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Tolerance, but not quite acceptance: Nashville's gay situation

Non-Southerners tuning in to the Sundance Channel Original Series GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS may not quite know what to expect out of the second season’s Nashville setting. As a reality show focused on gay men and their straight girlfriends, will the series be taking on more of a fish-out-of water tone by moving the action to the South? As in “Dorothy, I don’t think we’re in the West Village anymore?”

That’s surely part of it, as no one from the coasts is likely to describe Nashville as a gay mecca. Yet, compared to some of the smaller Southern towns that this season’s cast members come from, the capital of Tennessee is an oasis of tolerance…and arguably even acceptance. As a place where proud rednecks and cosmopolitan types proudly rub up against one another (mostly figuratively, but a little bit literally), it’s as much of a true melting pot as still exists in an increasingly polarized America.

“Nashville is definitely more liberal than the rest of Tennessee,” says Sherrié Austin, a well-established country singer and songwriter who’s a force of nature on this season of GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS. “Outside of Nashville, things get a little bit different” – which might be the understatement of the year, depending on how far outside of town you’re talking.

“I feel like Nashville’s kind of like the new L.A.,” says Tenisha Jackson, another cast member, “in terms of it being a magnet for a lot of people coming here from smaller towns. And you’ve got educated people here, partly because it’s a college town. And with education comes the fact that people are more liberal and open-minded–versus people who stay, and I hate to use this term, in the boondocks. People on the outskirts don’t think like us big-city folks.”

“It’s becoming more liberal,” interjects hit songwriter Shane Stevens, “but (co-star) Jared (Allman) and I are not going to walk down the street holding hands. We’re not there yet.”

“I feel like it’s neighborhood-specific, though,” adds Allman, adding a caveat that probably applies to most metropolitan cities, Southern or not. “If we were in East Nashville, we could get away with it. If we were in Hendersonville, no.”

“And on West End, no,” agrees Stevens, referring to Nashville’s close-to-downtown restaurant row. “I’ve had a bottle thrown at me on West End by good ole boys screaming ‘faggot’–and I was just out running! I guess my shorts were too short–I don’t know.”

“It’s the hair,” says Allman. “Your hair’s too awesome.”

“It could be the nail polish,” Stevens wonders aloud, suddenly doing a physical self-exam to see what might set off the predatory gaydar of someone passing by at 35 mph.

Blake Boldt, the editor of Nashville’s Out & About newspaper, says the city’s gay and lesbian community has to walk the line separating pride and prudence.

“PDAs would be highly unlikely here unless you’re in the safe confines of your home or in a gay bar,” Boldt says. “While the gay community is making great strides in the economic and political realms, personal lives are only display on a case-by-case basis, depending on your career and a variety of other factors. Many still follow the unspoken rule that’s hovered over the gay community for years: Be discreet about your personal business.”

But for a community that’s been bubbling under for so long, there’s an inevitable feeling that forced discretion is not the better part of valor.

“Nashville in general has a ‘live and let live’ philosophy, but the gay community is less prominent than other major cities,” Boldt elaborates. “If you visit Nashville, don’t expect to come across a sea of rainbow flags — even on Church Street, which could be considered the mecca of the gay community, since a number of gay or gay-friendly bars and organizations call Church Street home.”

But if you’re looking for the Silverlake of Nashville, there’s no argument about where that would be. “Beyond Church Street, the most comfortable place for the gay community would likely be East Nashville,” Boldt says, echoing Allman’s sentiments. “The neighborhood is widely known as the province of the city’s artistic community, with a younger, hipper group of inhabitants who have progressive views about gays and lesbians.”

That’s not to say that the rest of the city is hostile. Looking at the electoral map, Nashville is a blue dot in a sea of Southern red, and as much as you might hesitate to equate gay-friendliness with presidential picks, there is an inevitable correlation in a place like Nashville between gay-friendly neighborhoods and the areas of town where Obama signs dominated the landscape in ’08.

So what accounts for the difference between Nashville and the surrounding sea of red? Over in Memphis, another blue dot in the electoral crimson tide that is Tennessee, the massive numbers of African-Americans are often credited for the Democratic blip on the radar. Nashville certainly has a large minority community, too, but other factors are more significant.

Songwriter Marcus Hummon–famous for penning Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” and someone who’s worked with both Sherrié Austin and Shane Stevens–thinks it’s the college-town factor, which has always fed into Nashville’s self-image as “the Athens of the South.”

“I don’t think it’s a perfect world down here at all, but I do have this sense that Nashville might be more accepting and diverse than other places in the South,” he says. “I’d base that on its always having been a center of education. You’re looking at 17 universities or colleges in roughly a five-mile radius. That, as a starting point, means it tends to be a more diverse, accepting, and educated population that would effect a more gay- and lesbian-friendly culture.”

It may be worth pointing out, though, that a few of those colleges Hummon refers to are conservative Christian schools, where the official ethos – if not necessarily the actual opinions of the student body – might tend toward the “love the sinner, hate the sin” school of thought on homosexuality.

Boldt, for one, disagrees about the university community being the tipping point in local acceptance. He credits showbiz with leading the way here, even if Nashville’s main export, country music, hasn’t been a hotbed of gay advocacy. “Nashville’s entertainment industry, with a wealth of opportunities for both artists and behind-the-scenes employees, has probably been the biggest factor in influencing views on the gay community.”

And how has all that trickled down–or up–to legal standings?

You need a scorecard to keep track on that front…and, again, the city-vs-state differences come into striking play. “Nashville has made a slow progression in terms of gay rights,” Boldt says. “While the council voted earlier this year to require all those who do business with the city to extend the same (anti-discrimination) protections (to gays, lesbians and transgender people), it was soundly overturned by the state government and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam. A number of plaintiffs are now in the process of suing the state, deeming the law unconstitutional and founded on discriminatory principles. It’s really quite a complex, sticky situation.”

But in the volatile South, cases arise where it might be better to be thought gay than to be assumed something even more offensive. Jared Allman tells the story of one such recent incident. “This summer, Tenisha and I did encounter an interesting twist to racism,” he recounts. “I went home with her to Memphis, and people thought we were a couple. We would pull up to a stoplight in Memphis and these people are giving us mean, mean, mean looks and saying things”–with the rather open hostility coming primarily from the black locals who didn’t take kindly to the thought of an African-American woman dating down. “It probably didn’t help we were in a canary-yellow Camaro convertible!” he laughs.

Maybe, for any future such occasions, it’d be good to carry a rainbow flag just to get out of trouble.

New episodes of GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS on Fridays at 9 PM et/pt. Can’t wait? Watch the full episodesRIGHT NOW!