GASTONIA, N.C. — Not quite there yet. Growing, but still small. On its way.
That’s what community leaders in Gaston County say about their neighbors, the county’s and Gastonia’s climate for LGBT acceptance and the beginnings of an organized progressive and LGBT community.
Located less than an hour’s drive from Charlotte, Gastonia is home to over 70,000 people. It isn’t the smallest city in the world, but it isn’t the largest either. Fortunately, Gastonia is close to Charlotte. For many LGBT Gastonians, an escape to Charlotte provides social, political and community involvement opportunities. But, at home in Gaston, some leaders are working to build up their local LGBT community.
Robert Kellogg, vice president and co-founder of PFLAG Gaston, thinks the area needs some work, but isn’t quite willing to count it out.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re right where we need to be, but I definitely don’t want to give the impression that gays and lesbians aren’t welcome or wouldn’t find a community here,” he said. “There is a growing community, and, of course, there are some issues here and there, some residual homophobia, but like any large or small town, people are learning to accept one another.”
Kellogg said he thinks most Gaston residents have a “live and let live” attitude. He admits that kind of atmosphere can be deceiving at times, but also lends potential for growth.
Last spring, Kellogg had written a guest editorial in the local newspaper and issued a challenge for straight allies to stand up and be counted among those in support of LGBT equality. Amy Sifford, who’s always considered herself an ally, but never spoken out publicly, took up the gauntlet.
In May, Kellog and Sifford co-founded the beginnings of what would become PFLAG Gaston. Sifford now serves as president of the chapter, which has been an official affiliate of the national group for about six months.
“Becoming a chapter — that was a process,” she said. “We were able to do all that, get all the paperwork in and get our affiliate status. We also were able to get our non-profit status with North Carolina.”
The group has grown steadily over the past few months. Kellogg said an average of 25 people attend their monthly meetings and the group has hosted guest speakers and screened LGBT-themed films and documentaries. And, in their short life thus far, PFLAG Gaston has managed to grab the local spotlight and to educate the public on issues of equality in fairness.
At the end of February, state Sen. Jim Forrester — a Republican who has been the darling of anti-LGBT activists pushing for a constitutional amendment banning marriage for same-sex couples — told members of the Iredell County Young Republicans that “slick city lawyers and homosexual lobbies and African-American lobbies are running Raleigh.”
Kellogg and PFLAG Gaston saw an opening. They publicly invited Forrester to a PFLAG meeting and requested that he come and speak to his LGBT constituents. The senator eventually declined, saying he didn’t think the meeting would be positive.
“I doubt I will go to the meeting, but I appreciate the invitation anyhow,” Forrester told The Gaston Gazette. “I don’t think it would be a constructive meeting. I think it would just increase animosity toward me, and I don’t want that.”
While Forrester never showed for a PFLAG meeting, Kellogg and Sifford were able to draw much needed attention to the state of LGBT progress in small town Gastonia. It’s progress that, while slow, is still happening.
Mickey Sadler, human resources director for the City of Gastonia, told qnotes his department and the city manager are currently working on creating a new policy handbook. The goal is to take specific operating polices out of the city’s code of ordinances and place them in a policy manual over which the city manager has authority. Among the changes included in the draft is an equal employment policy inclusive of sexual orientation.
“The city is not going to tolerate [discrimination based on sexual orientation],” Sadler said. “It would just be nice to have that in writing.”
For Gastonia, the move could be a big but easy step toward a more equal and inclusive community. After all, it took Charlotte, a city with nearly three-quarters of a million people, almost a decade to get sexual orientation in its policies and regulations — a progressive, painfully obvious move made only a month ago. That Gastonia officials are considering the change without fanfare or controversy is a victory in and of itself.
Small town gay bar
No local gay community is complete without the obligatory “small town gay bar.” It’s a meeting place, watering hole and social hub. Or, at least it used be before the days of the internet. In many small towns, though, the gay bar still functions as a kind of make-shift community center. People meet (and maybe find love, even if for a night), people drink and people have the opportunity to learn. If a small town has access to LGBT or friendly publications, the gay bar is likely the only place to find it.
Gastonia’s one gay bar, Night Owls, recently changed ownership. Longtime drag performer Sabrina Love and friend Ricky Burns II bought the business from former owner Teresa Bryant in February.
Love said she felt it was important to keep the bar open and operating for the folks who don’t necessarily have the option to go to Charlotte.
“You’ve got so many small towns around here,” she said. “If they were to drive that extra 30 or 40 minutes to go to Scorpio, that would be a stretch. In this area of the state, there are a lot of folks who have less money. They aren’t from a larger metropolitan area. They stick around the areas they know.”
Burns believes any small town’s gay bar is a key component to local LGBT life.
“Gastonia doesn’t have any other place. This is the only one they’ve got,” he said. “It is important for the community because without a place to go the community is hindered in growth.”
Like Kellogg and Sifford, though, Love and Burns aren’t willing to kid themselves on the state of acceptance in Gaston County.
“Gastonia is becoming more progressive, but I don’t believe it is there yet,” Burns said.
Love is a bit more optimistic. “I’d say Gastonia is about where Charlotte was 10 years ago. They are slowly breaking through. I think two men or women could easily go out out, meet at a restaurant or a coffee shop. I don’t think there is a level of danger in that left anymore.”
Among Kellogg and Sifford’s continued goals is ensuring LGBT youth in Gaston County are safe and have access to welcoming resources.
“We just had a meeting and several representatives from the school system came to our last meeting,” Kellogg said. “We really want to work closely with schools making sure LGBT youth have the proper resources if they come out to a teacher or a counselor. If they are being bullied, we want to make sure that the teachers or faculty are properly trained and know how to handle situations like that.”
PFLAG Gaston’s quest for safe schools will likely be aided by the School Violence Prevention Act, a law passed by the state legislature last year requiring all school systems to adopt LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policies and conduct comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-harassment training for school faculty and staff.
The safety of youth is an issue near and dear to Sifford’s heart. As a young counseling professional in the 1980s, Sifford was faced with a heartbreaking situation that solidified her role as a straight ally.
“My first job was at a group home,” she recounted. “We housed adolescents referred or diverted from the courts. During their short-term placement they had to go to the community school assigned to the group home. We had a 15-year-old young man who identified as gay and he liked to be a bit flamboyant. He wore a bit of make-up and painted his fingernails black.”
When Sifford attempted to enroll him in the community school, the principal and assistant principal refused.
“’I’m not going to enroll him in my school because his appearance will create a disturbance,’ the principal told us,” Sifford said.
Sifford was eventually able to get the principal to back down, but the damage had been done. The teen was enrolled in another school and was eventually moved to a more permanent home placement.
“Six months later he committed suicide,” Sifford said. “From that moment on I was able to understand on some deeper level just how destructive this prejudice and this homophobia can be. I still get emotional talking about it. That’s how powerful that experience was for me. I knew from that moment on I was going to be an advocate.”
Sifford hopes her work with PFLAG Gaston will help move her community forward. When it does, she plans on stepping down and handing leadership of the local LGBT community over to the people she’s helping to serve.
“Our future leader will emerge from all of this,” she said. “I’ll hang in there until that person whoever he or she may be emerges.” : :