Don't ask, don't tell' is a phrase often associated with the military. But it also applies to the lives of gay and lesbian civilians living in Alabama. Those who are out face possible discrimination. Others spend their lives hiding their true selves.
Today, we wrap up our series Gay/Straight in Alabama with this report, from WBHM's Bradley George.
It's Saturday night in Five Points South. This place is usually packed on the weekends, but even more so tonight - as the Central Alabama Pride Parade rolls down 20th Street South.
The parade is short -- it moves through Five Points in less than half an hour. University of Alabama students march in crimson-colored shirts. Members of gay-friendly churches wave from pick-up trucks and floats. It's a tame affair, but the crowd of 1,000 or so loves it. But despite the jubilation, being gay in Alabama remains...
Patricia Todd is Alabama's first openly gay elected official.
' You really have to determine if you're going to be out, where you're going to be out. And all people have to make that decision. You know, how far out are you going to be to your family? Which is usually the first or last place people are out at.'
Todd represents Birmingham's Southside in the state House. It's a part of the city that boasts a large gay and lesbian community. There are bars, clubs, social organizations, and a gay and lesbian film festival. Here, the possibility exists for a gay person to be out and happy. But up Interstate 20 in Anniston, things are much different.
'If you disclose to someone who you are you can take that back. So, you want to be prepared and ready and have your shield on because if someone's not as accepting as you want them to be, that can really hurt you.'
Cory Clifton is 31 and out-completely. After stints in Atlanta and Washington, DC -- both cities with large, vibrant gay communities - Clifton moved back home to Anniston... population 24,000. It was a culture shock. Clifton says he keeps himself busy with work-he's a hair stylist. But he has to deal with negative attitudes daily.
' I still have to go out and go grocery shopping and stuff like that and I still have people stare at me and look at me funny. People perceive me as a pedophile. I mean, I can walk into a grocery store and people can turn their heads and stare at me, like I'm some freak of nature.
Clifton is an advocate for gay and lesbian folks in Anniston through an organization known as PFLAG. It helps parents and family of gays and lesbians. Pat Thrasher is a member of the Anniston chapter. Both of her adult sons are gay.
' As my children went through school they were discriminated against. They were called all kinds of ugly names. No teacher, no counselor, nowhere ever tried to correct the people that were discriminating against them.'
Discretion is the byword if you're gay and live in a small community like Anniston. But even in bigger cities like Birmingham, gay and lesbian people face push back. Last year, Mayor Larry Langford refused to sign a proclamation for Pride Week. He also refused to sign the permit for the annual parade and he wouldn't allow gay pride flags on city light posts. The reason: Langford said he didn't condone the lifestyle of gay lesbian people. In the end, the parade went ahead as planned--with the flags. But organizers later filed a discrimination lawsuit against Langford.
' I think I would define it as an uncomfortable silence.'
Journalist Bob Moser lived in Montgomery for a few years. He wrote about that experience for Out Magazine in 2005. That silence he refers to is the way gay and lesbian people live their lives. Moser says it's a cycle of silence in Alabama, both gay people living their lives in silence and straight people not talking about homosexuality.
'You know, in a lot of southern parts of the county and a lot of rural parts of the country there has always been a kind of live and let live sensibility that people do uphold as long as gay people live quietly and in those people's terms-don't throw it in my face.'
During his time in Montgomery, Moser says he met many gay people-even couples of long standing--still in the closet. Patricia Todd says staying in the closest takes a lot of energy. Keeping track of who knows and who doesn't know adds to the cycle of fear and self-loathing. But for many, it's necessary.
' There's no legal protection for gay and lesbian people in the workforce. You can be fired for being gay or lesbian. And you know, I think fear drives a lot of people back in the closet.'
There's also the threat of violence. In 1999, Billy Jack Gaither was beaten and burned to death near Sylacauga. Gaither kept quiet about his sexuality. His parents didn't know about him being gay until after his murder.
But Alabama isn't static. Patricia Todd says her colleagues in the state legislature are taking gay and lesbian issues seriously. Before her election, Todd says lawmakers would introduce rafts of anti-gay bills. This year, the House passed hate crimes legislation, though the bill died in the Senate. Todd puts it this way.
' It's like moving, you know, a concrete slab up a hill by yourself. It takes time an energy. Sometimes you're moving it a quarter of an inch, but you're still moving it in the right direction.'
Back on the streets of Five Points South, parade goers seem to be moving that slab, too. The first thing you notice about the crowd--besides its sheer size, is the age. There are folks who are forty and over, by and large the crowd ranges from their teens to their early thirties. For this generation, being gay is less of a struggle and more like a fact of life. For WBHM, I'm Bradley George.
~ Bradley George, June 26, 2009