Brad Cushman, 42
Artist and gallery director, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Born in Springfield, Ill.; moved to Arkansas in 2000
I came out in the “Bible Belt” as Reagan’s residency in the White House ended and AIDS became a household word on the nightly news. I was establishing myself as a studio artist in Dallas, and a tenured professor and chair at a university in southeast Oklahoma.
The Good Times Lounge in Denison, Texas, was a common meeting place for gay men, lesbians, drag queens, bisexuals and supportive heterosexuals. Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” still evokes entertainer Ms. B’s Fellini-esque performances and her hopes that her autobiography, “From Barbed Wire to Satin,” eventually got published.
This community in rural Oklahoma and North Texas, and a family of friends around the country, helped me begin to put a human face on gay society.
My mother accepts, supports and loves who I am. (Unfortunately, my father and brother died before I could talk openly with them.) My co-workers at UALR are supportive and my working environment fosters respect for others despite differences.
Has it been easy? No. Watch the film “The Celluloid Closet” and the play “Angels in America.” Do I fear lack of tolerance and persecution? Yes.
Get to know the gay people around you before you toss them aside. Get beyond the “is he/she or isn’t he/she” gay question and focus on “Who are you and what do you value?” Educating people about the diversity of our world, the richness of a community that promotes social tolerance and the protections of human rights, are lessons we can all learn, gay or straight.
Kathy Webb, 55
Owner, Lilly’s Dim Sum Then Some
Born in Blytheville, grew up in Little Rock
It would be easier to not be part of this story, to not speak out. I came home to be closer to my family, to open a restaurant and to continue my life-long involvement with my community. Being a spokesperson for gay rights was not on my agenda!
But to remain silent on the issue in the current political climate would be, for me, dishonest. I’ve worked for social justice since I was a kid. I was taught that compassion, love, and acceptance are moral, Christian values. I was taught that the moral thing to do is provide access to health care, quality schools, enough food to eat. I was taught that fighting discrimination, whether it occurred because of the color of someone’s skin, gender, economic status, or sexual orientation, was a moral value. And that staying silent on these injustices is wrong.
As a girl, I struggled to come to terms with my homosexuality. It seemed like it would make my life really hard — and it did. I lost my first full-time job and my apartment because I was gay. I had no role models — few people were willing to come out and face the consequences. There was no “Will and Grace,” no PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), no kd laing or Ellen DeGeneres.
But my loving, nurturing family and my faith enabled me to find self-acceptance. Being a lesbian is not the only part or even the most important part of me — being a daughter, sister, aunt, friend and partner rank pretty high! But I won’t hide that part of me, and until we end discrimination against gay men and lesbians, I’ll continue to speak out and work for justice.
Randi M. Romo, 48
Activist and artist
Texas native, moved to Arkansas from Florida in 2003
Anywhere that I go, I take all of who I am with me. I don’t remove a part of me at the door like an overcoat. The things that make me who I am are diverse: I am Mexican-American, a mother, a grandmother, an activist, a poet, an artist and a dyke.
I am the executive director of the Center for Artistic Revolution (CAR), a non-profit, community-based organization working for equitable access to civil rights, a democratic political process and economic and environmental justice. CAR uses creative methodologies and cultural work to engage and organize communities and deliver our messages.
CAR’s work is dedicated to showing the connections between race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and physical ability and how they are used to divide and oppress people and communities. While CAR itself is not a “gay” organization, we embrace the struggles of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for equality because we know that all oppressions are connected. We recognize that the struggle of one must be the struggle of all.
It is only when we refuse to buy into racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, etc. — when we stop letting these things divide us — that we can truly create a just society that respects the value and worth of ALL people.
For more info about CAR e-mail or call 603-2138.
Angela Frazier, 39
Owner of Allen and Frazier CPAs
Rebecca Frazier, 39
Staff accountant
Moved to Arkansas from Texas in 2004
We moved here three months ago after two years of intense prayer. Angela was born here, so the decision to return was a matter of when rather than if. For me (Rebecca), a native Texan, the decision was a matter of faith. So, we find ourselves in Little Rock for two reasons: closeness of family and our faith in God’s plan for our lives.
We have heard many people, on television and in churches, say there’s no such thing as a gay Christian. If we’re truly followers of Christ, we’re Christians, and there’s no greater thing to be in this life.
