BY Duane Wells
September 29 2009 5:45 PM ET
The closest thing to a gay bar that can be found in Tyler, Texas, is the one evening a week a local watering hole hosts a "mixed clientele" night, when gays are "more welcome than usual" in the notoriously conservative bastion of the country. However, if you happen to find yourself driving through the vast region of the Lone Star State that is commonly referred to as East Texas, you will find, prominently displayed along U.S. Highway 69, a sign that reads, “ADOPT-A-HIGHWAY, NEXT 2 MILES, TYLER AREA GAYS.”
As innocuous as it seems on the surface, the simple sign represents a gigantic step forward for a region of America where homophobia is so prevalent that just a few short years ago a local AIDS service organization censored an ad from the then-fledgling Project TAG (Tyler Area Gays) -- which is responsible for the Adopt-A-Highway sign -- simply because the text of the ad mentioned the words "gay" and "lesbian."
“I’ve lived here [in Tyler] for about three and a half years and I’ve never lived in a place that was so homophobic,” Project TAG chairman and founder Troy Carlyle told Advocate.com. “This organization, Project TAG, was taking out an ad with a fund-raiser for an AIDS service organization here. They have an annual dance and they have a program and we took out a full-page ad in the program to introduce the community to Project TAG… to let them know what we’re all about, [and] they removed the words 'gay' and 'lesbian' from [the ad] because they thought they were offensive.”
The actions of the organization so incensed Carlyle, an East Texas transplant, that he felt something had to be done to make gays and lesbians more visible in his newly chosen home. It was that righteous indignation, along with a desire to create a sense of community in a town that is perhaps best known as the place where a young gay man named Nicholas West was abducted by three straight men and brutally murdered in the mid 1990s, that inspired Carlyle to launch the website that would later give birth to Project TAG and the highway sign that presently has all of East Texas buzzing.
“We’re a very backwards community," says Carlyle. "So it was clear to us that we needed to get the word gay out there so that people can see it and we can start to desensitize people. And what better way to do that than to get an Adopt-A-Highway sign. We may be one of the last places in America to allow gays to live relatively free of hatred, but we were the first to insist that our roads be free of litter.”
Despite his enthusiasm, however, Carlyle recounts that he was initially warned not to proverbially rock the boat in sleepy East Texas by some of his newfound gay friends in Tyler who feared a backlash.