The Advocate July/Aug 2022
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Tolerance and
Tennessee

Tolerance and
            Tennessee

Probably the
gayest thing to come out of Tennessee is Dolly Parton. This
may be saying a lot, especially when you consider this is
the state that gave us Graceland, Lisa Marie Presley,
the pampered ducks of the Peabody, Minnie Pearl,
Cybill Shepherd, Tipper Gore’s makeover, the atom
bomb, and Opryland, but Dolly, who believes that if
she’d been born a man she would have become a
drag queen, pretty much takes the gay cake. Even when
she was a simple country girl singing and playing guitar
with Porter Wagoner, she looked vaguely like a Fire
Island houseboy with a stuffed bra. Porter Wagoner
looked like the man from out of town who was keeping
her. Years later Dolly can still sit onstage encased in
sequins, blood-red nails, and a forest of wigs and
sing a tender song about a dead puppy. She projects a
real soul from under a mountain of phony, and
that’s pretty gay. The rest of Tennessee may not be
built on her model, but there may be more there than
meets the jaundiced old urban eye.
Seven years ago a couple of administrators in an
officially depressed (so the statistics told them)
town of 1,600 near Chattanooga decided that their
middle school students needed to learn about people who were
not white and anglo-saxon and were oppressed because
of it. The school, which had one Hispanic and five
black students in the small sea of white, began
studying the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were wiped
out. Few of the students had ever met a Jew.
First they read Anne Frank’s diary. They
began sending out letters in which they asked people
to send back a paper clip. During the ’40s,
they’d learned, Norwegians wore paper clips on their
collars to acknowledge friends and loved ones in the camps.
The class’s goal was 6 million paper
clips, which would give them some sense of the
enormity of the crime. They sent letters to a few
famous people, and pretty soon Tom Brokaw was featuring
their story on the evening news. It began raining
paper clips. A married couple, German journalists,
arrived to chronicle the effort, and a documentary film crew
showed up. (Their movie, Paper Clips, is in in the
midst of a theatrical run.)
Soon a group of Holocaust survivors made the
trek to Tennessee to meet the kids and tell them,
firsthand, what happened in Europe a generation before
they were born. Twenty-nine million (and counting) paper
clips later, the German journalists brought the town
one of the actual cattle cars that was used to
transport Jews to the concentration camps. It became
the repository for 11 million of the clips: 6 million for
the Jews and another 5 million for the gypsies,
Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents, and
homosexuals who were also killed by the Nazis and
their collaborators.

Let’s
press pause. You did say “homosexuals”?
Yes, right there in the documentary, one of the
students says it right to the camera. The homosexuals
were victims too. It’s a very moving
documentary. There are many scenes of children and adults
becoming aware of the world outside their own, a
violent world where hate is often allowed to reign.
Tennessee is a part of that world. Next year its
voters will cast ballots in a gay-marriage referendum,
just as voters in more than a dozen states did since
last year. How many of these enlightened townspeople do you
suppose will vote against discrimination, persecution, and
oppression, not of Jews but of gay people who are
perhaps in their own town? Will the fact that the
teachers specifically included the plight of Europe’s
gay people in the paper clip project have any effect at all?
Will these well-meaning, sympathetic citizens of
the bible belt in a town about 50 miles from where the
scopes monkey trial unfolded in the ’20s take
to heart the lessons a paper clip project teaches us?
Will they show the real soul that can emerge from under the
fear-based fundamentalist rant that’s often the
only thing, other than the sweet music, that you hear
from Tennessee? Dolly’s fans can’t wait
to find out.

Tags: World, World

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