published Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Gay-rights activists, counter-activists rally outside Chattanooga City Hall over same-sex benefits

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    Brenda Wysong and daughter Abigail demonstrate across the street from a marriage equality rally Saturday at City Hall in Chattanooga. Brenda Wysong said she was there because of her faith. "God hates homosexuality," Wysong said. "It's not that he hates the people, it's that he hates the sin."
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
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    Dee Whiddon with daughter Allie, 2, at a protest to counter "Traditional Marriage Day," recognized by Tenn. by state legislation, and promote marriage equality on Saturday at City Hall in Chattanooga, Tenn. Whiddon said it was important for her to attend the rally to show people that her family is part of the community. "We're just normal like everybody," Whiddon said.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
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SAME-SEX COUPLES IN TENNESSEE

Number of same sex couples statewide: 10,898; 4.4 per 1,000 households

Same-sex couples in Hamilton County: 688, 5.03 per 1,000 households

Same-sex husband/wife couples statewide: 1,959, 1.6 per 1,000 households

Same-sex unmarried partner couples: 8,939

Female same-sex couples: 5,844; 54 percent of all same-sex couples

Male same-sex couples: 5,053; 46 percent of all same-sex couples

Source: Tennessee U.S. Census snapshot data, 2010; The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law

On the one hand, a clenched rainbow fist: solidarity for gays in Hamilton County.

In another, a scythe. Death is for those who hate God.

That was outside Chattanooga City Hall on Saturday in blistering heat, the last and hottest day of August.

"We don't believe the state should discriminate against its citizens," said Marcus Ellsworth, one of the organizers of the rally for equal rights.

Area gay rights activists and leaders rallied outside City Hall to say equality is for everyone and that the "Traditional Marriage Day" resolution passed by the state Legislature in April is discriminatory. Ellsworth said gay residents wanted to voice disapproval of the decision.

Nearby, local Christian activist Charles Wysong stood with a few supporters.

"They are very childlike," Wysong said.

He stood in the street, striking a William Jennings Bryanesque figure from the summer of 1925 -- dress pants, white button-up, long sleeves and tie -- wiping sweat from his forehead with a plain white handkerchief.

Occasionally he would stop in mid-sentence to run off folks heckling a figure dressed as the Grim Reaper, standing nearby like a Dickens character.

"They claim to be so tolerant. They are probably the most intolerant people," Wysong said.

Ellsworth doesn't believe the gay community is intolerant or bullies nongays.

"We're not taking anyone's beliefs away from them," he said. "We don't want to step on anyone's freedoms."

From a lectern at the top of City Hall's entrance stairway, Ellsworth encouraged the crowd that huddled in the shade of the annex building across 11th Street. He spoke about his personal relationship, sharing a bed with another man and feeling the same love as a heterosexual couple feels.

Wysong wiped his head. Comments like that are "disagreeable," he said.

But he doesn't hate homosexuals, he said.

"I don't hate them," Wysong said. "They say I hate them."

Ellsworth doesn't think Wysong hates gays. And he doesn't hate the Christian activists who stood at the rally all day with signs warning gays that their lifestyle is unpleasing to God.

"They're free to do what they want," Ellsworth said -- precisely the designation he wants in Tennessee: freedom to have a legally recognized relationship.

"We're not just an idea. We're not just a concept. We're actual, living human beings," he said. In the wake of the 50-year commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, he wants civil rights extended to gay Americans, too.

Part of the Saturday rally was Chattanooga City Councilman Chris Anderson, an openly gay elected official, and his push to get same-sex spouse benefits for city employees. The city of Collegedale voted in August to give benefits to married same-sex couples. It was the first city in Tennessee to do so.

Anderson spoke briefly Saturday and said sexual orientation doesn't matter. What's important is the good that residents can do in the community, and that isn't defined by whether someone is gay or straight, he said.

Applause and hoots. One pocket of boos near Wysong's people.

Chattanooga isn't alone in its struggle to find a way through this debate.

Things reached a fever pitch in the summer of 2012 when Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathey publicly voiced opposition to gay marriage. IRS officials just released new rules that grant married, gay couples the same filing status and tax benefits as married, non-gay couples, regardless whether their state of residence acknowledges gay marriage or not.

Many conservative groups are outraged.

It's not the America Wysong grew up in. It's not the Chattanooga Ellsworth knew 10 years ago. It's somewhere in between, partially lost in transition.

Neither would have predicted a decade ago that on the steps of City Hall, gay men and women would openly and proudly declare their orientation and demand equality.

But it's the new reality, and neither are sure of its inertia.

"I think we're getting there," Ellsworth said.

Wysong, in a way, agrees, but for a different outcome.

"I believe in an almighty God, and he will stop it," he said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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