It’s hard to imagine sitting in the audience while comedian Tracy Morgan unloaded a string of antigay comments from stage. But Cynthia Wagner and Katie Cleek don’t have to imagine. They were there. And the couple can’t stop reliving those tense moments. Part of them feels relieved to have made it out of the auditorium safely.
Without video of the tirade, it’s all the more difficult to understand what it must have been like to be a lesbian couple, cuddled closely in the pew-style seating of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, caught with Wagner’s arm around Cleek when Morgan suddenly said over the microphone that there’s no such thing as women loving women. Witnesses say Morgan claimed all lesbians have “daddy issues” and just hate men.
“I felt my face blush and just felt so uncomfortable,” remembers Cleek, whose partner “grabbed my hand and just had a death grip on my hand the rest of the show.”
“I wanted so badly to get up and leave but then the fear had me locked in those seats,” Wagner said. “There was no joke. Everyone was waiting with bated breath for the punch line.”
They waited as Morgan said gays should “quit being pussies” when it comes to bullying. They waited through him saying he would stab his son to death if he were gay. They waited for the punch line that should drain the tension out of the moment. But it never came, they say. Instead, much of the audience reacted with hoots and cheers to what sounded to the couple like a speech — a hate speech.
“People were more vocal upstairs but they were not around us,” Wagner said of the crowd’s reaction. “There was a kind of silence in our area because I think they knew.”
The worst part was feeling like the only two gay people, suddenly caught at an event where they weren’t welcome. It must have been like turning down an alley that you realize too late might be dangerous.
When the show was over, “we waited until almost everybody left,” Cleek said. And then they darted to the car. “We didn’t even hold hands as we walked out, and normally we do. We didn’t know what to expect at that point. Is someone going to say or do something to us now? And I’ve never felt like that — ever.”
But leaving wouldn’t be the end of their ostracization. Even at home, the whole episode looped in their minds. Wagner said she checked the news and the Internet repeatedly for some sign of outrage, which also would have signaled they weren’t the only ones in Nashville who believed Morgan crossed into wrongful territory.
Finally, a week later, Wagner saw mention of a Facebook post made by a gay member of the audience who described the whole tirade in detail. It was titled, “WHY I NO LONGER LIKE TRACY MORGAN.” Gay rights groups had picked up on the account and demanded that Morgan explain himself. Soon he issued an apology in the form of a short statement, saying he’d gone too far, even for a comedian. And the author of the Facebook post — Kevin Rogers — was appearing on CNN and Access Hollywood and in print and online for news outlets big and small. His phone was ringing off the hook.
One of the calls came from Wagner.
“I needed to be able to talk to somebody that was there and understood, and let him know how proud I am of him and how I’m sorry that I couldn’t do what he did,” Wagner said. “I really have a lot of guilt that I couldn’t stand up. I was too afraid. I’m sorry, Tennessee is a scary place right now.”
In the back of her mind, Wagner was painfully aware that their state senators had recently advanced the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would prevent discussion of LGBT issues in schools. Legislators have also passed a law prohibiting any municipality within the state from enacting antidiscrimination laws covering sexual orientation or gender identity; the measure repealed a Nashville ordinance requiring city contractors to offer such protections to their employees.
But none of that managed to stop Rogers from writing his Facebook post in the heat of passion on the night of the performance. He figured his more than 1,500 “friends” would want to know what happened. Rogers said he wanted to warn them that the Tracy Morgan from television and movies wasn’t what he seemed.
Rogers and his partner, Patrick Legg, went to the show because they’re big fans of 30 Rock and of Morgan from Saturday Night Live. So are Wagner and Cleek. Even now, none wants Morgan to lose his job if he can make amends. In conversations with The Advocate, each of them strongly backs up Rogers’s description of what Morgan said that night. And all of them expressed a sense of fear for their safety while it was being said.
“I couldn’t look at anybody,” Rogers said. “We just sat there looking forward.”
“I’ve lived in the South my whole life, and I’ve never felt that awkward and that out of place,” Legg said. He recalled thinking, Holy crap, what do I do? and Am I going to get out of here in one piece?
But for Rogers to write his account online and then to stand before television cameras, it took yet another level of courage. At the age of 36, he needed to come out to his parents or have them find out on CNN.
Rogers and Legg live together, and they’ve been a couple for seven years. But their home has two bedrooms and, to Rogers’s parents, they had always tried to appear as roommates. “When they would come over we would kind of clean up the house and make it look like we don’t share a bathroom,” Rogers said.
Having just heard Morgan say he would stab his son to death if he were gay, Rogers called his mom. She was washing the dishes.
“When I started to say it, I started to cry, and I was so stressed at the moment anyway, and I hated to do it on the phone,” said Rogers, who lives about an hour’s drive from his mom’s house. She told her son, “We’ve known, we’ve always known,” and “I wish I could come hold your hand.”
Rogers has been flooded with friend requests on Facebook, with strangers praising him for bravery. “It’s easy for us to forget just how hard it can be for people to take that stand and to put themselves out there,” said Evan Hurst, social media director for Truth Wins Out, which was among the groups demanding an explanation from Morgan after reading Rogers’s account. “I think it takes a lot of courage.”
Wagner wanted to do something to express her gratitude. With Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth in town, “I knew that would make his day,” Wagner said.
She contacted country star Chely Wright, who is gay and is friends with Chenoweth. And they arranged a meeting. On Saturday night, Rogers and his partner waited in line at a meet-and-greet for fans. As Rogers reached the front, Chenoweth’s manager pointed him out as the whistle-blower on Morgan. From there it was all hugs.
“And of course I babbled all over her,” Rogers said.
But as they hugged, Chenoweth whispered in his ear a personal “thank you” for standing up and objecting:
“I love you. I love you for doing that.”