Despite Rocky History, Birmingham GLBT Community Making Progress

by Cody Lyon

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday January 5, 2008

On the cool Thursday night just before Christmas, wooden pews inside Birmingham, Alabama's brownstone St. Andrews Episcopalian Church were filled to capacity with a variety of ages, ethnicities and genders who'd come to hear the Magic City Choral Society Men's Chorus' Holiday Concert. The 40 choir members, all dressed in matching formal wear, were under the direction of Dr. Joseph Paul Dease for the group's debut performance.

"It was time," Dease said of the group's formation, later pointing out the rainbow flag on the evening's program flyer and the chorus' stated purpose: "a voice of song for our community."

There is a large, visible, albeit loosely organized gay community in Alabama's largest city. There are 24-hour gay bars, social, religious and political organizations, annual events, even entire neighborhoods that gays have transformed into friendly enclaves.

In fact, according to the 2000 United State Census, the city of Birmingham was home to a higher per capita concentration of same-sex couples than cities of comparable or larger sizes like Memphis, Charlotte and even more liberal northern cities like Columbus, Ohio.

But for many Americans, the notion of Birmingham evokes intolerance, still viewed through the lens of the 1960s civil rights movement, home to streets where police dogs and fire hoses met foot soldiers in the fight for civil rights. It was Birmingham that helped change the course of history for African American citizens. Today's Birmingham, however, touts itself as a place of reconciliation, diversity and inclusion. But as any Southern native living in a northern city learns, the image of Birmingham is often still that of backwoods, white, racist and homophobic.

This simplistic view of the South by outsiders still raises the ire of local residents in Birmingham.

"People in Alabama don't have a monopoly on prejudice and racism," said Danny Upton, an attorney and Executive Director of Equality Alabama, the state's leading GLBT civil rights organization. "We certainly have struggled with it, and we have a tortured history because of it, but when people speak of Alabama with disdain, they are oftentimes speaking out of their own ignorance since many have never been here. And there are some pretty educated homophobes located outside the South."

Still, Birmingham is located in the heart of the socially conservative Bible Belt. In recent years here, shrill local politicians like former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and former Governor Fob James earned headlines by spewing anti-gay rhetoric, earning votes from Alabama's well-organized conservative voting blocks. But rather than flee to more liberal turf like New York or California, a number of GLBT members have stepped up and are helping pave the way, slowly but surely, to a more inclusive and officially accepting society in the heart of the deep South.

After the Thursday concert, choral members, friends and supporters took off their formal wear and shared drinks while loudly celebrating a birthday at one of the city's new downtown venues called The Wine Loft. The bar, a cross between Soho and South Beach, is massive, and on this night was filled with a variety pack of patrons. "I want everyone, straight or gay, to know they have a place here," said owner Mike Dunnavant.

Sipping red wine and nibbling some cake was choral member Howard Bayless. Last year, Bayless made local political history after he won an election onto the Birmingham Board of Education, becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in Birmingham. He described the distinctly Southern road to change in Birmingham's GLBT community: "In Birmingham, we don't wear our issues on our sleeves, it's more about friends and neighbors and relationships, who we eat supper with. Still, we keep our personal business very close to our chest. It's part of our problem, but it's also part of our culture."

Bayless' win followed the earlier election of the state's first open lesbian, Patricia Todd (also from Birmingham), to the state legislature in Montgomery.

"I love the South," Bayless said. "I love working here, I love to live here, its all about understanding this place where you grow up and how things work, and that's different than in most places in the country and its often misunderstood. People in the North assume that all the work has already been done in the South. They look at their own communities where the gay rights work has been done for a decade or more, but you can't equate the work and progress there, or the civil rights movement here, with the work we as a community are doing now."

Later that week during another conversation, Equality Alabama's Upton spoke with EDGE about the organized political work GLBT members and their local allies are undertaking. Equality Alabama uses a multi-pronged approach to reach the GLBT community and likeminded allies through nuts-and-bolts advocacy methods like mass mailings, events, and e-mail. Upton said that events where both gay and straight individuals have opportunities to meet and share concerns also forge new opportunities, both politically and socially.

"By bringing people into contact with people who may be different than they are we have an opportunity to give people a really personal reason to rethink some of their feelings about gay people," said Upton. "And with the election of Howard Bayless and Patricia Todd, GLBT voters in Birmingham are more aware of their political prowess than ever before."

Still, some worry that Birmingham's GLBT community members are complacent since the city feels more liberal and economically advantageous than life in areas outside Birmingham.

