Ga. town suffers unwanted fame for anti-gay action

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Marietta, Ga. -- Most residents of Cobb County didn't consider gay rights fighting words until recently -- not even the gays and lesbians who live here.

The heart of this Atlanta suburb lies in Marietta Square, a tiny park bordered by narrow streets, a friendly drug store and antiques shops. For more than 100 years, the square has been a gathering place for those who live here, a place for Fourth of July festivals, Jaycee jamborees, religious meetings, a Ku Klux Klan march.

In August 1993, county commissioners passed a resolution condemning what they called the "gay lifestyle." In doing so, they thrust the community full throttle into a national debate about homosexuality -- and, for the first time, the little square became a rallying spot for the community's gays and lesbians.

Although Cobb County may be the first officially to decry homosexual lifestyles, at least 20 other jurisdictions have passed or considered anti-gay measures, and residents of two states -- Idaho and Oregon -- will vote this fall on whether to prohibit laws protecting the civil rights of homosexuals.

And on Capitol Hill this week, the Clinton administration endorsed proposed legislation that would, for the first time, ban job discrimination among civilian employers on the basis of sexual orientation.

As the Cobb County measure's first anniversary approaches, the debate surrounding it has intensified -- and focused national attention on the county itself. Next month gays and lesbians -- as well as heterosexuals -- plan to gather again at a human rights rally in Marietta Square to mark the occasion.

"We want to keep awareness about the resolution alive. This is about human rights, and our goal is to get the resolution rescinded," said David Mayersky, co-chair of the Cobb Citizens Coalition, a gay and lesbian group.

Because the county is the scheduled site of some 1996 Olympic volleyball games, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games faces growing pressure from national gay groups to move the games beyond county lines. Last week, amid complaints from gays and lesbians that he was moving too slowly, committee president Bill Payne announced that he was very close to picking an alternative site.

The argument took on a personal tone three weeks ago, when the 24-year-old daughter of County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne, who supported the anti-gay measure, stunned county residents by announcing that she is a lesbian. A week later, despite increasing outside pressure, the commission rejected a second resolution aimed at mollifying the gay community.

Meanwhile, some residents, who until recently had remained silent, are stepping into the fray. "If the resolution had said Jews or Hispanics, the community would have been up in arms long ago," said Rabbi Steven Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth, who is an organizer of next month's rally.

"Up until a few months ago I was inactive. I'm not gay, I have no gay relatives, and I don't have very many gay friends," he said. "But this is ultimately an issue of human rights. How can I sit or stand idly by?"

Tradition runs deep here in Cobb County, as do controversial stands. This is home, after all, to Kennesaw, the city that countered gun control efforts by requiring heads of households to keep a firearm.

Last month, Cobb County leaders lost a 2 1/2 -year court battle to keep a plaque with the 10 Commandments on the side of the county courthouse.

Other facets of the county's history point to a legacy of intolerance. In a notorious incident, a Jewish factory superintendent named Leo Frank, who had been convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old girl, was kidnapped from his jail cell in 1915. He was lynched near Marietta Square by a group of Cobb County residents; no one was prosecuted for his death. Frank was pardoned posthumously in 1986.

Marietta is also the home of Edward R. Fields, a founding official of the National States Rights Party, a now-defunct white supremacy group, and a Ku Klux Klan organizer. Mr. Fields now publishes an anti-Semitic and racist monthly called "The Truth At Last."

The issue of homosexuality, once raised in Cobb County, has proven long-lived and divisive. The battle over the resolution has split the religious community: 271 ministers signed a petition supporting the resolution and 37 opposed it. One is rumored to have signed both.

Statewide, homosexuality is part of a number of platforms in next fall's elections. At least one candidate is promising to fight the measure if he wins.

"A lot of us think the whole thing is out of control, and both sides have shown a lot of hate," said Kathleen Caldwell, who moved from Atlanta to Smyrna three years ago. "But it has also given us a lot to think about."

