In small town America the LGBT community isn’t often given the chance to see its stories and lives held up in positive, public discussion. Even so, in communities like the foothills town of Hickory, N.C., people yearn to learn more about LGBT people and a surprisingly large number of folks are becoming more and more welcoming and affirming.

A year ago, North Carolina businessman and philanthropist Mitchell Gold, editor of “CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America,” organized a panel of speakers from his book in a small coffee shop in downtown Hickory. I thought on my drive up from Charlotte we’d likely see a small crowd and probably run into anti-gay voices or protests.

CNN journo Soledad OBrien interviews Mitchell Gold
CNN journo Soledad O'Brien interviews Mitchell Gold

My expectations couldn’t have been proven more wrong. By the end of the night more than 120 people had squeezed into the standing room-only crowd and not a single hostile voice was heard. The community members gathered there — of all ages, sexual orientations and faiths — listened intently to Gold, me and another “Crisis” author and a gay Hickory man relate our stories of growing up gay and our journies toward reconciliation.

Last year’s experience was repeated at the end of last month, albeit on a much larger scale.

Lenior-Rhyne University invited Gold to speak as a part of their 2009-2010 Visiting Writers Series. CNN journalist Soledad O’Brien joined Gold on stage and quizzed him on his book, religion-based anti-LGBT prejudice and the ways in which people can help solve what Gold has called a “silent mental health crisis” among America’s LGBT youth today.

Lenior-Rhyne is a small, private school affiliated with the increasingly welcoming and affirming Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Despite their relationship with the denomination and its inclusion of sexual orientation in the campus’ non-discrimination policy, I was told the school had yet to hold such a large, public discussion on LGBT people and homosexuality and religion. The night was a step forward for the campus, its students and Hickory as a whole.

As a participant on the 2007 Soulforce Equality Ride, I encountered schools across the eastern continental U.S. similar, in some respects, to Lenior-Rhyne. Perhaps 10 years ago, this Piedmont school might have been on the Equality Ride’s route. But now, the campus is making progress. Students have formed a gay-straight alliance and its president was given the opportunity to introduce Gold and O’Brien. Unlike most of the schools we visited in 2007, many youth at Lenior-Rhyne aren’t afraid to openly identify as LGBT. The school is a model for private Christian institutions striving to serve God’s purpose and embrace all God’s children.

When the event was opened up to audience questions, I was certain we’d hear plenty of anti-gay sentiment. Like that panel at the Hickory coffee shop a year earlier, however, I was surprised to hear very little of the harmful rhetoric Gold had just spent 45 minutes addressing. The overwhelming majority of the audience agreed with Gold and applauded his efforts.

But, one local pastor was displeased with Gold’s message. He said it was unfair to paint him and other Christians as participating in some sort of bigotry. He said he had sought understanding and came to his anti-gay conclusions through faith. He said, in effect, that Christians should be allowed to “love the sinner, yet hate the sin” without being chastised for the harm they cause.

Gold’s response was short, but powerful: Just because a person says something harmful in a nice way doesn’t mean what is said is any less harmful to the one hearing it.

Despite painful losses at ballot boxes across the country and persistent anti-gay prejudice from some, our community is still moving forward. People are willing to listen and learn. They are willing to embrace their LGBT brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. As we continue to address issues of equality, and speak on issues of anti-gay, religion based prejudice, the American public is turning around.

And, if there is hope in places like Hickory, then there is hope for our nation and world. : :

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.