Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer On the Sidelines

By Dominic Jesse

JUNE 22, 1998:  The organizers of the gay pride parade, being held this Saturday, June 20th, visualize a glorious event based on past images and memories.

– an enormous rainbow flag at the center, rippling in the wind as members of the community hold it up –

“It is a Mid-South thing,” says Mark Jones, vice president of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center. “People from Little Rock come over, people from Jonesboro come down. There’s nothing in small-town Mississippi, Arkansas, or Tennessee to participate in unless they come to Memphis.”

– battalions of people on the sidelines, business people trickling out of stores to stand on the sidewalks agape; a man on a porch gets up suddenly, joins the parade, marching proudly –

“Each year, it gets larger,” beams George Ettinger, executive committee chairman of Memphis Pride, the organization responsible for getting the parade together. “Last year, we expected maybe 1,000; we got 1,500.”

– all types are marching … college and high school students in shirts bearing cute slogans; men and women in leather harnesses; some drag queens walk by; for the most part, everyday people to the bone –

“[The parade] builds community and brings people together, which we don’t always feel on the bar scene,” says Sean Campbell, the leader of the University of Memphis’ Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Association (BGALA). “There are a lot of groups that try to do things, but as a community, there’s not a huge sense of community.”

“It’s a public display of who you are and how you act,” says George Ettinger, chairman of Memphis Pride.
Photo by Daniel Ball
– cut to a reporter, microphone in hand, standing in front of the parade, and the black eye of the TV camera, gesturing to the couple from Cordova, children in tow, at the side of the parade … “We want to raise our children to not be homophobic,” one parent says. –

“The parade and the festival want to show straight Memphis that we are a diverse group,” says Jones.

– some of the groups that march past: PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians, waving to parents who have come to accept their children and now want to change the world for the better; BGALA, the college group, with men and women in their twenties; MAGY – Memphis Area Gay Youth, a club that could only exist in the ’90s, boys and girls from age 13 up who fall into a category besides “heterosexual”; churchgoers from Safe Harbor Metropolitan Community; Memphis Pride, naturally; and countless others, ones who wait till the eleventh hour before joining up –

“It’s a public display of who you are and how you act,” says Ettinger.

It is called the Memphis Pride Parade and Festival. East down Madison, north on Cooper, then back west on Poplar till the mass reaches the Overton Park Shell, where the festival portion takes place.

A rundown: about 15 gay-related groups, several floats, and, if trends continue, between 1,500 and 2,000 participants. One of the major sponsors is the Hard Rock Cafe. “Like a normal parade,” as Ettinger describes, it starts out with the standard color guard – the banner of the United States, the flag of Tennessee, and the rainbow-striped icon of the gay pride movement. Afterward, at the festival, groups from all around set up shop, giving out literature for local interest groups and selling multicolored shirts, buttons, and other paraphernalia.

Smiling faces march through the heart of the city safely. In the six years that the parade has been held, there have been no disturbances, no fights or objects hurled at the parade-goers. Nor has there been open, angry rhetoric. (As Ettinger notes with amusement, there has been only one angry phone call – from an almost-incoherent woman who screamed that they were all “going to hell.”)

Watching the parade this weekend, one might be tempted to think that this is it, this is Memphis’ gay community, all cheering as they make their way through the heart of Midtown.

Far from it. Not all Memphis-area gays march in the parade. Some can’t.

Some don’t want to.

Packing the Closet

Audrey May describes her feminist bookstore, Meristem, as an “unofficial community center,” a “safe harbor” for gays.

Meristem certainly gives off that atmosphere. While oppressive, humid heat reigns outside, the inside is flooded with air conditioning and smells faintly of paper and ink. Glass shelves carry rainbow candles, and rainbow flags, like those that will be carried during the parade, hang inside the store. On the walls hang posters of tongue-in-cheek lesbian icons Xena and her “traveling companion” Gabrielle, as well as an oil painting of Eleanor Roosevelt; arguably the most beloved American woman, she reportedly had a longtime lesbian relationship. On racks stand dozens of glossies – the gay magazines that popped up over the past decade as marketers began tapping the gay market. And the books on sale range from feminist history (Uppity Women of Medieval Times) to gay self-help and humor (So You Want to Be a Lesbian).

But the true “resource center” of the building lies in the back room, where area gay-owned and -friendly businesses leave in a wire rack their business cards and pamphlets on issues from AIDS to relationships.

May, sitting in a wicker chair in the center of the store, seems proud of this little island of queerdom on Cooper Street (though she is planning to sell her business). But she also knows the cruel truths that exist outside.