Martin Luther King Jr. said he looked forward to a time when he’d be judged not by the color of his skin but the content of his heart. We look, in faith, toward a time when we’ll be judged not by our sexual orientation but by the content of our hearts. Jesus said that our first commandment was to love the Lord with all our heart soul and mind (Matthew 22:37). The second was to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). If we could all walk in love toward one another, then none of us would have to fear rejection, discrimination or judgment.
Christ said, “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). We would therefore ask that we not be judged by what people think they see but by the fruit of our lives and the content of our hearts. After all, that’s how God will judge us and that’s all that really matters.
Drew Irvin, 33
Violinist and co-concertmaster for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra
Born Columbia, Mo.; moved to Little Rock 2002
Playing violin for a living and working with fantastic musicians like Yo-Yo Ma is a joy. Also great is living in a community that likes music. I’m part of something bigger than myself.
I am gay. Why mention it? It doesn’t come up during concerts. With the challenges of life why add gay to the list? I say it publicly because some people still have a problem with it. At one point I did, too. Now I don’t. Here is how I understand “gay” from the inside.
Some people are right-handed, some left. Some people fall in love with the opposite sex, some with the same. For me it is a matter of hard-wiring. My “computer” (my heart) came with these functions. I can upgrade but I will still be a Mac in a PC world. Some people don’t like my “Mac” hard-wiring. I do. I am not ashamed of who I am. Some of you will not like me or my explanation. Understand that I will respect that and expect tolerance in return.
I’ve had experiences with people who didn’t want me to be gay, including my Mom and Dad. Who wants a child to be different, to risk physical harm and discrimination? When I “came out” it terrified them.
From the beginning my parents understood the most important thing about my being gay. The first time we talked about it they said, “We don’t care who you love, we care THAT you love.” They got it. Do you?
Ty Stacy, 28
Retail sales
Born in Arkadelphia, lives in Little Rock
My name is Tayonna, a.k.a “Ty,” and I was raised in the small town of Arkadelphia. I am one of those people who can’t go anywhere without knowing someone. I work at a long-lived and respected retail clothing store, which partly accounts for my wide group of acquaintances. I dress my customers for success and for fun.
I enjoy going to the movies, theater and writing. I’ve volunteered at the Women’s Project, and have been involved with organizations like NOW and the National Coalition for Peace and Justice. It’s important for me to work for community change.
I am just your everyday, working-class, tax-paying citizen.
But I’m also gay. Homosexual. Queer. But not too faggy.
I have been “out” since 1995 to my closest relatives and friends — and those who did not know before, do now.
What does being gay have to do with anything? Nothing and everything. Because I’m gay, I am denied the rights my heterosexual peers enjoy. Arkansas won’t allow me to enter into a legal, loving partnership. It wants to take away my ability to adopt a child. I can’t be fired for being black, but I can for being gay.
So I am using the right that I have: freedom of speech. Being gay should not mean any more to our society than my being African-American. (There’s progress to be made on that front, as well!) I am proud of who I am. Gay Arkansans deserve equal treatment, and I’m going to fight for our rights. I look forward to becoming more involved with the Stonewall Democratic Club.
Paul Dodds, 50
International business consultant
Born in Connecticut; moved to Little Rock in 2003
It’s difficult to discuss being gay. In mixed groups, there is often awkwardness about it. Must we suddenly switch gears and babble on like Dr. Ruth about embarrassing details of sexual technique?
Hardly. My gay life is a normal, happy one, and I have nothing to hide. If my openness makes you uncomfortable, relax. We don’t have to talk about sex. I’d rather not.
Being gay is about so much more. I see with different eyes; process through a different brain. I am all-American, and yet from a different culture. I am proud of the creative accomplishments of gay folk. We add greatly to the social fabric. And I refuse, ever again, to let the majority’s toxic shame make me hate myself.
I have never been so open, but you, three-fourths of Arkansas voters, just forced me out in self-defense. Thank you for helping me find my voice.
Look at me. You see a middle-aged, white, corporate lawyer, real estate investor, international consultant, adjunct professor and author. I live in conference rooms, not barrooms. The dull truth is that I am a solid, yeoman professional, not a flaming, oversexed revolutionary.
