WPost story on small-town gay activist vs. local Baptists raises more questions than answers

There are times when I run across a very well-written piece that makes a poignant point and communicates an effective message. Yet, at the same time, there’s this uneasiness.

Such is a piece out this week in the Washington Post Magazine. With a headline that read “The Last Frontier for Gay Rights: A powerful liberal activist, a rural conservative town and a debate that won’t end,” it’s about a small North Carolina town.

I’ve written some 15 stories for the same magazine for the Post’s Style section, most of them profile or long-form narratives like this one. You may be familiar with the story I did last November for the magazine about Paula White, spiritual advisor to Donald Trump. So, I know how it takes months of hard work to produce these pieces and it sounds as though writer Tiffany Stanley spent a similar amount of time working on this article.

With few exceptions, the magazine has stuck to stories with relevance inside the Beltway. Since the residents of this western North Carolina county have nothing to do with Washington, D.C., I'm guessing the magazine, which got a new editor last year, is expanding its reach. There's a lot here, so please stick with me:

Word spread fast through the county that fall. Comments streamed across Facebook and in the halls of the high school and through the pews of churches: There was a gay-straight alliance starting up at Alexander Central High. It would be known as the P.R.I.D.E. Club: People Respecting Individuality, Diversity and Equality. Its detailed acronym notwithstanding, theories about it swirled.
There were rumors that the school would have “transgender restrooms,” or that a “homosexual-based curriculum” would be used in health and physical education classes. Some community members were upset about the school district’s lack of communication. A woman wrote in to the town newspaper: “It is heartbreakingly sad that our morals have come to this.”
The sense of siege extended to adults — on all sides of the controversy. Robbin Isenhour-Stewart, an art teacher and the club’s co-adviser, said she received “biblical hate messages” taped to her classroom door. The Rev. Phil Addison, a Southern Baptist minister, said he found trash on his lawn and his mailbox kept getting knocked down; he suspected it had to do with his public criticisms of the club. “I don’t know that it was them,” he told me, “but if not, it was a huge coincidence.” David Odom, a school board member, said his daughter came home asking why he was taking the Bible out of schools.

We hear next about a school board meeting packed with church members because their pastors asked them to attend. Also at the meeting was:

Mitchell Gold -- the CEO of the $230 million furniture company Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, one of Alexander County’s largest employers -- had been a fixture at town meetings and civic functions for years. He’d moved to the area nearly 30 years before, and for more than a decade, he had been preaching the gospel of gay rights, making it his personal mission to lobby religious groups to accept the LGBT community, especially youth…As he had done many times before, he shared his own story of being a gay teenager who struggled to be accepted.

The rest of the article deals with how the national debate over LGBTQ issues is taking place in red-state rural areas where people don’t buy the gay rights narrative and feel they shouldn’t have to change to accommodate blue-state sensitivities. After all, they’d say, their guy won the 2016 election. But in Taylorsville, N.C.:

Few places in rural America have a Mitchell Gold, a gay rights activist who is also one of the most powerful men in town.

Gold, who owns a local furniture company employing 660 people, is treated in the story like a benevolent town father. But –- employing the GetReligion ‘mirror image’ analogy by which we let the participants switch places –- what if the roles were reversed?

What if this was a liberal New England town that had a very conservative major employer who wanted to throw his weight around?

Would the treatment be as sympathetic? We hear that he shows up at a county commissioners meeting to complain about the debate going on at the high school. I covered a zillion such meetings in my early days as a reporter and those gatherings are for land use issues, not for school board arguments.

Yet Gold delivers a veiled threat to the officials who care about local jobs:

“The kind of bigotry that exists in this county,” he said, “that happened when the high school wanted to put in a gay-straight alliance, it’s inexcusable.” The town videotaped the proceedings, which were posted online and covered in the newspaper, prompting a heated exchange in the letters-to-the-editor section. “Mr. Mitchell Gold,” one reader wrote, “you will not hold Alexander County hostage to promote your lifestyle nor will you force us ‘bigots’ to accept it.”

As I look at his company’s web site, I see that Gold is not shy about stating his commitment to gay rights. Gold is pictured in the story as follows:

At 67, he is trim with silver hair and dark eyebrows and dark-framed glasses. He’s a prototypical extrovert, with seemingly boundless energy. … a New Jersey boy transplanted to the rural South, not to mention a secular Jew in a Southern Baptist stronghold.

More than a decade ago, he decided to go the activist route.

From his perch in the North Carolina foothills, Gold watched the march of gay civil rights, but he also saw what to his mind was its chief impediment: religion. Or at least certain strains of religion. He thought as long as conservative pastors in town, and religious leaders across the country, preached against homosexuality, the gains of the gay rights movement would be limited, if not rolled back. In 2005, he started an organization, Faith in America, with the goal of combating “religion-based bigotry” against the LGBT community.

He also sent a three-page letter about his sentiments to all his employees.

Again, using the mirror image concept, what if, say, Hobby Lobby (a business run by Christians) had sent all their employees a letter suggesting they change their minds on gay issues? What if any company had set out in their vision statement –- as Gold has done with his -– a commitment to keeping marriage between a man and a woman?

There'd be a boycott, right? 

The story is filled with tons of good quotes chronicling how the Mitchel Gold company became a regional gay-friendly oasis. There are a number of anecdotes about beleaguered LGBTQ people who are relieved and grateful to work there. One photo shows an engaging lesbian couple  cuddling their pets. Another shows one part of the couple working at the Gold factory. Later, there is an attractive photo of Gold and his husband, seated with their dogs.

Then we switch to a local Baptist pastor, who’s shown in a dark sanctuary lit only be a dim stained-glass window. A photo of his Bible is also in somber tones. The quotes are good, but the pastor sounds harsh and unhappy that Gold’s views have created a “media darling” who’s always shown in a positive light.

We also hear from one of his congregants, a gentle woman who is a seamstress for the Gold company and is grateful to work there but feels her religious beliefs against homosexual practice are still true.

That’s basically it in terms of coverage of the opposition.

Later, we hear from some of the people who helped form the P.R.I.D.E. Club, then the story turns back to Gold, who is adamant that peoples’ religious beliefs must change and it was his job to help change them.

At this point, I’m curious if any of the pastors have asked him why he, as a Jew, feels it’s his job to lecture people from another religion. Would this be a story if Gold were a liberal Christian telling off an Orthodox Jewish enclave?

The story ends with a lesbian guest speaker at a club meeting who tells students how she grew up in the area without realizing that she was not alone. She says:

“I have met so many LGBTQ people and so many people that are supportive, and I had no idea that the community was that big and that strong.” It had been a revelation, that there were people like them everywhere, if only one knew where to look. They had been there all along.

The message, of course, is that the locals should get with the program and change all those ancient beliefs they have.

My one beef is that all the sympathetic characters in this piece are on one side of the argument. I know a lot of research doesn’t get included in these stories for lack of space, but couldn’t more room have been made for articulate, attractive people who see the P.R.I.D.E. group as a slippery slope?

One gets the impression that Gold, with his charitable works and local presence, is acting more Christian than many of the Christians in the area. Has he totally out-foxed the opposition? And why is OK for someone in the business world to push same-sex marriage, but it's not OK for another business to oppose it? 

Those are the questions rattling about a story of religion and business and gay activism. I'm grateful this  reporter actually travelled to Red State Land and spent the time and did the mileage to get out there and talk with people. The rural areas are where the battle lines are drawn and, as the 2016 election showed, those rural areas will rise up and bite you.

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