understanding and good to me. I know that God put that man in that bar at just that time, because he knew how much I was hurting."The phrase "homosexual lifestyle" angers Ed. The words, he says, are used by conservatives to suggest that all homosexuals are alike and that all have countless sexual partners and think about nothing but having sex."The words are inspired by hate," says Ed. "There is no such thing as a homosexual lifestyle. Gay people are a diverse group. Just here in Columbia, there is such diversity it is hard to believe. There are rich gay people. There are gay people who live on the street. There are gay doctors, lawyers, educators. There are gay construction workers and gay people working in fast food places." Asked what the straight community needs to know about the gay world, Ed quickly responds, "We are not monsters. We are not after your children. In most cases we are decent, hardworking people. We are your children. We are your neighbors. We are your co-workers. Get used to it."John also preferred not to use his real name.John thinks that being a gay man has made him more accepting. Being part of a sexual minority, he believes, has made him both less racist and sexist."I was at one point in my life very racist, very sexist," he says. "In coming out, in being involved with political groups, it helped me to look at those attitudes in a different way." John is 34 years old and comes from Spartanburg. He has one brother and one sister and is the youngest of the three."There was very much a sense of being different," John says, concerning his early years. "Now that I look back, I have a sense of never seeing myself anywhere else in the world, anyone like me. It is interesting that at such a young age you instinctively know you are different. It's not seeing yourself mirrored in the society around you."Although he was a quiet boy who did not like sports and enjoyed music, John is not sure that is the level of difference that is most important. He believes that homosexuality extends beyond with whom someone has sexual experiences."You don't have to sleep with anyone to be gay," he says. "Sexuality is an integral part of your being, even before you are aware of it. It shapes how you see the world. Men see the world differently from women and the same is true for gays and lesbians. We see the world differently."John dated girls until his sophomore year in high school. He has never slept with a woman. It was not until that time that he ever considered the possibility of having a romantic relationship with another male. His first homosexual relationship occurred in college and lasted approximately four years."It took a year or so into that relationship for me to fully realize that I was not going to marry a woman one day and have children," John says. "Even though I knew I was gay, there was still a societal expectation inside of me that one day I would change and do all of those things."The Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Student Association at the University of South Carolina was instrumental in helping John come to deal with his sexuality in a more positive manner. Additionally, a book entitled Now That You Know helped him with his journey of self-acceptance."I think a lot of it, when I was growing up, was I did not have names to give things, I didn't know how to label myself and how I fit in. That book gave me a better sense of how I fit in."John believes that being gay is not a problem. The problem, he thinks, is how you respond to being gay."I have had suicidal moments," he confesses. "Before you truly accept yourself, your whole world is kind of shaky and weird and you really don't have a world to fit into."The reason behind the desire to hurt himself, John says, was to hurt those people who were hurting him. He came to believe no one would care if he committed suicide and was therefore able to eventually move beyond the desire to hurt himself.Although John does not remember hearing homosexuals berated from the pulpit in the church he attended as a child, he does remember a homophobic incident in Sunday School."I had a Sunday School teacher who brought in a pamphlet one time that she said, I think, was from the FBI. The pamphlet told us that we should not walk around the house without shirts on, because gay men run the streets looking for little boys to molest." John came out to his mother during the early 1990s, when he was about to receive a Volunteer of the Year award from the Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement. He still has not talked with his father concerning his sexuality."She had a very good reaction," John says. "She didn't want to talk about it. She assured me she still loved me. The next day they happened to be coming through Columbia on a trip. My mother was overly loving. She went out of her way to show love towards me."Concerning the phrase "homosexual lifestyle," John says, "If there is a homosexual lifestyle, then there is a heterosexual lifestyle and if there is a heterosexual lifestyle that means that the most upright, wonderful heterosexual person is no different from what we would consider the scum of the earth heterosexual. It is easy to lump everyone together."John is contented with his sexuality and would not change, even if he believed it were possible. "God made me this way," he says. "I respect the creation of God. I know how I feel. I know what I have been through. I know what I have heard in prayer and meditation and a lot of people would say that's nothing, but I know what I read in the Bible. I know what I see and I have no doubt that God made me this way."Martha Cooke remembers the day she was standing in a mall talking to an old friend about the friend's upcoming wedding. She could sense an awkwardness in the conversation. "Are you going to invite me to the wedding?" she asked rhetorically."No," the friend replied. "You are the second friend of mine that has done this to me." Martha had earlier that day come out as a lesbian to her friend."I have not seen or spoken to her since," Martha says. "I tried talking to her until my emotions crept up on me. I didn't want to make that kind of scene in a mall, so I went out to my car and cried."Martha was born and raised in Columbia. She has four siblings, two brothers and two sisters. To her knowledge, she is the only homosexual member of her family.Unlike many gay men and lesbians, Martha has limited memories of feeling