NoMoreDownLow.TV is taking its show on the road, and heading to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. We’ll bring you all the sights and sounds of the convention through reports from our ally correspondent, Wyllisa Bennett, who is a native of the Tarheel State, and lived in Charlotte for 13 years. In today’s blog, she talks about how she became an accidental advocate for the gay community.
What can I say, the gays love me. I don’t know if I wear an invisible sign, but they’ve always been drawn to me like a bee to honey. For as long as I can remember, friends, family and colleagues started coming out to me at various stages in my life. See, sometimes, you don’t find a cause, but a cause finds you!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an accidental advocate for the gay community, long before President Obama supported gay marriage. And I have my mother to thank for teaching me about tolerance at such an early age. When you grow up in a tolerant home, you can be ignorant about stuff that the world outside may be intolerant about. Let me explain.
I was born and mainly raised in Burlington, North Carolina by my mother and maternal grandparents, and the extended Gadison clan. It’s a clan that respects and honors religion and the traditions of the church.
Growing up, in the middle of the Bible Belt, church was not only a religious outlet, but a social one. And there was always something to do at the church. Endless meetings and choir rehearsals any given day of the week in addition to Sunday services.
(I digress: I now realize that I’m a more spiritual person as oppose to a religious one, and have since retired my Sunday religious rituals.)
Around the mid-1970s, I was about 11 or 12, my mother sang in the Angelic Choir at the First Baptist Church in my hometown. One day, she came home from choir rehearsal extremely upset and downright mad. She explained how the church fired the talented church pianist/organist because he was a “homosexual.” Now, this man could play the piano and organ like nobody’s business, and set souls on fire with his music. In fact, the choir accompanied him, instead of the other way around.
“A what?” I asked my mother.
“A homosexual,” she said. And without any judgment or a Bible verse, she just gave me the Webster’s dictionary definition of a gay person. And that was the end of our conversation about it. But, her actions left a lasting impression.
She was on the phone, talking to other choir members and anyone who would listen about the unfairness of the church. She was concern about the organist’s well being and livelihood; yet, she felt powerless to save this man’s job.
To this day, I’m very proud of my mother and the life lesson she taught me. She didn’t quote Bible verses and preach the gospel to me about Sodom and Gomorrah. And believe me, that woman knows Bible passages! Instead, her actions showed and taught me so much more. And instinctively, in that moment, I knew that discrimination against a gay person was wrong. And at that early age, I made a conscious decision to do my part to help the underdog – that is, the gays and lesbians. This situation began a series of other gay-related incidences that began popping up in my life.
Around 1980, when I was 15, and my cousin headed off to the Navy, only to be discharged a couple of years later because he realized that he was gay. I was shocked at his revelation because we grew up together, and I thought we shared everything. I jokingly asked him if the Navy “turned him gay?” And he explained to me that he was always gay. Of course, I didn’t understand the ramifications of how this altered his career choice.
Nor did I understand, years later, why gays stayed closeted in the workplace. Around 1992, I was a production assistant for the overnight news program, “NBC Nightside,” a production of the now-defunct NBC News Channel, based at WCNC-TV in Charlotte. I was chatting with a colleague, who was seemed broken hearted about a relationship. He was reluctant to confide in me until I innocently blurted out: “Are you gay or something?” He looked at me and said, yes, then asked me a strange question: “You don’t mind?” Puzzled, I just shook my head, and responded “not at all.” Ain’t ignorance, bliss?
That very same week, other colleagues of mine in the newsroom came out to me, one by one. These were people that I had worked and socialized with on a daily basis, yet, almost overnight, they felt safe to trust me with their BIGGEST secret. It wasn’t until I got older and moved away from North Carolina that I fully understood their reality and reasons for leading a double life.
In the cover story of the March 1994 issue of Community Pride magazine, as a writer, I explored the topic of Charlotte’s African American LGBT community as well as its relationship with the Black church. The headline read: “Coming Out Or Still Hiding? Our Gay Community Emerges With Caution.” Back then, it caused quite a stir; but it also opened up some dialogue in the Black community.
In my mid-thirties, I moved to Los Angeles in 2001, and there was a big difference in the attitude toward the LGBT community. They are out and open, and parading along the streets of West Hollywood. Still, the gays were fighting for something more: Gay rights. Gay marriage. Gay equality. And like many of you, I had to evolve into the idea of gay marriage.
In November 2008, that was a time of celebration and sadness in California. We elected the first African American president; however, California voters approved Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage. That was a bittersweet election year for the LGBT community.
And four years later, here we are again. Another election year, and President Obama is the first president to openly support gay marriages. And gay equality has been added to the Democratic Party’s platform.
Today, I’m realizing a full circle moment. I’m returning to Charlotte to cover the Democratic National Convention as an ally correspondent for NoMoreDownLow.TV, an entertainment web series that focuses on the African American LGBT community. It’s kind of fitting that I return to my Southern roots, the Queen City – no pun intended — which elected its first openly-gay city council woman, LaWana Mayfield, last year.
As I trace the footprints of the gay rights movement in my own life, I can see progress with the changing of the times, just like my mother did with the Civil Rights Movement in her day. I’ll keep marching in solidarity for the LGBT community; because after all, my mother taught me to do the right thing.
Wyllisa R. Bennett is a writer and entertainment publicist based in Los Angeles. She moonlights as an ally correspondent for NoMoreDownLow.TV, and will be covering LGBT-related stories at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Follow her on Twitter @WyllisaBennett.