Never again will I refer to Chris Anderson as our city’s first openly gay councilman.
I’ll call him councilman. Or elected official. Or politician. But that phrase — Chattanooga’s first openly gay councilman — has shadowed him for the last 15 months, ever since he was elected as District 7’s representative.
Wherever his name appeared, that phrase was sure to follow. Headlines, new reports, this column. Not just Chris Anderson, but Chris Anderson, the city’s first openly gay councilman.
Yes, it mattered then.
Yes, it matters still.
And yes, it is a source of pride for Anderson, who is who he is in a graceful and unapologetic way.
But there’s a shelf life on the term, a point of expiration when its continued use detracts and distracts from Anderson’s politics and philosophies and instead sensationalizes the aspect of his personhood that is least relevant: his sexuality.
The day will come when no one will use the phrase any more. Our city’s third openly gay councilman! Plus, it’s a double standard, eeking of inequality. We don’t describe heterosexuality in such ways. Our city’s 1,345th straight councilman!
So I wash my hands of it. When we sat down over coffee recently, I told Anderson my new pledge.
“Thank you,” he replied.
Then, he handed me some mail. I’d asked to see some of the angry letters he’d received since taking office. Quickly, I wish I hadn’t.
“May God strike you … down,” one letter reads.
Multiple times since being elected, Anderson has needed police protection. At least twice, he’s received threats of violence.
Not for his ideas on urban chickens. Or his thoughts on the sprinkler system ordinance. Or his vision on how to turn downtown into an entertainment district.
Not for his work to create a new 10-acre park at the former Charles A. Bell Elementary in Alton Park. (It’s listed in the mayor’s proposed budget: $1 million for Bell School Park.)
Mostly, all the letters and calls came during his work to pass the domestic partner benefits ordinance.
“This is highly offensive and morally wrong and will surely bring God’s judgment upon our city,” emailed one pastor.
“What is this vote laying the groundwork for? North American Man Boy Love Association will probably see this same acceptance in less than 50 years,” wrote one married couple. A straight married couple.
Mostly, all the letters and calls came because he’s gay.
“An abomination,” emailed one man. “Evidently, you have no Christian spiritual values.”
The letters talk about sin, God’s word and judgment. Overtly or subtly, many letters link gayness with social destruction.
“Pornography, infidelity, fornication and perversion,” one pastor emailed.
“Promiscuity and sodomy,” another man wrote.
One pastor ends his you’re-so-wrong email with an altar-call-like invitation for Anderson to then form a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“Do you know Him?” the pastor writes.
Oh, how warm. How inviting.
Yet for all their bitterness, these letters are Hallmark-nice compared with two handwritten letters Anderson received.
“You queer [expletive],” one reads.
“Waiting to dust your ass out in the cold.”
“We don’t forgive or forget you queer’s need to get back in your closets and [expletive].”
“Please close the closet door behind you [expletive].”
And those are the gentle sentences. Others are ridiculously vile, unprintably so. Worse, they are threatening. Anderson gave both letters to investigators.
“There are no fingerprints on the letter or envelope,” Anderson said. “There are no identifying marks on these letters.”
But there are.
The way we identify with one another — the marks we put on our relationships — says more about us than the other person. Anderson has been a lightning rod for fear, anger and May-God-strike-you-down-disgust. His mailbox is like a microcosm for our times.
But such meanness doesn’t represent all the letters he’s gotten. To others, Anderson has been a source of pride, courage and inspiration.
Guess I have to use that worn phrase once more: Chris Anderson, our city’s first openly gay councilman, and certainly, thankfully, not the last.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...