Lynchburg News and Advance Article: "Gay Activists, Their Foes Take up Usual Positions"

Both sides push viewpoints at rally in Lynchburg park
By Darrell Laurant
Lynchburg News and Advance
Sunday, October 12, 2003

The Rev. Mel White climbed the stone steps of the bandstand at Riverside Park Saturday afternoon and looked up the hill to where the Rev. Richard Knodel was standing with his bullhorn.

"Hi, Mr. Knodel," White said.

"Hi, Mel," Knodel replied. "It’s unlovely to see you again."

This was the second annual gay rights rally Out and About in Lynchburg, sponsored by White’s national organization Soulforce, and there was a definite feel of deja vu in the warm fall air – the same rainbow balloon arch as last year, the same booths, the same protestors trying to outshout the Soulforce speakers.

"I know just about everybody here," said Lynchburg Police Chief Chuck Bennett.

There was, however, a new issue – the question of gay marriage, the subject of a forum held earlier in the day at First Christian Church (referred to in one protestor’s sign as "First Sodomite Church," to the chagrin of interim pastor Don Bohlke).

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is pushing a constitutional amendment limiting marriage only to heterosexual couples, a position shared by President Bush, and that issue was dramatized Saturday by an old red truck with California plates that spent the afternoon making circuit after circuit of the park’s looping access road.

"Stop Judicial Tyranny!" proclaimed a sign on the truck.

Except for electronic conflict, with the event organizers bringing in larger speakers midway through to compete with the bullhorns, the day passed with no incidents – thanks in large part to a sizable contingent of Lynchburg police that took pains to keep the groups separated. But Soulforce member Kris Elkins of Fredericksburg said he saw dangerous times ahead.

"There is going to be a lot of backlash from that (U.S.) Supreme Court decision (overturning a Texas anti-sodomy law)," Elkins said. "We’re already seeing some of it, and I’m afraid there’s going to be an increase in hate crimes.

"I’m 60 years old, and I don’t mind being a Matthew Sheppard (a young gay man killed in Wyoming several years ago) if that’s what it takes."

Michael Glass came from Pittsburgh with his wife and children for the second year in a row.

"I understand the simplicity of this," said Glass, casting a glance at the line of protestors, "and how misinformed some people are. But what I don’t understand is how it can be led by so-called Bible believing churches."

Jeff Daniels had no problem with that at all. Stocky and bearded, he staked out his own position on the hill above the bandstand with a large wooden cross and bullhorn louder than Knodel’s.

"I hear the argument that people should be able to do whatever they want to do in the privacy of their own bedroom," Daniels said. "I agree. If they want to go to hell, that’s up to them. It’s none of my business. But when they’re all over TV and movies, they’re coming into my living room. And then it becomes my business."

One of the speakers at Saturday’s rally, however, has chosen a different battleground than the Bible.

"The Koran speaks of marriage as a very important part of life as a Muslim," said Shiekh Daayiee Abdullah, a Sunni Muslim religious scholar from Washington, D.C. "It doesn’t specify that it had to be marriage between a man and a woman.

"Most people don’t understand their own book, and I say that of all religions. Sound bites get them excited, but they don’t understand the context. The story of Lot in the Bible, for instance, is misinterpreted."

Saturday’s speakers were interpersed with musical acts, one of which was female impersonator Ravyn Vega of Lynchburg.

Well over six feet tall and tottering in his blocky high heels ("That’s why I have to keep a couple of people standing next to me, in case they have to catch me"), Vega led the crowd in the ’80s disco hits "We Are Family" and "I’m Coming Out."

A Virginia Commonwealth University student named Christmas Joye Abbott then stepped to the microphone and spoke about being beaten up on campus because she was a lesbian, choking back tears at the end.

And finally, the closing message came from Jimmy Creech of Raleigh, N.C., who was defrocked as a United Methodist minister in 1999 after presiding over two single-sex marriages in Nebraska.

"I changed my mind about this issue," Creech said earlier, "when a male member of my congregation down in North Carolina came out to me and told me all the oppression and persecution he had undergone as a gay man. That made a real impression on me."

As the afternoon wore on, the exchanges between the several hundred Soulforce members and the handful of protestors richocheted back and forth like echoes off a canyon wall.

"They’re screaming at you," said a Soulforce speaker, "but there’s no dialogue."

"You think you’re sophisticated because you’re in rebellion against the Lord!" Daniels shot back.

"God is not hate! God is love!"

"If everyone believed as you did," Knodel retorted, "it would be the end of society. All of you are the result of heterosexuality."

Several young boys were part of the protest team, their shrill voices providing a constant counterpoint: "God hates you! You’re an abomination! You’re going to burn in hell!"

And the red truck made its ceaseless rounds, two yellow wooden tablets listing the Ten Commandments attached to the back of the cab.

"You fish where people are at," said Jeff Daniels. "That’s why I’m a street preacher."

On the other side of the asphalt divide, Michael Glass said: "I’m looking forward to the day when we won’t have to have this event any more, because it won’t be necessary."

碁 Contact Darrell Laurant at dlaurant@newsadvance.com or (434) 385-5544.