Being gay in Charleston: Socially, legally and religiously, attitudes are changing, but homosexuality is still very much in the minority

Tasha Gandy (left) and Amanda Hollinger, North Charleston residents, were married last weekend in New York City. 'It wasn't a logical decision because we know rights didn't extend to South Carolina,' Hollinger said. But the pair love New York and wanted to be 'part of history,' they said.

Amanda Hollinger and Tasha Gandy just got married.

They eloped to New York City on July 24 and appeared before one of many volunteer judges recruited for New York's first day of sanctioning same-sex marriage.

'There were throngs,' said Hollinger, who works at Trident Technical College.

'It was very festive,' said Gandy, finance director for Spoleto Festival USA. 'People were handing out lollipops, sodas, water. They were cheering. It was like a big street party.'

They saw only one mild-mannered protester holding a sign saying, 'Bad idea.'

'It wasn't a logical decision because we know rights didn't extend to South Carolina,' Hollinger said. But they wanted to be part of history.

When they walked into a restaurant soon after the ceremony, wearing T-shirts that read 'Just Married,' people started cheering, they said. At their hotel, they received chocolate-covered strawberries. They got a room upgrade and bottles of champagne.

'It has been a little bit like a dream being here,' Gandy said.

But acceptance isn't the rule for many gays and lesbians in Charleston and other parts of the state. As an indication, most of the lesbians and gays contacted for this story declined to go on the record for fear of exposing themselves or their partners to harassment. They said they were especially fearful of what might happen to them at work.

South Carolina is home to more than 117,000 gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, almost 3 percent of the population, according to a 2008 estimate by the Williams Institute at UCLA — and that still might be low.

Surveys over the years, administered by such groups as the U.S. Census Bureau, Gallup, the Family Research Report and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, have produced various estimates, ranging from 2 percent to 25 percent.

Living the life

Charlie Smith, a Charleston native and real estate broker who lives in West Ashley, said life is easier now for gays and lesbians.

He recalls in the early 1990s when he and his partner, then living in Florida, were pelted with eggs as they walked down the street, or when they were kicked out of an apartment after the landlord learned they were gay.

Smith has worked to build acceptance since he came out to his parents on Thanksgiving in 1987. He nearly became the state's first openly gay lawmaker in 2004 when he took on now-retired Republican Rep. John Graham Altman for West Ashley's House seat and got 48 percent of the vote.

Christine Johnson, a Charleston native and former Utah legislator who is openly gay, said the city is somewhat of an anomaly in a Deep South state.

She returned to South Carolina about a year ago as an advocate. She lives on a houseboat on Lake Murray and runs the nonprofit S.C. Equality, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political advocacy organization.

That puts her on the front lines to take phone calls and pleas for help from children who are bullied at school or teens who are afraid to come out to their parents. She hears from couples who get kicked out of suburban Columbia restaurants for being on a date. She learns about people whose mailboxes get blown up in Sumter.

'The biggest challenge is demystifying homosexuality, helping people understand the equal protection language of the Constitution and what it really means,' Johnson said. That won't be easy, but attitudes have been rapidly changing, she said.

Tough sell in Bible Belt

While New York's new law allowing same-sex marriage places the issue once again in the national spotlight, gays and lesbians in South Carolina are aiming at lesser targets.

The Empire State is the largest of five states that grant gays and lesbians marriage. The others are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. The District of Columbia also recognizes gay marriage.

In South Carolina, activists are seeking more attainable goals, Johnson said. She and other advocates, such as Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Charleston-based Alliance for Full Acceptance, are:

Working with the Charleston and North Charleston police departments, the local school districts and corporations, such as the Boeing Co., to train staff on diversity issues and revamp employee policies.

Working to elect an openly gay lawmaker to the state Legislature by starting a political action committee to work for support and money.

Pushing legislators to enact hate-crime laws.

Urging the passage of local government ordinances to block discrimination in employment, housing and public places, such as restaurants (Charleston City Council passed the Fair Housing and Fair Accommodations acts last year).

Pursuing marriage equality.

Religious perspectives

Gays and lesbians often find the least acceptance among certain conservative church communities, according to longtime partners Doug Warner and Truman Smith.

But even conservative Christians who view homosexuality as a sin are being asked to consider making congregations — and pulpits — more accommodating to gays and lesbians. This has prompted much angst and debate, especially within mainline Protestant denominations.

The Rev. John Van Deventer, pastor of Johns Island Presbyterian Church, said it is entirely possible for Christians to be both faithful to Scripture and caring of the individual. To illustrate his point, he recalled a common Sunday School lesson.

'What God calls upon us to do is in two parts: No. 1, we are to hate sin; and No. 2, we are to love sinners. The problem that the polar extremes get into is they miss the implications of that Sunday School lesson.'

