Charlotte and the Angels of America

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Fort Worth Opera in a performance of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” opera version, 2008 | Ellen Appel | 14042

The Levine Museum of the New South, in Charlotte, N.C., recently unveiled a history exhibit, “LGBTQ Perspectives on Equality” to tell the history of Charlotte, N.C.’s, gay and transgender community. 18,000 same-sex couples call the state home, including 2,000 in the Charlotte area, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

The exhibition casts fresh light on the “Angels of America” controversy.

In 1996 a brouhaha erupted when some county officials objected to gay themes presented in a local performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America.” The controversy led to a vote in 1997 to restrict funding to the Arts & Science Council. The move gave the city a reputation for being intolerant.

Bob Barret, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, took a high-profile stand for the gay community during the “Angels in America” affair, helping to create an organization called Citizens for Equality, which staged a defiant news conference on the steps of City Hall.

“I don’t know that it changed anything, but we were visible and saying, ‘We don’t like what’s going on,'” says Barret, who had challenged the Observer’s coverage of the gay community as far back as 1992, when he met with editors at the newspaper. “The media didn’t have a clue who gay people are, because people weren’t willing to stand up. Once we started to do that, attitudes changed fairly quickly. Still, there were death threats, and awful stuff was sent in the mail to me. And stuff was left on my car. People in charge at the university told me, ‘You need to be very careful. People are watching you, waiting for you to make a mistake.'”

University of North Charlotte Multicultural Resource Center | 14043

Book shop proprietor Sue Henry was perhaps the city’s most high-profile LGBT representative of the ’90s, and was the first openly gay candidate for mayor of Charlotte, in 1995.

Her store, Rising Moon Books & Beyond, became a meeting place for gays and lesbians during the “Angels in America” controversy, with groups gathering among the books to make placards for their demonstrations. She likens it to the city’s first LGBT community center. It closed in 1997. Henry was also involved in bringing the annual North.Carolina gay and lesbian pride event to Charlotte in 1994, which she says made local gays and lesbians aware of “what we can do when we came together.” “I don’t feel especially brave. Maybe I’m stubborn,” says Henry, who currently lives in Greenville, N.C. “For the first couple of years I had the bookstore, I would go in expecting the windows to be broken out by a brick, but it never happened. It’s that worry, that fear, that often stops the LGBT community.”


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