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August 16, 2014

Rapid expansion of gay rights redefines being ‘out’

The legal and cultural expansion of gay rights causes discomfort as people face new openness in everyday life.

For members of Charlotte’s gay and lesbian community, there has always been out.

Now there’s a new out.

Rapid legal and cultural change are transforming interactions between the straight and gay worlds. For heterosexuals, that might mean more open – and potentially uncomfortable – conversations at home, church or work.

For gays, especially older ones, the pace of change can be startling. While it has opened new pathways into mainstream Charlotte, it has also disrupted intentionally private lives.

Finding a balance is not always easy.

Sunday, Cathy Fry and Joanne Marinaro will join tens of thousands of other LGBT members from around the country at Charlotte’s Gay Pride parade, one of the largest public celebrations of its kind in the South.

Yet back in the spring, when Fry asked her partner of three decades whether she wanted to join a much smaller group in a high-profile lawsuit against the state’s bans on gay marriage, Marinaro responded: “Are you crazy?”

And a few miles away from the thousands gathered on Tryon Street Sunday afternoon will be a successful Charlotte-area medical professional, who is dreading a short walk to the human resources department at work.

Taking advantage of the emerging right to marry, she and her lesbian partner of 28 years made their union legal with a May ceremony in New York’s Central Park. But she has put off changing her marital status on the company’s tax and insurance forms out of fear over what people might say. Nor has she told her father about her marriage.

“I’m really stressed,” she says.

Many of the people interviewed for this story came out decades ago, but only in selected parts of their lives. For years, the full truth about their sexuality was left unspoken at family gatherings, church suppers or the office water cooler.

Now, because of legal changes and the accompanying public debate over gay rights, there’s more talk – and potentially more tension – as gays grapple with new freedoms and their heterosexual families, friends and co-workers figure out how to respond.

For some, the adjustments to their everyday lives have proved difficult. The medical professional, who lives in an adjoining county, declined to be identified over concerns about the reaction from her family and co-workers.

She says her wedding exhilarated her. But she didn’t expect to worry so much about a few HR forms, or what other people might think.

“It’s a small office, and there’s a gossip tree,” she says. “I don’t think my job would be in jeopardy, but you just never know. You never know what kind of people might have certain problems with it.”

Safely isolated

The changes in status for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people challenge those “who are most secure in isolation,” says Charlotte psychologist Bob Barret, one of the city’s most veteran gay activists.

“They have isolated a part of themselves in a compartment. When they choose to take it out, they have a set of decisions to make on ‘whom am I going to let know this?’ They’re reluctant to do it all at once.”

Minister Nancy Kraft says she came across an example last year in Charlotte when she approached one of the grooms in a wedding service she performed.

He should have been happy. Instead, he was worried about holding his new spouse’s hand, not to mention actually kissing him, in front of hundreds of people. “I’m confronting my own homophobia,” he said.

Even young people, who have grown up in a more accepting society, are not immune from the the anxiety that comes with change.

Scout Rosen, a 19-year-old bisexual from Charlotte, says gay youths feel more pressure than ever to come out, long before many of them are emotionally able to handle the step.

“Even in my lifetime, there’s been a change to a more tolerant environment. But it comes with its own unique challenges,” says Rosen, president of the student LGBT group at Central Piedmont Community College.

“If we tell 13-year-olds, ‘It’s getting better,’ we’re setting them up for a world that we don’t quite have yet. We talk about tolerance more than we see it. And that can be a problem.”

On the straight side, the new openness on sexuality from LGBT relatives, friends or co-workers can collide with strongly held religious values, along with longstanding notions on what’s “normal” for families and workplaces.

For Dianne Troy, much of the sea change involving gay issues has coincided with the upheaval in her own life. Four years ago, her son Michael, a former prom king at Charlotte Catholic High, told her he was gay. Troy said she collapsed, sobbing with sadness and fear, into her son’s arms.

This weekend, she and Michael, now a UNC medical student, will ride together on a float in the Gay Pride parade. When Michael came out, she says, she came out, too. Today, she is the president of the Charlotte chapter of Parent, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG.

She marvels at the changes in her own life and community and hopes that North Carolina will evolve into a suitable home for her gay son and his friends.

“It’s just a wonderful time,” she says. “Every day, there’s news and headlines, and I’m filled with enthusiasm and hope because things are changing so quickly.”