The far right hates the practitioner of sin as well the sin, he said. The far left denies the sin altogether, ignoring thousands of years of teaching and history.

Homosexual behavior, he said, is a desecration of God's created order. 'The problem with homosexuality, from a biblical point of view, is it's love turned inward on itself. ... It is corrosive to the fabric of our culture, but no more so than everyday, readily available, no-fault divorce among heterosexuals.'

The Southern Baptist Convention holds that homosexuality is sinful behavior.

'We affirm God's plan for marriage and sexual intimacy — one man, and one woman, for life,' a statement on sexuality reads. 'Homosexuality is not a ‘valid alternative lifestyle.' The Bible condemns it as sin. It is not, however, unforgivable sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals. They, too, may become new creations in Christ.'

The question of whether homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle choice versus a fixed identity or orientation, perhaps even assigned by God, is at the heart of the current debate in the church, Van Deventer and others said.

Some denominations and individual churches have rejected the old definitions in favor of a more inclusive approach, endorsing the ordination of gay clergy and welcoming gays without judgment.

St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Charleston, for example, has made a point of emphasizing in its official vision statement that it is 'a place of comfort for all people without regard to gender, age, marital status, economic status, sexual orientation, disability, race or cultural heritage.'

Equal rights?

Darcy Cameron, a 40-year-old Mount Pleasant mother of three, is sometimes surprised by people. Pleasantly surprised.

When New York state recently legalized gay marriage, her grandmother, who lives upstate in the Adirondacks, suggested that Cameron and her partner come there to have a mountaintop wedding. 'That really touched my heart,' Cameron said.

When a Baptist colleague in his late 60s learned that she was gay, he made a point of approaching her. 'I want you to know I don't have a problem with you,' he said.

But nice gestures go only so far, she said.

Only Cameron has parental rights. Should something happen to her, her family could take the children away from her partner.

'It worries me that they wouldn't automatically go to their other mother,' she said. 'That worries me a lot.'

They have worked out a 'hospital contingency plan.' Since medical decisions for an incapacitated patient can be made only by close family members, Cameron and her partner, who resemble one another, will pretend they are sisters, she said.

And there are other legal limitations and social challenges, such as tax implications, inheritance, perceptions and assumptions.

Many people assume Cameron is a single mother and take pity on her, she said, adding that the stigma of being a single mom is perhaps worse than the stigma of being gay.

'When I tell them I'm gay, they ask if we've gotten married. I find it interesting that many people don't realize you can't (in South Carolina).'

Johnson said granting marriage rights to all adult couples, regardless of sexual orientation, might not be immediately possible in South Carolina. In part, that's because the state adopted an amendment to its constitution in 2006 banning gay marriage. It passed with 80 percent of the vote.

The 2006 amendment also denies recognition to such marriages allowed in other places. Voters in parts of Charleston County and Folly Beach narrowly rejected the amendment.

Johnson knows that changing the laws in South Carolina will require an effort to educate the public until resistance is weakened and stereotypes fall away.

Still, she said, 'I don't have to change everyone. I just have to change 50 percent plus one.'

Oran P. Smith, president of the nonprofit Palmetto Family Council, said he believes that's a very long shot. The council is a faith-based educational foundation that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. It works to strengthen the relationship between parent and child as well as to encourage sexual responsibility.

The constitutional amendment was drafted with an eye toward the future, he said. In the event that more states legalize same-sex marriage, the amendment would guard South Carolina's position against it, Smith said.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he believes the constitutional amendment 'truly reflects the values of South Carolina on marriage.'

'What people do in their own private homes is up to them. We're not trying to cause gays or lesbians any problems in how they live their lives, but when it comes to marriage and what marriage is about, I think South Carolinians hold pretty strong opinions,' Martin said. 'I know I do.'

A change in attitude

But Johnson, Redman-Gress and others note things are changing, even in South Carolina.

If voters in conservative Utah would put her, an openly gay candidate, in state office, Johnson reasoned that the same is possible in South Carolina.

Charlie Smith's near election victory seven years ago is one indication; another is Linda Ketner's strong showing in 2008, when the openly gay Charleston businesswoman and philanthropist ran for the 1st Congressional District against then-incumbent U.S. Rep. Henry Brown. She received 48 percent of the vote.

The shifting attitudes encourage many equality advocates.

For Amanda Hollinger and Tasha Gandy, who have been together nine years and are raising a toddler together, living in Charleston has been pretty trouble-free. Family, co-workers, neighbors and employers all have been supportive, Hollinger said.

'It's not just in New York,' she said. 'A lot of people realize, whatever their political leaning, that love is love.'

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