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Conservative South Clashes With Open Homosexuality

As TV's 'Ellen' comes out tonight, the South wrestles with staying conservative while becoming cosmopolitan.

If residents in Birmingham, Ala., want to watch Ellen "coming out" tonight, they will have to do it with a satellite dish.

The local ABC affiliate has refused to air tonight's episode, in which the sitcom comedian announces she is a lesbian, deeming it unsuitable for family viewing.

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This is just the latest clash between homosexuality and Southern culture.

* Bill James, a Republican county commissioner in Charlotte, N.C., has been besieged with thank you notes from constituents cheering his vote to stop funding groups that expose the public to homosexuality.

The move was sparked in part by the Charlotte Repertory Theater's production last spring of "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." In effect, the commission's 5-to-4 vote means the county will no longer give tax dollars to the local Arts and Science Council that funneled money to the theater.

The move comes at a touchy time for Charlotte as it aims to become one of the South's most cosmopolitan hubs.

* Cobb County north of Atlanta and Greenville County, South Carolina, passed resolutions last year condemning homosexuality. As a result, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games pulled events from Cobb County, and a van, instead of the usual runners, carried the Olympic torch through South Carolina.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg of a tidal wave of [reactions against gays] that started in the late '70s and early '80s," says Wayne Flynt, a professor of history at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. "The South has been fairly isolated until the 1950s and as ... the region becomes more economically integrated, all of a sudden Southerners are aware there are things going on they just hadn't been aware of that seem to threaten their culture."

Professor Flynt contends the region's confrontations with homosexuality began in the 1970s. Until then, the South's religious community hadn't been active on certain moral issues, "particularly the issue of homosexuality, which it viewed as something remote from its world - something that happened in New York and San Francisco, not Alabama," Flynt says.

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"In 1979, after the Moral Majority forms, and continuing with the Christian Coalition, [southern churches are] carried in to a new dimension of what is a moral issue, and issues that hadn't been moral issues before are promoted to that."

Indeed, homosexuals have always existed in the South and for most of its history the region has kept an ambivalent attitude toward them, says Bill Ferris. "Gay culture, while not the norm, was a part of the Southern experience for centuries," says Mr. Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "Though they may not have openly flaunted their sexual preference, it was not an issue in the Southern community."

Roots of hot-button issue

Some say a growing conservatism in the South and a movement nationally to push the homosexual agenda are reasons it has surfaced as a hot-button issue in the region.

In Charlotte, for example, "most people have a sort of live-and-let-live attitude," says Mr. James, the county commissioner.

"We're not interested in prying in people's bedrooms ... but when you start taking tax dollars and using it to advocate to children that it's normal to engage in these things ... and put on plays that are highly offensive to the majority of citizens ... it makes no sense."

Still, James says, the South isn't unique in confronting the issue. Cincinnati and Denver had protests and threats of economic boycotts followed after anti-gay measures were passed.

Flynt agrees and uses the West as an example.

"If you live in the Rocky Mountain area, you weren't aware of a lot of things that were happening until the '60s and '70s in terms of your values being threatened and all of sudden when you become aware of them you get really mad."

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