Knoxville's gays and lesbians seek acceptance—and a sense of unity—in a climate of ambivalence.

by Mike Gibson

The Rev. Jim Richards closes every Sunday evening service of Knoxville's Metropolitan Community Church with a gesture of community, a unifying ritual that sees the congregation encircle the spruce but casually-appointed sanctuary with a veritable human goodwill chain.

After feeding one another the customary wafer-and-juice sacraments of Holy Communion (a weekly service, says Richards, "to make it clear that God's grace belongs to us, too"), members join hands and share aloud, as they are so moved, both their burdens (a member who has injured himself in a fall; a friend who has learned he is HIV-positive) and their blessings (a new family member; the achievement of a church-wide goal). Each concern is answered with a prayerful requisition, recited en masse, until Richards, satisfied that all supplicants have been heard, calls for a final hymn, then a moment of reflective silence.

Less than 10 miles from MCC—the city's first and only church ministering to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-gendered individuals—Knoxville's oldest currently operating gay bar, the Carousel, commences another evening of drag shows and dance. By 11 p.m., the two-tiered Fort Sanders drag hall is a glitter and neon sea of androgyny, disco balls and throbbing dance beats, a near-oppressive onslaught of noise and light. Even now, a full two hours before the evening's trademark festivity is set to begin, deliciously trampy queens, all spider lashes and flashing sequins and dagger heels, patrol the grounds with the sort of smug hauteur that only the Very Beautiful dare flaunt, mingling at capricious intervals with eager patrons in tasteful sweaters and backwards caps.

And at 1 a.m., the Queens ascend the club's narrow, spiral stairway to the throne room, the upstairs bar, which plays host to all of the Carousel's live performances. It's a garish harem of man-girls with alluring sobriquets like Champelle and Angelie; in now-classic drag-show fashion, each queen takes the stage for a solo exhibition of vainglorious lip-syncing and dirty dance, by turns showing off their florid (yet still somehow exquisite) costumes, then (for the boldest and best-equipped of the bunch) baring their often-astoundingly woman-like parts. The crowd, a mostly-gay assemblage with a conspicuous smattering of straights, hoots its appreciation with as much lewd fervor as any gang of blue-collar strip-club regulars.

Pointing out that our only gay church holds court at almost the same time our (perhaps) randiest gay club holds one of its bi-weekly bacchanalian gender-blendings is hardly a fair way to characterize Knoxville's homosexual community; any given population in any given city has its own share of such dichotomies. But the contrast is illustrative of some basic truths about gay life in Knoxville, a city that often finds its gay residents struggling to reconcile mixed messages.

According to Ed, a local physician and co-chair of Knoxville Pride, Inc., Knoxville is "a haven. Per square mile, there's probably more gay people here than anywhere in the Southeast. I've not discovered Knoxville to be a prejudiced community."

And yet the board members of the city's own gay pride organization are unwilling to use their last names in public discourse, fearful of professional censure; the University of Tennessee has found only intermittent institutional and student-body support for its gay student organization; and our annual gay pride events week, held in mid-June, has seen parade attendance drop by several hundred over the last seven years.

"I don't get the feeling many people are interested in being 'out' in Knoxville," says Phillip Rhodes, a 24-year-old former publishing company employee and free-lance writer. "They live a gay lifestyle, but don't really want to be visible, or get involved with the politics. And that's ultimately what pride is about."

"The gay community here needs unity," notes Rex Goins, co-owner of Knoxville's Electric Ballroom. "There are a lot of politics as far as who will do what with who. And to be honest, there's lots of laziness, too."

Says N., a long-running UT staff member and a once-active member of the local gay community, Knoxille has always been unique in its tolerance of certain visible manifestations of gay culture. "In most cities, gay bars are on the side streets, with no signs," says N. "People don't know where to encounter them if they don't know where to go. Ours have generally been out in the open."

(Like many UT staff members, N. is careful when discussing his sexuality publicly, wary of repercussions from an anti-gay department head. Prof. Joe Rader, faculty sponsor of Lambda, the college's gay and lesbian student group, explains that "at some point, your peers sit in solemn assembly and by secret ballot, vote on your tenure. We know there are enough lingering prejudices to affect some of those votes. I didn't come 'out' until I had tenure.")

N. cites the old Huddle Tavern, housed in a basement at the corner of Gay and Cumberland between 1940 and 1981 (mentioned in Cormac McCarthy's Knoxville-based novel Suttree, the bar was reportedly announced by a sign declaring it the "gayest spot in town"); the Europe, a prominent gay establishment in the late '70's and early '80s, located in a since-demolished building at the corner of Gay and Main; and the Factory, a now defunct warehouse club at the corner of 17th and Dale, affectionately dubbed "the Fag Tree" by its own patrons.

Today, clubs like the Carousel, the nearby Electric Ballroom, the Old City's Rainbow Club or the cyber-friendly Network in Western Plaza carry on a tradition of "gay bars that have always been in the face of Knoxville."

