Ga. town suffers unwanted fame for anti-gay action

July 21, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Correspondent

Marietta, Ga. -- Most residents of Cobb County didn't consider gay rights fighting words until recently -- not even the gays and lesbians who live here.

The heart of this Atlanta suburb lies in Marietta Square, a tiny park bordered by narrow streets, a friendly drug store and antiques shops. For more than 100 years, the square has been a gathering place for those who live here, a place for Fourth of July festivals, Jaycee jamborees, religious meetings, a Ku Klux Klan march.

In August 1993, county commissioners passed a resolution condemning what they called the "gay lifestyle." In doing so, they thrust the community full throttle into a national debate about homosexuality -- and, for the first time, the little square became a rallying spot for the community's gays and lesbians.

Although Cobb County may be the first officially to decry homosexual lifestyles, at least 20 other jurisdictions have passed or considered anti-gay measures, and residents of two states -- Idaho and Oregon -- will vote this fall on whether to prohibit laws protecting the civil rights of homosexuals.

And on Capitol Hill this week, the Clinton administration endorsed proposed legislation that would, for the first time, ban job discrimination among civilian employers on the basis of sexual orientation.

As the Cobb County measure's first anniversary approaches, the debate surrounding it has intensified -- and focused national attention on the county itself. Next month gays and lesbians -- as well as heterosexuals -- plan to gather again at a human rights rally in Marietta Square to mark the occasion.

"We want to keep awareness about the resolution alive. This is about human rights, and our goal is to get the resolution rescinded," said David Mayersky, co-chair of the Cobb Citizens Coalition, a gay and lesbian group.

Because the county is the scheduled site of some 1996 Olympic volleyball games, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games faces growing pressure from national gay groups to move the games beyond county lines. Last week, amid complaints from gays and lesbians that he was moving too slowly, committee president Bill Payne announced that he was very close to picking an alternative site.

The argument took on a personal tone three weeks ago, when the 24-year-old daughter of County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne, who supported the anti-gay measure, stunned county residents by announcing that she is a lesbian. A week later, despite increasing outside pressure, the commission rejected a second resolution aimed at mollifying the gay community.

Meanwhile, some residents, who until recently had remained silent, are stepping into the fray. "If the resolution had said Jews or Hispanics, the community would have been up in arms long ago," said Rabbi Steven Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth, who is an organizer of next month's rally.

"Up until a few months ago I was inactive. I'm not gay, I have no gay relatives, and I don't have very many gay friends," he said. "But this is ultimately an issue of human rights. How can I sit or stand idly by?"

Tradition runs deep here in Cobb County, as do controversial stands. This is home, after all, to Kennesaw, the city that countered gun control efforts by requiring heads of households to keep a firearm.

Last month, Cobb County leaders lost a 2 1/2 -year court battle to keep a plaque with the 10 Commandments on the side of the county courthouse.

Other facets of the county's history point to a legacy of intolerance. In a notorious incident, a Jewish factory superintendent named Leo Frank, who had been convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old girl, was kidnapped from his jail cell in 1915. He was lynched near Marietta Square by a group of Cobb County residents; no one was prosecuted for his death. Frank was pardoned posthumously in 1986.

Marietta is also the home of Edward R. Fields, a founding official of the National States Rights Party, a now-defunct white supremacy group, and a Ku Klux Klan organizer. Mr. Fields now publishes an anti-Semitic and racist monthly called "The Truth At Last."

The issue of homosexuality, once raised in Cobb County, has proven long-lived and divisive. The battle over the resolution has split the religious community: 271 ministers signed a petition supporting the resolution and 37 opposed it. One is rumored to have signed both.

Statewide, homosexuality is part of a number of platforms in next fall's elections. At least one candidate is promising to fight the measure if he wins.

"A lot of us think the whole thing is out of control, and both sides have shown a lot of hate," said Kathleen Caldwell, who moved from Atlanta to Smyrna three years ago. "But it has also given us a lot to think about."

Accusations of inaccuracy, of racism, of extremism have flown back and forth. According to the Neighbors Network, an Atlanta-based organization that tracks hate crime, the resolution's backers have ties with extreme right-wing religious groups and with racist organizations.

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