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Cari Searcy, left, and Kim McKeand with their son, Khaya, at their home in Mobile.
AP Photo by Rob Carr
Cari Searcy, left, and Kim McKeand with their son, Khaya, at their home in Mobile.

Dixie slowly shifting toward gay acceptance
Attitudes are changing, but nothing is settled yet

By David Crary
AP National Writer

BIRMINGHAM — It's a Bible Belt state, almost certain to toughen its prohibition of gay marriage next month. A major candidate for governor has called homosexuality evil, and a national gay magazine branded Alabama the worst state for gays and lesbians.

So why does Howard Bayless want to stay?

His roots are here, he says. So are his friends. He's partial to the congenial neighborhood in Birmingham that he and other gays helped rescue from decline.

"This is where I've carved out a niche for myself," says Bayless, who has spent most of his 40 years in Alabama. "We've created our community here, and I don't want to leave. I'd rather do the extra work of making my neighbors realize who and what I am."

Leader of Equality Alabama, a statewide gay-rights group, Bayless is one of many with the same conviction. In Mobile, Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, Alabama's gays and lesbians — like their counterparts throughout the U.S. heartland — are slowly, steadily gaining more confidence and finding more acceptance.

That doesn't mean relations between gays and other Americans are settled. Gay rights causes still endure their share of setbacks — amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman have passed in 19 states and Alabama is poised to become No. 20 by an overwhelming vote on June 6.

But in the long view, there has been slow, powerful momentum building in the other direction: the quashing of anti-sodomy laws, the adoption of domestic-partner policies by countless companies. Recent polls suggest opposition to gay marriage has peaked, and a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning it is expected to fall far short of the required two-thirds support when the Senate votes on it next month.

"What Americans see increasingly is there's no negative impact on their own lives to have gays and lesbians living out in the open," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "They go from an abstract idea to a real person with a real name and a real story. That makes all the difference."

Mobile couple

Kim McKeand and Cari Searcy experience that phenomenon daily in Mobile, where they live openly as a lesbian couple raising a son, Khaya, whom McKeand gave birth to in September.

"We're out to everybody," said Searcy, 30. "We know all the neighbors. Everyone else on our street is straight. They say, 'Hey.' They all wanted to come over and see the baby."

The couple met at college in Texas and moved to Mobile five years ago with $1,000 between them and no jobs, but their careers have blossomed. Searcy works for a video production company, McKeand for a broadcaster that provides domestic partner health benefits covering them both.

"I know we have a long way to go, but we've come a long way already," Searcy said.

The couple loves Mobile — but might consider leaving if Searcy's application to become Khaya's adoptive parent is rejected in court.

"How can they say that we're not a family?" Searcy asked as she cradled Khaya in her arms.

The courts weren't accommodating to social worker Jill Bates, who lives in Birmingham with her lesbian partner. She lost custody of her daughter, now 16, to her ex-husband after a legal battle in which her sexual orientation was held against her.

Yet Bates remains undaunted.

"One thing that gives me hope is seeing all my daughter's friends, even some who go to a fundamentalist church," Bates said. "To them, it's just so not a big deal."

There are other signs of acceptance. An openly lesbian candidate, Patricia Todd of Birmingham, has a strong chance of winning a seat in Alabama's House of Representatives this year — and that would be a first for the Legislature. Gay-straight alliances are active at most universities. But the trends that hearten gays and their allies concern Alabamians who support the same-sex marriage ban and believe homosexuality is sinful.

Dismayed

They are dismayed that same-sex partnerships are recognized in three New England states, they resented the empathic portrayals of gays on "Will & Grace" and in "Brokeback Mountain" — and they wonder if states like Alabama can resist what the Rev. Tom Benz calls "the erosion of traditional values."

"We're here in the Bible Belt, but all these things that happen around us affect us," said Benz, who combines mission work in Ukraine with presidency of the conservative Alabama Clergy Council.

"There's a feeling here of 'I want my country back.' "

Benz lives in a suburb of Montgomery. One of his political allies is school board employee Donna Goodwin.

"I have a lesbian cousin — I can continue to love her without approving of the way she leads her life," she said, disputing the idea that familiarity means total acceptance of gays. "We see each other three or four times a year. We hug. We find out how each other is doing — but I don't ask her about her girlfriend."

Gay activists can readily list recent cases of anti-gay violence — incidents that contributed to Alabama's ranking as the least gay-friendly state in Out magazine. But Goodwin says most Alabamians, however conservative, strive for civility.

"We believe in hospitality — being kind to people whether you approve of their lifestyle or not," she said. "But the homosexual community is trying to force us into accepting something that's immoral."

One development that worries her is the increased visibility of gay-rights causes at Alabama's colleges, including The University of Alabama, which her son attended.

"The university breaks down the moral values of children," she said. "It's like an open door to whatever is popular at the time — a hang-loose, do-your-own-thing attitude. It's asking for trouble."

Meanwhile, at the campus in Tuscaloosa, political science department chairman David Lanoue sees no sweeping, pro-gay culture. But he does see young Alabamians getting messages they might not get at their local high schools and churches.

"Young people have a more liberal attitude toward sexual preference than their elders," Lanoue said. "Through the national media, they've been brought up on the message that gays and lesbians are part of our society."

Ashley Gilbert, a sophomore a Birmingham-Southern College, knew by age 15 that she was a lesbian, but waited until reaching college to let her family in Montgomery know. She's now president of the gay-straight alliance on campus and proud that more than half its members are straight.

"Everything that sticks out since I came out has been really positive," she said.

Not all young Alabamians find coming out so comfortable.

Patty Rudolph, wife of a doctor in the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, said her son knew by age 12 that he was gay, and by 16 chose to go to school in the Northeast because he felt — despite his family's support — that Alabama was too inhospitable.

The son is now 18 and returns home periodically.

"There's no overt ugliness," Rudolph said. "But he has a sense it isn't as open and welcoming a place as he wants it to be."

Rudolph has now plunged into a new world of activism.

She speaks at forums and heads the Birmingham chapter of a national support group, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

"By telling my family's story, it has a ripple effect," she said. "It humanizes the issue."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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