"When it comes to advocacy, there's a bit of nonchalance in the gay community in Birmingham," said Bob Palmatier, chairman of the board at Equality Alabama.

Among local residents both straight and gay, there's even a pronounced air of desirability by residents for gay neighbors, who have the reputation as excellent homeowners or pioneers who turn run down or abandoned areas into some of the most expensive real estate in the city.

Howard Bayless, for example, lives in the Crestwood neighborhood of the city, an area with a heavy gay population. He said he bought his home over ten years ago for around $60,000. Today his house is appraised at $270,000.

Palmatier, a retired Birmingham Public School principal, says that the entire staff at his school knew about and had met his partner of 18 years.

"When people speak of Alabama with disdain, they are oftentimes speaking out of their own ignorance since many have never been here. And there are some pretty educated homophobes located outside the South." Gary Upton, Equality Alabama

"The staff had met and accepted Russell," Palmatier said. "They always came to the house we own for holiday parties and other events, and then, when I retired, they bought us a cruise."

He said the goal of GLBT leaders in Birmingham is to educate those co-workers, that the on a human level, the city's residents for the most part, socially liberal, but the difficult challenge has been how best to educate those neighbors and friends about the need for job protection as well as partner asset and health care concerns that have the potential to disrupt life in ways straight people don't' have to worry about. He said he's beginning to see changes in attitudes that make tangible results more possible by coming out and letting people know this is just one aspect of who they are.

Still, in 2006, 86 percent of Alabama voters passed a marriage protection amendment outlawing same sex unions, joining 20 other states with similar amendments. But in Birmingham's home county Jefferson, only 55 percent of voters approved the amendment. Ironically, some see the slim majority as a baby step in a more progressive direction. "Incremental steps are critical to making progress in the South," Bayless said. "You can't at the same rate that you do in New York or California."

And then there is the still sensitive issue of race, which plays a role both economically and demographically in the Birmingham area.

Like many American cities throughout the 1970s and '80s, Birmingham experienced a period of "white flight," when white residents moved outward to new suburban areas. Unlike most Southern cities, Birmingham was industrial, and when the main economic engine, steel mills, began to close in the 1970s, the city slid into an economic downturn in 1980s.

During this period, African Americans in Birmingham gained new political power, electing mostly black leadership since the 1970s.

Over the past couple of decades, thanks in great part to the medical, research and other service industry investment, the greater Birmingham area began to see an economic, cultural and social renaissance.

In great part due to the scars of the past, some say, the city's majority African American city government has been cool to the idea of extending official civil rights legislation to what many see as an affluent and mostly white, at least those who are out and open about sexual orientation, GLBT community. In Birmingham, like much of the South, conservative evangelical influence is not color blind.

Last March, white City Council member Valerie Abbot introduced a non binding inclusion anti-discrimination resolution that would include sexual orientation.

The first attempt failed.

One African American city council member, Roderick Royal, reportedly said that to equate the GLBT movement with the "noble movement of civil rights does not compare."

According to local news reports, Royal and another city council member were actually "rolling their eyes" and "snickering" as Abbot read the inclusion resolution.

The resulting local outcry over the measure's failure was tremendous. Just a few months later, the resolution was presented again, and that time it passed overwhelmingly.

Bayless explained that a number of GLBT people as well as allies often assume a natural kinship with the civil rights movement. However, he says that is a mistake.

"The civil rights movement and the events of Birmingham were about dealing with racism," Bayless said. "African Americans were separated from whites in all eating, drinking, shopping, schools, even elevators here in Birmingham."

Bayless said its hard for whites to understand that many African Americans are still dealing with the fact that whites, through institutions based on racism, controlled their entire lives for over three hundred years in this country. He believes a more sensitive approach is necessary for any alliance between the two to work, particularly in Birmingham.

Birmingham City Council member Valerie Abbot says that she hopes to see an anti-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation passed in the future.

"Of all the cities in America, Birmingham has the most to prove because of our history and because of the images of fire hoses that are shown any time Birmingham is mentioned in the news," she said.

She and others say that Birmingham is a wonderful place for gay or straight, black or white, and that a wise person would give the city a visit. She is optimistic about the prospects for openly gay leaders in the city.

Upton, who was born in a tiny north Alabama town, said that even in the most rural parts of the state, he's seen change first hand.

"I've seen the most rural people, who've met, found out about a relative or friend being gay, and came to the realization that people are people," he said.

"I'm hopeful about the growing gay community in Birmingham, because history and justice are on our side."

Cody Lyon is a New York freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of national daily newspapers and New York weeklies. Lyon also writes a political opinion blog at