About an hour up the road from where I live now, in South Central Alabama, I had dinner last Saturday with a gaggle of queer folk in a rural trailer park. One of them had a brother named Billy Jack Gaither--until 1999, when two men savagely beat him and burned him on a pile of tires for being gay. Another one of the diners mentioned, with a casual flip of the hand, that he'd been gay-bashed twice around his home town. The third one just set her jaw and silently nodded, yep, yep, yep.
The 14 years I lived in the Triangle, I never once had a conversation like that. I do remember sitting around people's houses in Durham, their lofts in Raleigh, their condos in Carrboro, tut-tutting about the nice lesbian couple who was forced to move to New York for a year so they could adopt a child, or railing against Jesse Helms' latest homophobic antics, or shaking our heads over the state's medieval sodomy statute. We didn't talk much about gay-bashing, for the extremely good--and extremely inadequate--reason that it wasn't happening to us.
I mean, the closest thing to harassment that I experienced as a gay man in the Triangle was going out in public with my partner and having everybody be way, way too friendly. "Wel-come!" restaurant hostesses would sing out as we approached, and we'd know it was going to be another long, embarrassing meal. We had time to be bothered by overzealous friendliness; we didn't have to worry about getting our asses kicked when we walked out of the place.
Of course, anti-gay hate crimes and harassment do happen in North Carolina's seat of enlightenment. But when they happen, there's the small consolation that they're not routine. They're news. People are shocked. Action is taken. In fact, the first N.C. Pride march, in 1981, was organized to respond to a deadly gay-bashing at a local swimming hole.
In the 20-odd years since, the Triangle has been part of a revolution so quiet that even the revolutionaries hardly noticed it. Back in the early '80s, folks who wanted genuine queer culture--and genuine safety--still had no choice but to high-tail it to a handful of ultra-urban destinations: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, D.C. Now, the Triangle is part of a slowly expanding list of smaller cities and midsize metro areas where the sight of two women smooching in public is no more remarkable than a traffic jam.
Becoming one of America's islands of tolerance is one hell of an accomplishment, especially when your island sits smack in the middle of a state that kept Uncle Jesse in the U.S. Senate for 30 years. For gay people lucky enough to live in the Triangle, the benefits are abundant. You can be openly queer without feeling like you're walking around with a "kick me" sign. You can read honest coverage of queer issues in predominantly straight media outlets like The Independent. You can sit back, send your $50 a year to the Human Rights Campaign, and feel like you've done your bit for gay rights.
But there's something weird about living a life of such relative luxury when you know that just a few miles down the road, there's no shortage of places where being gay (or even suspected of it) means constantly looking over your shoulder, constantly wondering where the next taunt, the next wad of spit, the next blow might come from.
When you're queer in the Triangle, it's easy to forget about that big, grim reality. And it's considerably easier now than it was two decades ago.
On the N.C. Pride Web site, there's a black-and-white photo from that first statewide rally, way back in '81. The crowd is sparse, but what strikes me is that people are actually listening to the speaker. Hands are clapping, fists are raised. By the time of my last pride march, in 2000, speakers with political messages had become anachronistic afterthoughts. As thousands of us marched, or rather sauntered, through the streets of Durham, I remember one lone soul--probably some relic from the '80s--suggesting that we start a chant. You know, something along the lines of that old chestnut, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it." Nobody was up for it. "Chants are passe," one young marcher snapped, and we went back to shuffling along in our quiet way.
Looking back, I can't help wondering--and worrying--if this was a sign. Maybe our quiet revolution had already sputtered out in luxurious silence, long before it could make any difference to our gay compatriots unlucky enough to live in Buies Creek or Rolesville or South Central Alabama.
Bob Moser, who edited The Independent from 1995 to 2000, is senior writer for the Intelligence Report, an investigative magazine published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.