Consequences

A 2013 nationwide study shows just how tricky the new interactions over sexuality can be.

The combined research team from Ohio State and Boston universities found that it’s “socially unacceptable” to either be open about being gay or to hold anti-gay feelings.

That same study showed that both the true size of the LGBT community and the bias against it routinely are under-reported. In other words, the new openness may trigger hidden resentments.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that any of this is consequence-free, that we will be greeted with applause,” Barret says.

Wayne Ewart of Charlotte experienced that first-hand when he and his partner visited a bank notary public to stamp the form needed to add Ewart to his partner’s insurance plan.

Instead of routinely handling the form, the notary asked “a million questions” in a public setting about what the men were trying to do, Ewart said.

“To be blunt, I was pissed off, I wasn’t embarrassed. I don’t say it was discrimination. I think it was ignorance,” Ewart says. “I learned that no matter how many advances are made, there will always be someone who will question them. It boils down to you can’t please everybody, and you can’t fit everybody’s model of what normal is.”

Even so, Americans appear to be changing their opinions about gays at a rapid clip.

That’s being driven both by the more-accepting attitudes of a younger generation, and a general population becoming more familiar – and comfortable – with LGBT members.

The number of people who say they know a lesbian or gay has spiked over the past 15 years, pollsters say. Those people are almost twice as likely to support gay marriage. Nearly half of the respondents in a recent McClatchy poll said they wouldn’t be upset if they learned one of their children is gay.

The support for LGBT rights wanes among older groups. And the Boston University and Ohio State study of 2013 showed that as participants were promised greater anonymity, they were 71 percent more likely to say it’s OK to discriminate against lesbians, gays or bisexuals.

Sizable numbers of the gay community remain hidden. According to a New York Times study, closeted lives appear to be more common in states, such as the Carolinas, that seem less tolerant.

Such extreme privacy carries significant risks. Research shows that emotional isolation can impact health as much as smoking, and it has been linked to substance abuse, depression and suicide.

‘That terrible thing’

Across North Carolina, the catalyst for many gays to take a larger public role was the passage of what is now commonly known as Amendment One, the state’s 2-year-old constitutional ban on gay marriage.

The vote in May 2012 was approved overwhelmingly in all but seven North Carolina counties, including Mecklenburg. In passing the amendment, many conservatives and African-Americans set political differences aside to vote along spiritual lines. Conservative Christians believe homosexuality is a sin and that traditional marriage between a man and a woman is ordained by God as a cornerstone of life.

Same-sex wedding ceremonies already were illegal in the state, so to couples such as Fry and Marinaro, the proposed amendment served as even more of an insult. Even so, they didn’t think it would pass.

When it did, by more than 60 percent, Fry, 58, had seen enough.

“The passage of that terrible thing set in motion what needed to be done,” she says. “The very freakin’ next day, President Obama came out in support of gay marriage. I knew then that this would change the world, that it would change everything.”

In April, Fry got a call from Kraft, the couple’s pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte. Several area churches and same-sex couples were joining a lawsuit against the state’s marriage bans.

Kraft thought the pair were the perfect choice to represent Holy Trinity, in part because they had decided not to be married until they could do it in North Carolina. She also thought there was little chance the two would take part.

“They’d been out, but they hadn’t been on the front lines,” the minister says. “They have lived these very, very quiet lives. Of course, when they first got together, it was impossible to be anything but quiet.”

After Kraft’s phone call, the couple talked for two days. Marinaro’s thoughts drifted to work. She worried what her boss might think.

She also remembered feeling “naked and proud” when her co-workers, with whom she had never discussed the details of her personal life, had taken a new hire to lunch to tell her: “Joanne is a lesbian, and it’s not a problem!”

Finally, the couple talked about their daughter, Kaley, a recent UNC Asheville graduate and indefatigable human rights activist.

“She was fighting more for our rights than we were. How could that be?” Fry says. “We wanted to be a role model for her. Because she’s always been a role model for us.”

So in late April, as a row of TV cameras peered in, Fry and Marinaro stood at the front of Holy Covenant United Church of Christ with rabbis, ministers and other same-sex couples to announce the filing of the country’s first faith-based lawsuit against marriage bans.

They talked to reporters. They appeared on the nightly news. They felt pride and hope for changes yet to come.

“It felt great to step out,” Marinaro says. “Now, there’s no turning back.” The McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.

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