“There are folks whom I know,” she says, “lesbians and gay men in the community, who never come in here, and we’ve been open eight years.” For some people, according to May, the store is “too gay.”

But May is not angry at these closeted people. “There are very real reasons why people can’t be identified as gays,” she says. “People are still losing custody of their children every day. There is no legislation that protects people from losing their job because they’re lesbian or gay.”

Remembering the first pride parades, May says, “There were some people marching with paper bags on their heads because they were literally afraid of being fired.”

When asked whether or not parade participants still march with bags over their heads, she smiles and says, “No.”

This might be because gay people in the closet don’t march at all.

According to the closeted gay people who were willing to go on the record, Memphis is not a very safe place to come out.

A Memphis-area man and military veteran who asked to remain anonymous evokes the sharp rise in military discharges of gays, an issue familiar to many people through the recent discharge of Timothy McVeigh (not the convicted Oklahoma bomber), who was kicked out of the Navy after officials who were supposed to be following the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy traced down his name and orientation in America Online records.

“[The U.S. military] will get information any way they can,” the Memphis veteran says. “Once they have the information, they will look for legal means to kick the person out. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is a joke.”

“Regardless of if you’re homosexual, you’re still black,” says Conrad Pegues of Crossroads. “You’ll have to deal with the issue of race.”
Photo by Daniel Ball
According to this former soldier, when he asked some of his acquaintances if they were willing to go to the press with their stories, half laughed; the others “looked at me as if I was crazy.”

Another closeted person, a lesbian, will not attend the march because of her job, which involves working with Memphis children.

This woman, who also asked to remain anonymous, says that coming to Memphis (and its more vibrant gay community) from a rural area improved her spirits.

“Pretty soon,” she says, “it’s not going to matter where I’m from.”

The most cautious closeted gays, however, would no doubt be Memphis-area youth. While an adult may find him or herself without a job or friends, rejected teenagers can find themselves on the street.

Few people know this better than Karen Borth, the adult adviser and, as nicknamed by some, the “den mother” of Memphis Area Gay Youth (MAGY), a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth between 13 and 21. When a gay youth gets kicked out of the house by his or her parents, it becomes MAGY’s job to relocate them through other services, which occurred at least a dozen times in the Greater Memphis area last year.

“Being a gay teen in the South is very hard, even today,” says Borth, whose organization also runs a 24-hour hotline (335-MAGY) for gay youth. From personal experience, Borth can speak of gay teens who called “with gun to head” or after taking pills. She cites the 1989 study of youth suicide by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which found that 30 to 40 percent of teen suicide victims are gay.

Borth estimates that MAGY has counseled about 250 teens over the past year. Only 27 young people marched in last year’s parade.

All the Colors of the Rainbow?

The most notable absence from the parade, however, may be African Americans. Despite the efforts of such local organizations as Black and White Men Together, the Pride Parade remains, for the most part, a white march. Even Ettinger, Memphis Pride’s executive chairman, admits that the black community is not “particularly involved.”

Conrad Pegues, a founding member of Crossroads (not to be mistaken for the gay bar or the music expo of the same name), an African-American gay support group, is quite blunt when he refers to gay culture as a “white-based culture” (the gay movement, historically, has been dominated by white males).

“Regardless of if you’re homosexual, you’re still black,” says Pegues. “You’ll have to deal with the issue of race.”

According to Pegues, differences between black and white gays abound. The term “gay,” he says, has no linking “spiritual basis” to it. And when it comes to the old sexual superstitions about blacks, says Pegues, the gay community is no better than society at large.

Other members of the gay community who asked not to be identified express opinions that Crossroads, as an organization, was “exclusive” and discouraged black-white relationships.

“That’s a rumor that flies around about Crossroads,” says Pegues. “If a black man chooses to love a white man, that’s no problem, that’s not our personal business. That’s a decision he has to make for himself ... we don’t ostracize him or anything like that.”

Still, Pegues characterizes Crossroads as an organization in which “black people pull aside and decide to deal with their own issues, on their own terms, in their own space,” in which whites are a “distraction to the healing process.”

Although Crossroads has been in existence for more than two years, Pegues says that this was the first year the organization was asked to march in the parade. “I think it was because one of the members had a connection to a particular white person who found out about Crossroads,” says Pegues.

According to Ettinger, however, no group is formally invited. Instead, an open invitation is issued to all interested parties through newspaper ads and other forms of public announcement.

Of 15 Crossroads members asked, according to Pegues, only one expressed an interest in marching in the parade.

Why Are We Here?

Behind the slogan-chanting and large rainbow pride flag, there hangs the final question: What does the parade accomplish? Once upon a time, the procession through Memphis was officially called a “march,” denoting its political content – a march against oppression. But that purpose seems to have faded slightly.