"For the most part I don't think people going to gay clubs can claim much in the way of harassment," N. says, recalling only a few mild, long-ago incidents wherein police officers separated same-sex dancers at the Huddle. "They've not been paid any more attention than straight clubs."

But if nightlife has been a relatively carefree prospect in Knoxville, other visible outposts of gay culture have flagged, suffering for wont of continuity and unity. In 1970, N. and Rader, then a UT graduate student, remember a gathering of some 75 students at UT's Student Center to form what would become the college's first gay student organization. Dubbed the Gay Liberation Front, the group was active throughout the early '70s, culminating with its participation in a massive anti-Vietnam rally on Cumberland Avenue in 1972.

Thereafter, the GLF disintegrated, beset by leadership squabbles, and it has only been in the last decade that Lambda emerged as a voice for gay and lesbian students at UT-Knoxville. "As with many gay and lesbian groups, there has been a problem with organization, with records and documentation," says Rader.

Founded some 20 years ago as "Knoxville Ten Percent" (a reference to the belief that gays constitute about 10 percent of the general population), Knoxville Pride has traditionally sponsored a Gay Pride week in early summer; a parade, a heritage night (celebrating local gay history), a Miss Knoxville Pride contest, and an evening of gay spiritual expression.

But attendance at the Pride event has gradually fallen in recent years, to the point that 1998's rally saw barely 100 marchers (down from a high of over 500 in 1990.) "All of the events were sparsely-attended last year," notes Rhodes. "Many of the people I knew instead chose to attend the larger, more exciting rally in Atlanta. I got the feeling most people prefer to be proud in a city they don't live in."

"It's not just a matter of Pride Week attendance," says Ed, co-chair of Knoxville Pride since September. "It's a question of why haven't people heard more about Knoxville Pride period. Why hasn't the group played a role outside that one week of events?"

The answer, some observers believe, points at issues that have long afflicted the gay community as a whole; factionalization, politics, lack of organization... "No one on the past Pride boards did a bad job," says Ed. "But there was no permanency, no continuity from one board of directors to the next."

"I would characterize Knoxville's gay community as clique-ish, like social groups at a high school cafeteria," says Shane, a young advertising account executive and new Pride officer. "It goes back to a lot of old issues. Historically, lesbians and gay men have never gotten along. Trans-sexuals have never gotten along with certain sectors of the gay and lesbian population..."

In 1992, those factions came to a head when two female impersonators assumed leadership roles on the board of Knoxville Pride. Tony Carlisle, a well-known local female impersonator, remembers that their participation ruffled feathers among other local gays and lesbians, as well as among the larger straight community that was witness to the rally. "Some people felt like it turned into a drag show," says Carlisle.

"What ends up happening is that drag queens are the most visible, flamboyant aspect of a rally," says N. "They're on the front rows of the parade, and straight society gets a greatly exaggerated idea of how numerous or how representative they are."

N. remembers that at a subsequent Pride rally, local female impersonators were "asked not to participate," creating a rift many feel has contributed to waning attendance. "It caused an argument," says N. "It was like 'Wait a minute, we don't want to be discriminated against, yet we discriminate against someone within our own culture.'"

"There was a feeling of 'Why shouldn't we represent this town?'" remembers Carlisle, a core member of the Rising Community Players, a local female impersonation troupe that has raised money for charitable causes since the 1980s. "When AIDS came to Knoxville, we were the first ones to start putting on shows and raising money. We felt that we had as much right to be in charge of events as anyone."

The eldest of six siblings growing up in a small East Tennessee county, Dee Crumm was always aware of her sexual identity; but because many area churches (including her own) railed biliously against homosexuality, she didn't inhabit it comfortably until she was nearly 30 years-old. "I grew up with that message that it was wrong and that it was a sin," Crumm recalls with a surprising lack of bitterness. "As a Southern Baptist, I had a lot of issues to deal with. It wasn't until I was about 28 that I truly learned to love myself for who I was and deal with my sexuality."

But the fact that Crumm ultimately received the emotional sustenance of her family's acceptance during her personal struggle, and that the 40-ish former basketball coach and small-college teacher would later find both fulfillment in her professional life (as associate pastor at MCC) and happiness in her personal life (with her life partner), points to those facets of the East Tennessee character that many gay and lesbian residents readily embrace—inter-community squabbles and reactionary religious and political mores notwithstanding.

"When I told my parents, they just said 'We've known that for years,'" Crumm remembers with a quiet smile. "We have that old East Tennessee mindset of 'Blood runs thick.' No matter what, when it comes to family—you support them. That's a mindset you don't see a lot of places."

For Crumm, that climate of acceptance and respect has extended outside familial bonds, even as her public profile has expanded—through her pastorship at MCC, and through her Holy Union (though most states offer no legal recognition of homosexual marriages, many gay Christians affirm their commitment to their significant others through such unions) to her partner. And for many gays—though they may keep the perspective that being openly homosexual is a complicated and socially hazardous matter under even the best of circumstances—Knoxville rates high marks for its treatment of gay and lesbian citizens.

