déjà vu

Way back in the 1990s, Theatre on the Square in Marietta presented a play called “Lips Together, Teeth Apart”, written by American playwright Terrence McNally. The play was set on Fire Island, the brother of one of the characters had been a gay man who died of AIDS, and there were gay neighbors. But the characters consisted entirely of heterosexuals — two married couples vacationing together.

Even so, somebody up in Cobb County got all upset about this play and complained to the county commission, where Commissioner Gordon Wysong got together with televangelist Nelson Price to write what became known as the Cobb County Anti-Gay Resolution.

Cobb County deemed “the gay lifestyle” to be ”incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes” and, when their idea to ban the use of county money to support things that looked too gay seemed a little iffy, pulled all county money from the arts.

The play wasn’t the only thing that had gotten under the commissioners’ skin. They were upset with the president of the United States, y’see, so they decided this was a good way to make a point.

“We felt somebody had to stand up and give another point of view,” said Bill Byrne, the commission chief. “When the president of the United States begins to endorse gay rights and same-sex marriages as accepted lifestyles … we felt things were going too far.”

That was Bill Clinton, who had done the heinous thing of saying he wanted to end the military’s ban on gay and lesbian service members. And we know how that went down.

Needless to say, none of this went over well with the gay folk. There was a rolling roadblock on I-285, all kinds protests and lots and lots of words. Even the county commission chairman’s daughter got in touch with a reporter and came out as a lesbian, in a big way.

I wouldn’t be writing about this now but for the 1996 Olympic Games. They were in Atlanta, you may recall, although probably the only thing you remember is the bomb Eric Robert Rudolph planted at Centennial Olympic Park. We didn’t know that at the time. Instead, we all blamed a luckless security guard who probably kept the death toll at one when he spotted Rudolph’s bomb.

But before that, there was Cobb County. Seems that the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG, as we called it back then) had awarded preliminary volleyball matches to Cobb County. So all those protests — a disruption to the cauldron unveiling, an alternative torch run, demonstrations in Marietta Square — focussed on the one thing Atlanta had going for it then. The Centennial Olympics.

It took some time, but eventually — as in pulling teeth — ACOG stripped the volleyball games from Cobb and sent them to the University of Georgia in Athens, and for good measure rerouted the Olympic Torch’s journey to downtown Atlanta away from Cobb.

Gay activist Pavel Lebedev is arrested in Voronezh, Russia, for unveiling a rainbow flag during the Olympic Torch relay through that city.
Gay activist Pavel Lebedev is arrested in Voronezh, Russia, on January 19 for unveiling a rainbow flag during the Olympic Torch relay through that city.

Now comes the Winter Games of 2014, about to start in Sochi, Russia. For the occasion, the Russian Duma (unanimously — only three of four Cobb commissioners present for the vote voted for their resolution) passed legislation last year banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”, i.e., homosexuality. I’ve always loved that propaganda word. Here in the US of A we use a similar term. We call it “promotion” of homosexuality. Basically, what both mean is anything that does not reflect the evils of homosexuality in the strongest possible terms.

Funny thing, Russia decriminalized being gay in 1993, the same year Cobb County made gayness “incompatible” with their standards. Less than two decades later, we’ve come around to this again. But this time, it’s not one local government making a point. It’s the entire country.

Gay Cobb residents told me how they didn’t feel very comfortable at home after that resolution passed, but they could still come down to the big city and be among friends. Imagine being gay in Russia right now, with the law of the land telling you you can’t have anything good to say about who you are. President Vladimir Putin didn’t make things much better, noting that he has gay friends and that everybody like Elton John. At the same time, he said the law was designed to cut down on pedophilia and increase the birth rate in Russia.

Bill Byrne did something similar, after the commission (working desperately with ACOG to come up with something to appease the Angry Gays) passed a resolution saying that everybody was welcome to come to Cobb for the Olympics. He said, hell, yeah, the gays are welcome here, just like “skinheads, pro-Nazis and (people) filled with hate”.

Thanks for that, Bill. You and Vlad are two peas in a pod. OK, that’s an exaggeration. Putin’s in much better shape. But Byrne’s eyeing the Cobb County Commission again. He announced last month he was running for the District 1 seat, after losing an attempt to get the chairmanship back (he left in 2002) in 2012.

Ah, the more things change …

The Sochi games will go on. The International Olympic Committee, which is quite squeamish around the gay issue anyway, didn’t give another thought to Russia’s hosting of the games after the new legislation was passed. But — while Russia tries to keep its gays a secret (and Uganda, with the help of American evangelicals, imprisons them for life) more openly gay Olympians than ever will go for the gold next month.

Like Byrne and Cobb County, Putin and Russia can’t put that genie back in the bottle.

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The author covered the 1996 Olympics controversy for Southern Voice. Photograph by Andrei Nasonov, used by permission.
KC Wildmoon

KC Wildmoon

KC Wildmoon is an accidental journalist who never even bothered to finish school since her accounting major was incredibly boring. Instead, she opted for being a minor rock star and annoying as many government officials as possible on a regular basis. After 16 years at CNN, she's now doing forensic journalism for Ireland-based Storyful.