Populist laws forbid me from being a good soldier, spouse or parent. But cruel paper alone cannot deny reality: I am a decent, trustworthy, first-class citizen. Most gays are. Party strategists seize the gay non-issue, wrapped in false “morality,” as a political rallying cry. They shame and weaken our fine country with calculated appeals to fear and hatred. Don’t fall for them.
Thanks, Stonewall Democrats and Arkansans for Human Rights. I am joining you. If you stand with us, join us. Be strong. Be counted.
Shields-Marley, 59
Born in St. Louis, raised in Arkansas
I am a photographer and have been in business for myself since 1983. I have been out as a lesbian since 1982.
I started dealing with my sexuality at age 13, when I started sneaking books from the public library on homosexuality to try to find out what was wrong with me. On a visit to a gynecologist at the age of 19 (after a brief marriage to a man), I told the doctor I was having “homosexual feelings.” The doctor was shocked, but gave me the name of a psychologist with UAMS. At that time, in the ’60’s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness.
What I remember most from my four months of counseling was that the psychologist wanted me to say I hated my ex-husband. I did not hate my ex-husband, but the doctor made me say I did. In our last session, he told me that it would take many years to completely cure me. He then moved out of state.
After seven years of celibacy and being unable to find or meet another woman with the same sex feelings, I married again. My son, Brent, was born in 1975; I divorced his father in 1982 and came out. I was rejected by my mother and a close friend.
My son, who was 7 when I came out, was raised to be non-homophobic, non-sexist and non-racist. He’s a musician now and lives in Austin, Texas.
Brent Marley comments:
My parents divorced when I was 7 and my mother primarily raised me. She was a great mother. She raised me to be open-minded; I cannot thank her enough for that. I think the current administration’s views on family are ridiculous. Like many policies of the conservatives, their approach is based in fear — fear that they will change, or fear of the unknown. If they could spend time with gay and lesbian families they might have a different opinion.
Having our government controlled by the Christian faith makes life in America difficult. Life is about evolution. To survive we must continue to change and do what is practical. Many people of faith hang onto their beliefs with such blind conviction that they only have a narrow view of what is right.
Gay families have all the benefits of other families. It is a thousand times better than having only one parent. I do believe children need to be raised by both men and women. If any child, from gay or straight homes, doesn’t have other people in his or her life besides the parents, then they are not being raised properly. There are plenty of ways for children to be exposed to both sexes, including having both parents still involved.
Alma Beck, 51
Raised in Kentucky,
moved to Little Rock in 2003
Priest, teacher
As an American woman of faith, one of my most cherished rights is to live in a country where freedom of religion is written into our Constitution, where people of all faith traditions (and no faith traditions) seek to live together in harmony. That ideal has never been more tested than today when we talk about same-sex relationships. Some faith communities hear God calling gays and lesbians to lives of celibacy. Other people of faith believe that God blesses all loving, monogamous relationships, whether they involve heterosexual or homosexual couples. Our challenge is to respect each other, especially when we disagree; to each live according to our own conscience and let our neighbors live according to theirs.
As an American who is also a lesbian, I am dismayed when legislators and judges forget that our Constitution forbids the government to give preference to one religion over another when writing laws and enforcing them. Conservative Christianity is filled with good-hearted people of deep faith, but it, or any other faith tradition, cannot be the basis for our laws. Gay and lesbian Americans deserve the same rights as other Americans. Since the government acknowledges committed relationships (marriages) and grants them special privileges, it must grant those rights and privileges to us all, gay or straight. To do less would be un-American.
Nancy Tesmer, 46
Chicago native, moved to Arkansas in 2002
I grew up in Chicago, the child of Swedish parents. My understanding of my upbringing at this stage of my life is this: First, my parents imparted the Swedish (“old world”) belief that life is a shared experience, and that respect for others, regardless of differences, was expected.
Second, I was raised in the Lutheran Church. While my religious beliefs have had great influence on my personal beliefs, religion is a more private matter to me.
My partner and I came to Little Rock to work in the community, to enjoy what Arkansas had to offer, and retire here. We have gained much from our community involvement, hopefully making a real difference. But I question the direction I see this state moving. I didn’t anticipate the focus on my private life — coming from Chicago, I’m not even used to it being an issue. My partner and I had hoped that we could direct all of our efforts towards the betterment of our community, continuing our involvement with socially responsible projects.
I know that laws protecting basic rights for everyone work — and they don’t diminish anyone. The question is simply about basic rights and protection for everyone. That it isn’t happening is very sad to me.
Chris Hota, 21
Computer network administrator in the UALR School of Social Work
Vinnie Suha, 20
Waiter at Lilly’s Dim Sum
Moved to Little Rock from Milwaukee in June 2004
Little Rock was a bit of a culture shock for both of us. It’s not as progressive as what we were accustomed to — Milwaukee and the University of Milwaukee, where we met, are very liberal places. We would not hesitate to walk down the street holding hands. Nobody would stop and stare. Here, people would, if not stop, stare and murmur. We hear more jokes here too, and not just gay jokes, but racial and sexist jokes as well.
But we enjoy the slower pace of the South. We also like it that Little Rock is big enough to have almost everything you want close at hand, yet you can get to the great outdoors without having to drive for hours.
We enjoy eating out at the many fantastic restaurants available, sitting around coffee shops, reading books and camping (when the weather allows). More often than not, however, you’ll find us studying or hanging at home watching TV.
All in all, we’re really not different from any other college-aged couple!
Jada Walker, 43
Health care researcher
Born in Birmingham; moved to Little Rock in 2003
Having sometimes felt like an outsider myself, I have spent much of my life taking up for folks who can’t always speak for themselves, who don’t have access to the political system to secure their civil rights. As Jackie Robinson said, “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.”
As long as any gay person is treated as a second-class citizen, this country is not achieving its stated ideals. I feel very fortunate to live in the U.S. — to have had educational opportunities, health insurance, a home, good neighbors and other luxuries. My partner and I are happy — we love each other, our families and friends, and our work. Nonetheless, I am always aware that I can be discriminated against in housing, employment, and a host of other ways that straight Americans cannot.
How much of my energy and potential goes into worry and fear — instead of positive contributions I could be making — depends on how much I hear from the larger society about how “bad” some people believe gays are. A perfect example of this is the recent ballot initiative called Amendment 3 to the Arkansas Constitution. People voted for this flawed law for a variety of reasons, but by that vote they sent a message of hate and intolerance to members of their own communities, their own families. This is a shame. It makes me sad, and angry. But it also makes me more determined to argue for the rights of the disenfranchised, the excluded outsiders, people who are being told every day they are somehow “not good enough.”
Karmen Hopkins, 47
Family practice doctor, Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System
Born in Lubbock; moved to Arkansas in 1983
Life. Hopes. Loves.
Who am I?
I am a physician passionate about my patients and their care, what I teach them and what they teach me.
I am a mother delighting in my daughter’s journeys — even though she lives far away.
I am a sister, daughter, sister-in-law, aunt, great-aunt, and on … blessed with a diverse and rich extended family.
I am a friend and neighbor, greatly cherishing the love of my friends and all that they share with me.
I am a lesbian. That has brought me more riches of gentleness, discovery, growth, passion, family, and my daughter. It is a part of who I am and how I love.
I enjoy books, learning, my garden, nature, firelight, music, introspection.
I am so incredibly blessed by all the manifestations of holiness and love in my life. My life is rich and full and, in that, I am truly wealthy.
Shaun Whybark, 25
Junior political science major, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Born Channel View, Texas; moved to Arkansas at age 2
I have a very strong interest in human issues. I want to work for a group that strives for equality in all aspects of life, a group such as the ACLU. I firmly believe that everyone is equal. I believe that, in America, people should have freedom from being oppressed. I am active in two volunteer organizations: Arkansans for Human Rights, as the spokesperson, and the Stonewall Democratic Club of Arkansas, in which I am the special events chair.
In addition to being a part of these organizations and going to school, I also work a full-time job as an assistant manager at a local home-decorating store. I have a partner of three years. I try to be as active as I can in the local community. I love music of all styles, animals, dancing, friends, family and dining out.
Being gay in America today is difficult. Our people are constantly enduring criticism and hatred from the general public. My wish for future generations is that this feeling of hatred and discrimination dissipates so that they will not endure what we have to endure. I believe that America is the greatest country on the Earth today, but I do not agree with the way we treat our people. The GLBT community has a long road and a long struggle for equality ahead of them. It is time to step up to show the world that we are not going away. Only when every citizen can live the same life as the rest of the majority can America truly be called the “Land of the Free.”