Twenty years before House Bill 2, Charlotte was in the national spotlight for another controversy centering on the LGBTQ community.
The flashpoint then was the Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s production of “Angels in America.” Tony Kushner’s two-part Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which clocked in at nearly seven hours, was “a candid treatment of gay life and AIDS in the 1980s,” as the New York Times put it in its 1996 article about the cultural tensions then dividing Charlotte – a city in the Bible Belt that was trying hard to become world class.
Here are five things you should know about this episode in Charlotte’s history, which precipitated battles among competing politicians, pastors and protesters:
1. The show went on only after a last-minute order from a judge.
Less than three hours before curtain time at the new North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Superior Court Judge Marvin Gray instructed the district attorney’s office not to act on threats to arrest some members of the cast on charges of indecent exposure. Conservatives were up in arms about reports that the play included male frontal nudity. It did, but Kushner and supporters of the play said the scene – featuring a character with AIDS disrobing so a nurse can inspect his lesions – was clinical, not titillating. Judge Gray ruled that the nudity “appears to constitute artistic expression” and was “not properly the subject of criminal prosecution.” Opening Night in March 1996 was sold out.
2. Then-Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory wanted to tone down the play.
When McCrory learned about the play’s graphic nature from a newspaper article, he asked the city attorney to research the legality of allowing full frontal nudity in a building that receives taxpayer support. He even suggested that the play be toned down by making changes in the nude scene. He urged Charlotte Rep to “use some common sense” by altering the scene. “The Pulitzer Prize does not give you license to break the law.” But playwright Kushner nixed the idea of any changes to what he’d written.
3. Charlotte was cast as a growing, divided city.
The controversy in Charlotte over the play and public funding of the arts drew national media attention as Charlotteans on both sides made their cases in the streets, in churches, in corporate suites and at city council and county commission meetings.
“Homosexuality is not art,” read signs carried by protesters outside the performing arts center. Those standing up for free artistic expression had their signs, too. “World class?” read one. “Try backwater.”
The New York Times sized up the friction this way: “As the country’s third largest banking center, the city is a New South boom town proud of its new skyscrapers and recently acquired sports teams. But is also a place with a conservative religious tradition. The telephone book lists 713 churches in a county of 580,000 people.”
Ticket sales were brisk in Charlotte for “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Then, later in 1996, Charlotte-born evangelist Billy Graham packed what is now Bank of America Stadium for a crusade that went on for several nights.
4. A year after the play closed, the drama moved to the halls of government.
Democrats controlled the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners going into 1997. But when Hoyle Martin, one of the five Democrats, decided to side with the four Republicans on the issue of public funding of the arts, the “Gang of Five” was born. Martin, who said his religion taught him that homosexuality was a sin, preferred to call himself and the like-minded commissioners the “Moral Five.” During a tense meeting in April, Martin and the Republicans – Bill James, Tom Bush, George Higgins and Joel Carter – managed to cut more than $2 million from the Arts & Science Council, which had financially supported Charlotte Rep’s production of “Angels in America.” The vote came after nearly six highly charged hours, during which the commissioners heard from pastors, business leaders, ordinary citizens, and each other.
“We as a public have a definite interest in the arts,” said GOP commissioner Tom Bush, who favored the cuts. “On the other hand, do we give money to the arts ... and say spend it as you desire? Do we not have a duty to be a steward of the public’s money?”
Democratic Commissioner Parks Helms, who was against the cuts, was somber as he spoke before the vote: “This is a sad day in this community. If you can’t see it, you have missed the most terrible, terrible thing that has happened in this community in many, many years. Please watch us and please forgive us for what we are about to do.”
In the end, the vote was to deny county money to groups that offer “exposure to perverted forms of sexuality.”
5. The Gang of Five rose, then fell
In December of 1997, Martin and the Republicans on the county commission ousted Helms as chairman.
But that was their last hurrah.
After the 1998 election, only one of the five – Bill James – remained on the board. Two had been defeated, two others weren’t on the ballot.
And by 1999, funding for the Arts & Science Council had been restored.
The New York Times contributed.