The march began in 1981 and continued for three or four years, then returned in 1993, according to longtime Pride member and unofficial historian Vincent Astor. In 1995 Memphis Pride made a conscious decision to change the name to parade.

“I think the only thing stopping the Memphis gay and lesbian community is ourselves,” says Mark Jones (above center). “It’s not the religious right. It’s not the straight people.”
Photo by Troy Glasgow
Although Mark Jones still sees the need to “remind” Memphis of the presence of gays, he too admits that the true importance, or function, of the parade is for “the people to participate.”

The process doesn’t always run smoothly, or in a flattering manner. Last year, a dispute between the patrons and staff of two prominent gay bars, over visibility in the parade, led to squabbling that still makes members of Memphis Pride cringe. Angry that their competitor won out, the employees and friends of the other bar boycotted the march and, at last year’s election, attempted to take over the group’s executive committee, a ploy that failed when only two of the board’s five seats were up for grabs.

Some skeptics question the parade’s effectiveness in gaining “acceptance” for gays and claim that the old gay stereotype – that of the promiscuous “advocate” who comes out to march only to meet people for sex – still applies.

To this assertion, Jones says, “Maybe that does happen. … [But] I think that’s a minority.

“Straight people have extravagant weddings,” he adds, “and they’re not flaunting anything – they’re just getting married. They wear wedding rings ... and they show affection in public. Why shouldn’t gay people be allowed to hold hands in public?”

Even John Smid, executive director of Love in Action, the Memphis program that seeks to convert gays through therapy and Bible study, says the parades he attended while still “in the homosexual lifestyle” were no different than heterosexual events.

But still, there’s that question of function.

“People’s attitudes change from their own personal experience,” says Audrey May. “Because they have a nephew who’s gay, or a neighbor who’s gay, or a co-worker ... I think the real importance of the march is for the people who participate.”

May elaborates, “I think that people should remember that, yes, this is a political event, but it is also a party. You’ve got to have fun. And we have to remember that it was the drag queens and the butchest of the diesel dykes who were out there at Stonewall [a rally in New York] fighting with the police for our right to congregate freely.

“In a perfect world,” she adds, “perhaps we wouldn’t have to have marches for peace and justice. But until that perfect world, lesbians and gay men and people of color and all other oppressed groups will have to be public about our demands for justice. And a march is one way of doing that.”

The parade will take between 30 minutes and an hour, followed by a festival, where singer/comedian Jamie Anderson will perform on stage and the crowd will be addressed by keynote speaker Dr. Karen Slobod, who is working on the search for an AIDS vaccine at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. A member of the National Organization for Women will speak. There might be female impersonators present. It will be a party. Last year, cast members from a local production of The Rocky Horror Show came by, as did a representative of Harold Ford Jr.’s office.

The march itself is short. But on the sidelines, some watching from the sidewalk, others nowhere near, lies the bulk of the city’s gay community. They will not be marching.

Mark Jones is not deterred. “I’m too much of an optimist,” he says. “I think the only thing stopping the Memphis gay and lesbian community is ourselves. It’s not the religious right. It’s not the straight people.”

Someday, he hopes, it could be as big as any Memphis in May event. But for that to happen, he knows, a lot more people are going to have to join the parade.

A Queer By Any Other Name

Gay. Lesbian. Queer. Homosexual. The list of words used to denote people who are attracted to the same sex may be endless, especially when one wanders into some of the more derogatory terms such as pouf, faggot, or faerie.

What do gay people themselves prefer? For years, the terms “gay” and “lesbian” (with “gay” used for either sex) have been in vogue. They are used most frequently in this story.

The word “homosexual,” though technically neutral, is being thrown aside more and more these days because of its connotation. Until the American Psychiatric Association removed it from its list of mental disorders, calling someone “homosexual” meant calling them sick.

If gays and lesbians have a preferred label in the ’90s, it is most likely the word “queer,” which can be used to denote either sex as well as bisexuals and the transgendered.

Then again, there’s no word that pleases – or offends – everyone. Conrad Pegues of Crossroads, an African-American gay group, dislikes the word “queer,” saying it implies a sense of “being odd.” Dan Savage, a gay advice columnist who is syndicated throughout the alternative press, encourages his readers to address him as “faggot.” Certain gay organizations make reference to “faerie power.”

In other words, there is no magic “politically correct” word for all gays, as the quotes in this story demonstrate.

Dominic Jesse is a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he is studying journalism and sociology. He completed an editorial internship at The Memphis Flyer earlier this month.

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