published Monday, October 8th, 2012

Pride rally helps heal rift in Chattanooga

Pastor Undra Finley, left, of City of Faith Christian Church and church liaison for Tennessee Valley Pride, performs a commitment ceremony for Michael Conley, center, and Brian Rojahn, right, during the Chattanooga Pride Festival. The festival was hosted by the Tennessee Valley Pride and was a celebration of Chattanooga's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Pastor Undra Finley, left, of City of Faith Christian Church and church liaison for Tennessee Valley Pride, performs a commitment ceremony for Michael Conley, center, and Brian Rojahn, right, during the Chattanooga Pride Festival. The festival was hosted by the Tennessee Valley Pride and was a celebration of Chattanooga's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Photo by Allison Love.
  • photo
    Matt McAdoo, executive director of Chattanooga CARES, speaks during the Chattanooga Pride Festival on Sunday in Miller Plaza. Chattanooga CARES is a non-profit organization that provides council, resources, education and support for those affected by HIV/AIDS.
    Photo by Allison Love.
    enlarge photo

A week after controversy spread throughout Chattanooga's gay community, a crowd of hundreds rallied downtown in a show of solidarity.

For the first time in years, not a protester was in sight for the annual celebration of gay pride.

Before the gathering in Miller Park ended, seven couples had taken part in commitment ceremonies officiated by Chattanooga ministers, and the head of the HIV resource agency Chattanooga CARES had made amends for comments made a week before to the Times Free Press.

Executive Director Matt McAdoo, who was criticized for saying that he didn't want CARES to endorse homosexuality or to be seen just as "an organization that treats gay men with AIDS," gave a speech that gays cheered Sunday. The Times Free Press also was criticized.

"I believe that our sexual orientation is innate," he told the crowd. "We don't choose our orientation. We are all born this way."

He said he wanted to celebrate diversity and fight ignorance, bigotry and HIV. He hopes that CARES and the gay community can continue working together. And right before he left the stage, he made a political statement.

"Take yourself and every friend you can find. Go to the poll in November and let's reelect a president," he said.

The crowd applauded and cheered. Some gay community leaders seemed relieved.

Chuck Hill, president of Tennessee Valley Pride, didn't like McAdoo's original comments and was upset to find out that he had worked for former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who opposed gay marriage, and attended Silverdale Baptist Church.

He had thought about asking for McAdoo's resignation.

But the speech was convincing.

"We are forgiving," Hill said, afterwards. "Our love is stronger than our hate."

Chuck Cagle, who owns Chuck II, a gay bar off Main Street, said he thought it was McAdoo's stab at correcting himself.

"I thought it was short. I thought it was sweet. I thought he didn't say more than he should have," said Cagle.

Others weren't as forgiving. McAdoo said Sunday that a web support contractor and volunteer had quit because of his comments to the newspaper last week and Sunday.

Meanwhile, vows were exchanged across the street. It was the first time Chattanooga has hosted public vows between gay couples, according to pastors and organizers at the event.

Michael Conley and Brian Rojahn drove two hours from the rural town of Hilham to have a commitment ceremony in Chattanooga. They had both been married to women in the 1990s and met online six years ago.

Rojahn wore one of his father's old suits. Conley smoked a cigarette to calm his nerves.

They invited 30 people, including their families. No one came.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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