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Printed from the Charlotte Observer - www.CharlotteObserver.com
Posted: Monday, Sep. 15, 2008

Executive shares stories about growing up gay

By Pam Kelley
Published in: News
  • Stories of growing up gay from actor Richard Chamberlain, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), designer Nate Berkus, activist Candace Gingrich, furniture designer Bob Williams and the Right Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop.

    A 2001 sermon from Myers Park Baptist Church by the Rev. Stephen Shoemaker that analyzes passages in the Bible that refer to homosexual conduct.

    Matt Comer of Charlotte, editor of Q-Notes, who grew up in a conservative Baptist church in Winston-Salem and remembers his pastor suggesting that “queers” be sent to sea on a ship with a hole in the side.

    Brent Childers of Hickory, a straight Southern Baptist who believed until recently that homosexuality was a sin. Now executive director of Faith in America, he offers an apology for promoting a climate that makes it easy for gay people to be hated or even killed.


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    As a teenager, Mitchell Gold lived a dual life. One minute, he'd be talking and laughing with family or friends. The next, he'd feel a black cloud descend, reminding him of his enormous, unsolvable problem: He was attracted to men.

    He vowed to himself that if he couldn't change by the time he turned 21, he'd commit suicide. He never changed, but his outlook eventually did.

    Today, Gold co-owns the Taylorsville-based Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams, one of the country's most successful furniture companies.

    Now he's editor, with sister-in-law Mindy Drucker, of a book aimed at sparing gay teens the pain he suffered: “Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America” (Greenleaf Book Group Press, $23.95).

    The new book includes stories from actor Richard Chamberlain and U.S. Rep. Barney Frank as well as area contributors – Charlotte's Matt Comer, editor of Q-Notes; Hickory's Brent Childers, a straight evangelical Christian who has renounced his anti-gay views; and Myers Park Baptist Church Minister Stephen Shoemaker, whose church was booted from the Baptist State Convention for welcoming homosexuals.

    It also includes a range of painful stories – told by actors, ministers, business leaders, students – who've been bullied at school, condemned by churches, disowned by parents. Many describe self-hatred, depression and suicidal thoughts.

    Mary Lou Wallner, who runs a ministry to educate people about the consequences of homophobia, tells of her daughter Anna's suicide. Before her death, the young woman had cut off contact with her mother because Wallner refused to accept her as a lesbian.

    “What would I do now? Grab my toothbrush, credit card, and car keys, jump in the car, drive to where she lives, and tell her I love her no matter what,” Wallner says in the book. “I did not do that, and now I never can.”

    Americans split

    A new poll finds Americans split on homosexuality, with 48 percent believing it's a sin, while 45 percent do not.

    Charlotte's First Baptist Church Minister Mark Harris, who believes it is a sin, doubts conservative Christians will buy Gold's arguments.

    While many contributors to Gold's book describe knowing they were gay from a young age, Harris and others argue homosexuality is a choice, and the Bible says it's an abomination before God.

    “I just don't buy that it's a natural inclination,” he says.

    Still, Harris says he'd welcome anyone featured in the book to worship at his church. “We love the person caught in the sin of homosexuality. It's the sin we hate.”

    Gold, however, remains optimistic.

    “Where I live,” he says, “so many people say to me privately, ‘I don't know what to believe.' We think there's a big crack in the wall.”

    He plans to donate 1,000 books to churches to reach people with anti-gay views. “One thing I know: These are good people…. They don't realize the harm they're causing.”

    Harris says he'd pass up any free books. “I would most likely not become a distributor of that philosophy.”

    Largest employer

    Gold, 57, moved from New York to Alexander County in 1989 with business partner Bob Williams, then also his life partner. The two men bought a house in Hickory.

    With more than 700 employees, their company is Alexander County's largest employer. Its comfortable furniture, sold by Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and others, is widely sold and imitated.

    Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams has also won acclaim for family-friendly business practices, including an on-site day-care, a gourmet cafeteria and an indoor walking track.

    Gold is a vocal advocate for gay rights. In 2005, he created Faith In America, a nonprofit aimed at ending religion-based prejudice against gay people. In 2007, the group ran an ad campaign documenting how some churches had used the Bible to justify slavery and oppose voting rights for women and blacks.

    Though gay rights has been a passion, Gold says he never dwelt on the ordeal of growing up gay until a reporter's question a few years ago triggered painful memories.

    Gold grew up in New Jersey in the 1960s. The only gay people he knew about were a few TV caricatures and a dress designer and beautician viewed as oddities in town. In his book, he recounts nights of crying himself to sleep.

    His life may have been saved, he says, by a psychiatrist who told him homosexuality wasn't something to be cured. Eventually, he and his family accepted that he was gay.

    “I often wonder what my life would have been like if, when I was a teenager, there had been laws condemning hate crimes, protecting me in the workplace and housing, and providing for marriage equality,” he writes in “Crisis.” “I would have grown up feeling whole and equal – not marginalized and less than others.”

    This week, Gold's publisher holds book-launching parties in New York and Washington. But the book has already been launched at Gold's factory. He has made copies available to any employee who wants one.

    Recently, Gold says, one employee told him he'd given her a different way to think, and she believed he was going to change people.

    “That,” he says, “was worth a million dollars.”

    Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271; pkelley@charlotteobserver.com.

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