Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
May 09, 2005

Tolerance and Tennessee
By Bruce Vilanch

Probably the gayest thing to come out of Tennessee is Dolly Parton. This may be saying a lot, especially when you consider this is the state that gave us Graceland, Lisa Marie Presley, the pampered ducks of the Peabody, Minnie Pearl, Cybill Shepherd, Tipper Gore’s makeover, the atom bomb, and Opryland, but Dolly, who believes that if she’d been born a man she would have become a drag queen, pretty much takes the gay cake. Even when she was a simple country girl singing and playing guitar with Porter Wagoner, she looked vaguely like a Fire Island houseboy with a stuffed bra. Porter Wagoner looked like the man from out of town who was keeping her. Years later Dolly can still sit onstage encased in sequins, blood-red nails, and a forest of wigs and sing a tender song about a dead puppy. She projects a real soul from under a mountain of phony, and that’s pretty gay. The rest of Tennessee may not be built on her model, but there may be more there than meets the jaundiced old urban eye.

Seven years ago a couple of administrators in an officially depressed (so the statistics told them) town of 1,600 near Chattanooga decided that their middle school students needed to learn about people who were not white and anglo-saxon and were oppressed because of it. The school, which had one Hispanic and five black students in the small sea of white, began studying the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were wiped out. Few of the students had ever met a Jew.

First they read Anne Frank’s diary. They began sending out letters in which they asked people to send back a paper clip. During the ’40s, they’d learned, Norwegians wore paper clips on their collars to acknowledge friends and loved ones in the camps.

The class’s goal was 6 million paper clips, which would give them some sense of the enormity of the crime. They sent letters to a few famous people, and pretty soon Tom Brokaw was featuring their story on the evening news. It began raining paper clips. A married couple, German journalists, arrived to chronicle the effort, and a documentary film crew showed up. (Their movie, Paper Clips, is in in the midst of a theatrical run.)

Soon a group of Holocaust survivors made the trek to Tennessee to meet the kids and tell them, firsthand, what happened in Europe a generation before they were born. Twenty-nine million (and counting) paper clips later, the German journalists brought the town one of the actual cattle cars that was used to transport Jews to the concentration camps. It became the repository for 11 million of the clips: 6 million for the Jews and another 5 million for the gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents, and homosexuals who were also killed by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Let’s press pause. You did say “homosexuals”?

Yes, right there in the documentary, one of the students says it right to the camera. The homosexuals were victims too. It’s a very moving documentary. There are many scenes of children and adults becoming aware of the world outside their own, a violent world where hate is often allowed to reign.

Tennessee is a part of that world. Next year its voters will cast ballots in a gay-marriage referendum, just as voters in more than a dozen states did since last year. How many of these enlightened townspeople do you suppose will vote against discrimination, persecution, and oppression, not of Jews but of gay people who are perhaps in their own town? Will the fact that the teachers specifically included the plight of Europe’s gay people in the paper clip project have any effect at all?

Will these well-meaning, sympathetic citizens of the bible belt in a town about 50 miles from where the scopes monkey trial unfolded in the ’20s take to heart the lessons a paper clip project teaches us? