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Op-ed: Living the (Gay) Life in North Carolina

Op-ed: Living the (Gay) Life in North Carolina

My partner, Christopher, and I signed domestic partnership documents in a computer store in New York City and in City Hall in West Hollywood. We were married in San Francisco’s City Hall by Supervisor Bevan Dufty during that city’s nose-thumbing weekend of marriage equality in 2004. (That marriage was invalidated by the state Supreme Court.)

But in our 28 years together, Christopher and I have been legally and permanently married only once, and that was November 8 on the meadow behind our home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, just outside of Asheville. We threw the whole thing together in about two weeks’ time and still had about 75 people come and celebrate with us, ages 1 to nearly 90, most of them straight. Christopher’s students from the New Media program at the University of North Carolina in Asheville came en masse and were among the most excited guests of all.

Presiding at the early evening service was the Rev. Joe Hoffman of Asheville’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, one of the ministers who filed the federal lawsuit that led directly to the ruling that permitted our wedding in the meadow. Our son flew in from New York City and our nephew flew in from Arkansas to be our best men, and our parents dressed up and sat proudly in the front rows. The weather was mild, and clouds appeared at just the right time so Joe wasn’t blinded by the setting sun.

The day was such a joy that I took it as a sign, or at least an indicator: Despite the noise and roadblocks to equality radiating from the Republican supermajorities in both houses of the North Carolina legislature, this state is moving steadily in the direction of equality for its gay and lesbian citizens.

The notorious Amendment One, which wrote marriage discrimination into the state constitution, may have passed with 61 percent of the votes cast in May 2012, but only about a third of citizens bothered to vote that month. Conservatives were motivated to come to the polls by both Amendment One and the Republican presidential primary, while Democrats had no presidential primary to draw them out.

But change in the state will not be driven by either conservatives or progressives. Lasting social change, as always, comes from the mushy middle — all those people who rarely bother to vote, have only a vague notion that there’s a marriage equality decision due any day now from the U.S. Supreme Court, and are just as likely to watch Modern Family as Duck Dynasty.

I can’t say that I know a lot of these people, since I tend to hang out with folks who are more engaged in their political lives. But despite the state legislature’s best efforts, I don’t see a groundswell of support for rolling back equality. It’s my impression that average folks in North Carolina are very much live and let live. It may never have occurred to most of them to support antidiscrimination laws or marriage equality, but if that’s the law of the land, they’re fine with it.

This is not to say that living in North Carolina is like living in Los Angeles, where we moved from eight years ago. You have to work harder here to find and bond with openly gay and lesbian people, and the options for LGBT events and entertainments are few. Christopher and I did not attend church in Los Angeles, nor before then in New York, during the more than a decade we lived in each city. But when we moved here, we immediately sought out the UCC, and we have made many treasured friendships there, with people both gay and straight.

Being out at work at Asheville’s Citizen-Times isn’t a problem — The Advocate, after all, was at the top of my résumé — and Christopher’s hundreds of animation and art students at UNCA every year can’t help but notice his references to his husband. It’s never been an issue. 

And it’s not just that newspapers and colleges are “liberal enclaves.” Asheville has an LGBT-centric theater company (Different Strokes), a popular gay but straight-friendly dance club, a thriving annual Pride celebration (in October, during leaf-peeping season) and an AIDS and HIV services and education nonprofit (the Western NC AIDS Project, or WNCAP) that throws one of the year’s most posh and high-profile fundraisers.

I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface of the options available for gay folks in the vicinity, since Christopher and I tend to be homebodies (we’ve been to a local gay bar exactly once, for about 10 minutes). Our gay friends in their 20s have busy social and dating lives, whether hanging out in town or enjoying the hiking and whitewater and countless other outdoors options within easy driving distance, and their circles of friends are not limited by sexual orientation.

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At right: Bruce Steele (right) and husband Christopher Oakley

As in any smaller city anywhere in the U.S., gay life in Asheville doesn’t revolve around LGBT-specific zones, activities, and businesses. Just like Gay Days at a Disney theme park, every day is a “mix-in” — gay people are visible and generally welcomed but share our space with everyone else. Same-sex couples at restaurants raise no eyebrows, and if you want to hold hands on the streets of downtown Asheville, most people won’t care.

Which is not to say there’s no homophobia around here. Just ask the adults who reach out to LGBTQI young people ages 14-23 through the Asheville-based support group Youth OUTright. Plenty of kids struggle to come out at home and in schools, and an alternative prom is still a necessary annual event. If there were same-sex couples at the dozens of high school proms in the past several weeks, we heard nothing about it at the Asheville newspaper.

And Grayson Bruce, the then-9-year-old boy who got national attention last year after he was bullied for carrying a My Little Pony backpack, is from Candler, a town on the edge of Asheville in western Buncombe County. (History note: the word “bunk,” as in “that’s a load of…,” comes from Buncombe County. Google it.)

I’m sure it’s still challenging and occasionally dangerous, especially for young people, to be openly gay in small towns outside of Buncombe. I don’t believe rural areas are rife with haters — I think most folks everywhere belong to the mushy middle — but I do think homophobes feel more empowered in tiny towns and the countryside. They still believe they’re in the majority, even if they’re not.

It’s impossible to gauge the real sea change among the mushy middle, but in April 2014, Public Policy Polling found that 62 percent of North Carolina residents supported marriages or civil unions for same-sex couples, with 33 percent opposed. And that was six months before a federal court struck down Amendment One and real, legal same-sex marriages began in the state. As we know, the mere existence of happily married gay and lesbian couples in any locale tends to shift public opinion to the side of equality.

North Carolina remains a case study in Michelangelo Signorile’s refrain that “it’s not over.” It’s far from over. The recent passage of a law allowing public officials to refuse same-sex marriage licenses proves that the conservatives who run the state will continue to foment inequality in any way they can think up.

But while they may make the laws, they can’t remake history. Marriage rights in North Carolina are here to stay, and they’re just one more step on an inevitable march toward full equality. I always want to paraphrase Princess Leia from Star Wars at this point in the discussion: The more the far right attempts to tighten its grip, the more North Carolinians will slip through its fingers.

In 1893, North Carolina selected as its state motto the Latin phrase “Esse quam videri,” generally translated as “to be rather than to seem.” From my perspective, the people of North Carolina seem to be moving in the right direction, despite their lawmakers. The next step, which we’re waiting for in North Carolina and everywhere else in the world, is for equality “to be, rather than to seem.”

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BRUCE C. STEELE is the planning editor at the Asheville Citizen-Times. He was formerly the editor in chief of The Advocate and the executive editor of Out. Contact him at bcsteele@gmail.com.

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