"It's easier being gay in Knoxville," observes Donna, a young Chicago expatriate who works in marketing. "I'm always surprised, because the average person is really rather accepting."

"In larger towns, straights and gays don't have to co-mingle as much," says Tony, a 25-ish Atlanta native who works as a special events coordinator. "Here, they co-mingle pretty well. Small town doesn't necessarily mean small-minded."

A short, kindly, balding gentleman in his mid-50s, the Rev. Jim Richards came to the Metropolitan Community Church in 1992. A former Presbyterian minister, the native Kansan lost his pastorship, when, late in life, he finally came to grips with—and made public—his long-misconstrued sexuality.

"They [his former church] literally erased me from their rolls," says Richards, sitting in his tiny office, catty-corner to the MCC sanctuary. "Once I was acknowledged gay, they didn't want me anymore."

Richards characterizes his adoptive hometown as "comparable to other towns of its size. There is a somewhat oppressive atmosphere in smaller cities. And we are in the Bible Belt; some say Knoxville is the buckle. Other churches use hate language against us, and thereby give the community permission to hate us."

As a pastor, Richards is perhaps more acutely aware of the city's sins and shortcomings—he can cite a handful of noteworthy anti-gay incidents locally over the past 20 years, including an arsonist's attempt to torch the MCC office (then residing in a private home) more than a decade ago. And he notes that many in his congregation "can never go home again," having been ostracized by parents who, by his reckoning, answer to a far less benevolent God.

"I remember one young man who came to me from a neighboring town," says Richards. "He said his mother had a .357 Magnum in her purse 'to use on any faggots she sees.' His grandmother, meanwhile, had discovered his homosexuality and was threatening to tell his mother. How many straight folks run into that kind of problem?"

But he acknowledges most local gays live peacefully. And at MCC, membership has swollen to more than 170, with an active base of more than 300. The church recently celebrated its one-year anniversary in the free-standing building in West Knoxville it now calls its own; and Richards now performs "holy unions" for gay and lesbian couples at MCC, a church function that complements what might seem to some in the heterosexual community a broad range of very traditional Christian outreaches.

"About 40 to 50 percent of our congregation is represented by couples; we have one couple that's been together 35 years," says Richards, a shepherd with more than a hint of pride in his flock. "That's one thing many gay folks find liberating, that they can acknowledge their partners, that they can feel free to show their affection, by holding a hand or placing an arm across a chair. These are things heterosexuals take for granted, that gays often feel uncomfortable or unable to express publicly."

What might be MCC's most significant ministry—indeed, one of the most important outreaches across any local faith or denomination— was founded by Crumm in January of 1997. Positively Living, an East Knoxville center devoted to caring for the terminally ill, was inspired by the death of a gay friend—renowned Knoxville photographer Jan Lynch, whose life was claimed by AIDS—but Crumm's ambitious program provides care, case management, laughter, and dignity across a spectrum of illnesses.

"While visiting Jan, I noticed that there was a gap in the continuum of care for those people who are coming to grips with the end of life," Crumm says. "In many ways, it's like a day-care center for those who are terminally ill. But what it's really about is affirmation—about providing life-enhancing activities for those most in need."

If there is a dearth of leadership in Knoxville's gay and lesbian community, newly-elected board members at Knoxville Pride are eager to fill the void. Chattering excitedly over platefuls of noodles and sweet-and-sour pork at a West Knoxville Chinese buffet, four of the five describe how this year's officers hope to establish the continuity so lacking in years past.

While building momentum for Pride Week by inviting sister chapters from neighboring cities (with the boost, turn-out is projected at more than 400 this year), the group has begun hosting events throughout the year, including an upcoming "Gay Prom," for "people who never got to take who they wanted to the dance." This year's Pride theme—"Prideful Past, Powerful Future"—perhaps best encapsulates their vision of a vital, proactive gay leadership.

"Because of the way gay individuals have been treated, I can understand why they would be so factionalized," says co-chair Ed. "Our goal now is to be as non-political as possible."

Is that wishful thinking? Board member Tony admits that one of the biggest obstacles to achieving some imagined larger consensus among members of the gay community is the very diversity—of lifestyles, of spiritual and cultural involvements, of political interests—that a concept like Pride Week would likely embrace. "I think what people are realizing is that our differences are just as great as those within the straight community."

"When you've got a diverse group, it's hard to find a summary group or person to speak for everyone," says Rhodes. "You've got this group of people, some of whom want desperately to be heard, and some of whom don't want to be noticed at all."

Dee Crumm remembers her friend Jan Lynch's funeral, an event that left its indelible mark on her psyche in ways yet uncounted. The service was performed by Bishop Anthony O'Connell, who left the mourners with an epitaph Crumm suggests as an apt credo for all who would heed:

"If there be any need for labels, let it be that we are all children of God."