Banned in Georgia

September 28, 1993

Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water. Folks in Newt Gingrich country can go overboard. When the Cobb County (Ga.) Board of Commissioners got wind earlier this year of a local theater whose advertising for a production mentioned the word "gay," the commissioners first tried to block the theater from receiving county funds, then cut off all arts funding in the county.

Cobb County is no rural backwater. It's a major suburb of Atlanta, home to 470,000 people. The largest employer is Lockheed. Cobb County receives more federal largess than any county in America except Fairfax County, Va., and Brevard County, Fla. But even its relative affluence and proximity to one of the South's largest cosmopolitan centers hasn't saved it from the excesses of conservatism run amok.

Predictably, the brouhaha over arts funding arose as part of the flotsam of debate over gays in the military. A local official noticed a newspaper ad for Marietta's Theater in Square's production of "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," whose plot revolved around "two couples having sexual crises on a weekend at the beach, along with a snake in the basement, a drowned body and gay neighbors 'playing' in the bushes. It's Fourth of July and the fireworks haven't started yet!" As it happened, the play had no gay characters, though there were references to a man who had died of AIDS.

The commissioners and a prominent local minister thought they detected in the theater's fare a dangerous assault on "family values" and an attempt to impose the "gay agenda" on Cobb countians. "They wish to suborn the moral principles that we teach our children," one commissioner complained. Informed that the county's own arts policy forbid government meddling in the free expression of groups that receive public funds, the commissioners simply decided to eliminate arts grants altogether.

This kind of hysteria over an imagined artistic "threat" would be comical were not it not for the nasty undercurrent that is driving much of the debate. Railing against "degenerate art" is simply an attempt by commissioners to employ gay-bashing without taking the heat for bigotry. It's a tactic conservatives and religious fundamentalists honed during the culture wars in Washington. Now they've taken that show on the road, hoping to make "art" a dirty word everywhere. It provides an object lesson in how the New Puritanism's excessive zeal can turn even virtue into vice.

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