different as a child. She did have a crush on her second grade teacher."I never knew where that was coming from until a long time later," Martha says.She also loved playing sports. "That was not very common among little girls," Martha says. "(My parents) encouraged me. I wouldn't say encouraged me a lot, but they never discouraged me from playing sports."Years later Martha came out to her parents. They sent her to a psychiatrist who told the three of them, "Girl's sports in school breed lesbians."It was at age 13 that Martha began to realize that she was having sexual feelings that differed from those experienced by her friends. She had a crush on another girl at a church camp she attended that summer. She did not act on her feelings."At first I thought I was a pervert," Martha admits. Those feelings prompted her to find relief in alcohol and drugs. During her early teenage years, Martha told herself that if she did not think about her sexual feelings they would go away. She dated boys through high school and in her mid-teens used dating as a way to keep homosexual thoughts out of her mind. During her later teenage years, dating became simply a way to get out of the house."About my junior year in high school I caught wind that these two girls in our school were lesbians," she said. "I thought to myself, 'Well, there might not be many, but I'm not the only one.' I played volleyball with one of them so I knew them. I never came out to them. I was too afraid. I don't know of what, probably that teenage conformity thing."Knowing these two lesbians, Martha believes, was important, because she had never had a name for what she knew about herself."I never heard the words gay or lesbian," she says. "I didn't hang around them a lot, but I knew them. I guess I was thinking, 'That's what I am.'"As a high school junior, Martha decided to do a term paper on homosexuality for her health class. It was then, rather than in church, that Martha found out for sure that there were people who considered her feelings perverse.During the summer between her junior and senior years in high school, Martha and her family moved to a small town in North Carolina where she was to meet other lesbians and gay men and come out to them. Martha has never married and said she has never thought about the possibility. Nor was she ever pressured by her parents to marry."I don't think there was that pressure on any of my brothers and sisters either," she says.Martha first went to a gay bar when she was 18 years old. She also began dating women at 18 and had her first relationship with a woman that same year. "I pretty much had both feet out of the closet," she says.Despite being rejected by her old friend, Martha is happy with who she is and would not change if it were possible. "Today, no," she says. "A year ago I might have had a different answer. Today and the last six months, definitely positively no, I would not change. I feel like I have accepted myself. I know myself better than I ever have and I am finally in a relationship with the person I was supposed to be in a relationship with."Her name fits. Sparkle Clark does sparkle. She has the genuine smile of a person who knows and generally likes what she sees in the mirror each morning. Sparkle, who is in a committed relationship, is a proud and out-of-the-closet lesbian. Sparkle is an attractive woman with a contagious laugh. She was born and raised in Columbia, and has three older brothers. She is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. In many respects, Sparkle is the typical woman next door. Dangling pink triangle* earrings, she talks at length about a crush on the organist at the church she attended."I would go over in the afternoons while she rehearsed at church, and lay down on the pew and listen to her," Sparkle remembers. "I was just in awe of her. My church girlfriends didn't do that kind of stuff and there was just an awakening of sexual feelings. I'm sure I had them before, but that was when I equated them with a certain person, not a person of my dreams, but someone that was there."The woman was married heterosexual who had a child. The crush lasted for about a year. The end came when Sparkle was asked to leave the choir and the church because of her sexual orientation."It broke my heart, because she worked for the church and she didn't take up for me," Sparkle says.Sparkle acknowledges that she was not well adjusted during her teenage years. She attributes much of the maladjustment to societal homophobia. Even as an adult, it took Sparkle five months of counseling before she could bring up the subject of homosexuality. She even tried marrying a man in an effort to live an "acceptable" life. The marriage ended in abuse."I was just full of a lot of shame," she says. "When I was about 16, I told my best friend and she did not speak to me for a year and we were best buddies. Even to this day, she lives in this town and she does not speak to me. She is very homophobic."As is the case with many gay teenagers, Sparkle exhibited self-destructive behavior. Total acceptance of her sexuality eluded her until recent years and the onset of a brief, but powerful, relationship. Her partner died from cancer approximately six months into the relationship. During that time, Sparkle tore down the remnants of her closet.Sparkle disclosed her sexuality to her mother first."I know I had a couple of beers that night when I got loose lipped and did confess. My mother said, 'You'd better call your father' and my father said, 'I've always known that' and he goes, 'Remind me and we'll have a talk about that some day'. We never had that talk and I don't want to have that talk. It's not important today."Sparkle answers with a resounding no, when asked if she would agree to become heterosexual if it were possible."I finally love me for me," she said. "It has been such a blessing to be a lesbian. I'm just so proud that now I can say to the world that I am a lesbian."Sparkle is unsure if it is easier to grow up gay in the 1990s than in earlier decades, but she hopes that today's teenagers are having an easier time than she did.She offers advice to today's parents of gay or lesbian teenagers. "It's not a mental illness. Love those teens for who they are."To today's homosexual teenagers, she gives gentle reassurance, " You're growing up to be who you are supposed to be."*Pink Triangles were the symbol that homosexuals had to wear in Nazi Germany.