Recently, the two of us sat on Lexington Avenue reading Mountain Xpress aloud to each other. It’s something we do while we take in the goings-on in our neighborhood.
We live in downtown Asheville, and while we appreciate the quirky spunk of West Asheville, the almost rural feel of Fairview, the old-school Southern charm of Beaver Lake, downtown embodies what we truly love about this city — the local-business culture, good walking, the constant emergence and subsequent disappearance of first-rate street art (what some people call “graffiti”).
We were drawn to Asheville for all the reasons everyone is, but also because of where we come from and how unsafe many places can be for us. Both of us are Southern and queer: From our perspective, there isn’t a better place for Southern LGBT folks than Asheville. In the years Heather lived in Nashville, she often joked that Asheville might be the one Southern place where you faced a greater threat for being a homophobe than for being gay.
Lately, however, we worry that Asheville is increasingly resembling the Southern towns we’re from (Baton Rouge, La., and Gastonia, N.C.) and, in the process, becoming less safe for us and for the Asheville community we love.
We attended the Feb. 22 City Council meeting described by James Dye in a recent Mountain Xpress commentary [see “How Do You Spell ‘Respect,’” June 29], in which Asheville adopted a pro-LGBT ordinance. In fact, we walked to the City Building from our apartment in the late afternoon. We sat together, and for most of the meeting, we held hands — despite the disgusted looks and whispers.
That didn’t surprise us, because we knew there would be many in attendance who would virulently oppose the city ordinance, which notably outlaws bullying on city property. But we hadn’t anticipated feeling so nervous about leaving the building after the meeting that we quickly found the stairwell and literally ran home.
We hadn’t anticipated that in living together downtown, making Biltmore Avenue and Wall Street our neighborhood, we would be openly stared, pointed and laughed at on a daily basis.
We were shocked when, while walking home just after dark on a summer evening, two men who appeared to be lost (and thus, presumably, not local) began following us. They made several jokes that were hard to comprehend (as so much racist, sexist and homophobic humor is). We had only just closed our apartment building’s gate behind us when they tried to follow us in for what we imagine would not have been a very Asheville Zen-like scene.
True, we were holding hands. But that’s why we moved to Asheville — because it was a place where we believed we could.
Dye’s perhaps ironic comment was, “It’s alarmist, perhaps even ‘a lie from the pit of hell,’ to intimate that such violence could happen here,” referring to the murder of gay-rights activist David Kato Kisule in Kampala. Increasingly, however, it’s quite realistic to suggest that such violence is not only possible but probable here.
With Asheville’s exploding popularity as a Southern tourist destination, this city will see more and more visitors who may be unaware that last year, advocate.com named Asheville the 12th gayest city in America. To be sure, some will be delighted that in a starkly conservative part of the country, Asheville is a haven for all things progressive. But others will undoubtedly be shocked to learn who populates this town.
Research on hate crimes has shown that the perceived ascendancy of minorities elicits a kind of rage that frequently results in verbal threats and sometimes violence. The ever-growing tourism resulting from so much Asheville buzz in the national media, together with recent gay victories both locally and nationally (congratulations, New York!) create the potential for Asheville’s own series of unfortunate events.
The Asheville Grown campaign has taken off. Almost every single storefront in our neighborhood features the smartly designed “Love Asheville” or “Local is the New Black” posters. This campaign resonates with people who live here and LOVE that they do. And while the regional economy depends on tourism dollars, it’s up to the locals to preserve our unique identity by resisting the importation of that which doesn’t jibe with our culture.
Asheville is a great town; Asheville is a gay town. These facts are inextricably linked. Many of the things that make Asheville great — the vibrancy of art, the culinary innovation, the preservation of the landscape, the delightful range of family life — are brought to you by LGBTQ Ashevilleans.
In response to tourists who might be shocked or disgusted to discover our gay town, consider initiating a personal public-service campaign. Challenge snide comments. Catch the eye of people staring, nod and smile. Confront the homophobia endemic to so many American towns. Keeping Asheville gay is part of keeping Asheville great.
The most popular Asheville Grown poster features the provocative slogan “Love Asheville. Put Your $ Where Your ❤ Is. Buy Local.” We issue the following challenge: Love Asheville. Put Your Heart Where the Love Is. Love Gays.
— Heather Talley is regular contributor to www.thefeministwire.com. Lee Crayton is a Ph.D. candidate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.