Accusations of inaccuracy, of racism, of extremism have flown back and forth. According to the Neighbors Network, an Atlanta-based organization that tracks hate crime, the resolution's backers have ties with extreme right-wing religious groups and with racist organizations.

The resolution's supporters, however, deny involvement with either. The efforts of homosexuals nationwide to gain "special rights" inspired the measure, they said.

"It is not just their lifestyle," said Gordon J. Wysong, the county commissioner who wrote the resolution. "It is the platform they endorsed in Washington in 1993 when they very clearly laid out their agenda."

He cited domestic partnership benefits, efforts to lower the age of sexual consent and school lessons that include homosexuality as particular concerns.

Two events catalyzed support in Cobb County. The local Theatre in the Square last year presented a Terrance McNally play, "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," which infuriated some residents with references to homosexuality.

In nearby Atlanta, about the same time, city officials attempted to extend health benefits to live-in partners of city employees. The effort was declared unconstitutional by the state's attorney general.

"What happens in Atlanta affects us. Someone needs to speak up," Mr. Wysong said.

Not only did the resolution pass, but a few weeks later, the commission cut all financial support for the arts.

"This was a chance for government to lead," Mr. Wysong said.

Resolution supporters say efforts by gays and lesbians to gain greater social acceptance are "encroachments on family values."

"Homosexuality is not a threat, but a concern, as to what family values are all about," said the Rev. Randell R. Mickler of Bethel United Methodist Church, who says his sister is a lesbian.

"We can always love and embrace the sinner but we can't condone what the Bible says is sin," he said.

On the other side are those who call the resolution discriminatory. "To say that this is not a gay-bashing resolution flies in the face of reason," said William A. Cooper, the only commissioner to vote against the resolution.

What confounds Mr. Cooper most is that the resolution, although it is an official opinion and not a law, has the appearance of interfering in people's lives.

"Many of us consider ourselves conservative Republicans, and one of the premises of that is less government," Mr. Cooper said.

"I think there's a silent majority out there that doesn't agree with the gay lifestyle, but also feels that we don't need to mandate lifestyle."

Other Cobb County residents echo that opinion. "I think their lifestyle is wrong, mind you, but you can't tell people how to live," said Mary Hage as she worked in a church-run thrift shop near Marietta Square.

"Homosexuality makes me uncomfortable," said Daryl Montie, a 25-year-old county liquor store salesman. "But [politicians] should have left that issue alone."

Some gays and lesbians here said that they, too, would have preferred to keep silent about their sexual orientation. Many moved to the county for the same reasons -- jobs, low crime rates and the promise of a low-key life -- that drew others. The resolution forced them to become activists, they said.

"Suburbia is a place for quiet living. The people who have stepped out to fight this didn't want to. We moved here because of the low taxes, the good houses, the trees," said Mr. Mayersky, a financial analyst and co-chair of the Cobb Citizens Coalition, the gay rights group founded in response to the resolution.

Until last year, there was one gay organization in Cobb County: a lesbian club called WINK, which throws monthly parties, said its founder, Lynne Patterson.

When the county commission publicly condemned homosexuality, "Someone said to me, 'Are you organized?' " said Ms. Patterson.

"I said, 'We've got kids playing Little League baseball, we're returning our books to the library and we're mowing our grass. Why would we be organized?' "

As the controversy drags on, county residents say they are weary of arguing. But what bothers them most about the resolution and its aftermath -- right or wrong -- is being told what to do.

To Smyrna resident Ms. Caldwell, the resolution touches on issues of personal and political freedom. The commissioners shouldn't have issued an opinion on people's lifestyles, she said. But, mounting pressure from gays and lesbians outside the county is equally intrusive.

As Olympic committee members appear ready to bow to that pressure, she said, "I don't care if we lose the Olympics. Well, we care about the Olympics, but we don't want to be forced."

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