Saturday kicks off the annual observance of Pride Month, the yearly commemoration of inclusivity and acceptance for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT).
Although it’s a special year, given that it’s the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots — the 1969 raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York during which gays fought back against police oppression — there’s still a healthy segment of society that reacts with visceral disgust toward all things homosexual. A social media post made the rounds recently that highlighted just how close-minded some people still are when it comes to our brothers and sisters of a different sexual orientation.
A certain Republican candidate for the Tennessee Senate who was defeated in both 2016 and 2018 visited the Blount County Public Library recently and took umbrage at a small display about Teen Pride and the local Diversity Prom — so much so that he urged his supporters to contact the library and demand it be removed: “As a tax payer, I am deeply offended by this display, even more so by the sign lying to teens about finding their inner joy in the deprivation that is the LGTBQXYZABC life choice.”
For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s not a garish or obscene shrine to deviancy. There are no leather daddies parading around the library urging people to try homosexuality. It sits on one of the shelves near the entrance and quietly promotes diversity and tolerance, which I would think is a noble goal of any organization. In fact, it gets lost in the shadow of the nearby Iwo Jima display, so I’m not really sure what the problem is, other than it acknowledges a certain segment of the local population that many people would prefer remain out of sight, out of mind.
Look, I get it.
The coexistence of LGBT acceptance and Christian doctrine is a difficult tightrope to walk for many people, and the same Bible used by some area churches to minister to gay Christians is also wielded as a cudgel by those who feel those Christians must be condemned. There will always be individuals who want nothing to do with anything remotely associated with homosexuality, either out of a sense of religious devotion or the feelings of revulsion they have when forced to confront something they don’t understand. And while it’s easy to paint that as a right-vs.-left issue, a 2018 examination of polling data by the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight revealed that even in deep blue states like Maryland, Illinois and California, 25% of residents oppose same-sex marriage. And there’s still a healthy contingent of individuals who count themselves as conservative Democrats that oppose it — 40%, according to that same report.
Legally, however, that ship has sailed, and at least here in Tennessee, we’re seeing legislation that explicitly targets the LGBT community come from the Republican Party. Which I find a little odd, given the very first tenet on the “Republican Philosophy” page of the Blount County GOP website: “That the right of the individual to achieve the best that is within him or her, as long as he or she respects the rights of others, is the source of our Nation’s strength.”
To be fair, Blount County has seen its fair share of LGBT defenders rise up over the years to push back against political and religious condemnation. The Blount County chapter of PFLAG — Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — was established in 2010 and has been one of the strongest proponents of acceptance and equal rights in East Tennessee. That same year, PFLAG Maryville organized the inaugural Diversity Prom, which moved from Blount County to Knoxville in 2018 because it had become a regional event for LGBT youth from across the region. (In 2016, when it was held on the Maryville College campus, more than 150 teens attended.)
Over on the MC campus, dozens of people turn out annually for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, organized several years ago to raise awareness of the local transgender community and remember trans men and women who lose their lives to anti-transgender violence every year. The Foothills LGBT Center was founded in Blount County in 2015 “for the purpose of providing a safe community for youth, adults, family members and allies.” And in 2016, after the Orlando massacre at the gay nightclub Pulse left 49 people dead, more than 150 local residents turned out on The Daily Times side of the pedestrian bridge for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims.
Combined with the good works of various communities of faith, from the Foothills Unitarian Universalist Church to Broadway United Methodist, these individuals and organizations have taken up the mantle from those who stood up for their rights … for their very humanity … in late June of 1969 at the Stonewall Inn.
Here’s the thing, and I don’t say this to be provocative, because it’s simply the way things are: The LGBT community doesn’t need your approval. Condemn them if you feel so led; excoriate them in social media posts if you must; foment fear and loathing if you so choose, but know this: Your efforts to deny them their equality as Blount County residents in good standing don’t harm them. Those efforts harm the very community you claim to protect.
You see, they are your community — your sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. They’re your parents and friends and co-workers. They’re the other parent of a child on your kid’s soccer team, or that friendly guy who sits a couple of pews over at church. They’re your bank tellers and your Uber drivers, your convenience store clerks and your waitresses.
They are your neighbors. They always have been, and they always will be. If you so choose, you can use your condemnation to pour spiritual poison into the wellspring of this community’s goodwill, or you can live and let live. Or better yet, you can seek a better understanding through any number of Pride events taking place over the next month. On June 22, the annual PrideFest Parade will take place in downtown Knoxville, followed by a daylong festival of live music and entertainment on the lawn of the Civic Coliseum. That’s the pinnacle of a monthlong observation. For more information on Pride Month activities locally, visit www.knoxpride.com/calendar.
I encourage you all to invest a little time in getting to know this segment of Blount County that’s too often misunderstood and misrepresented. In this day and age, there are far too many things that divide us. We see it play out nationally, and we all, regardless of our politics, wring our hands and wonder when these divisions will heal.
They’ll heal when we make the decision to think for ourselves and not allow those with an agenda of intolerance to lead us into taking up torches and pitchforks against the very people with whom we share this community. The sooner we realize we’re all in this together and extend a hand of friendship and love, the more we all prosper — economically, socially and spiritually.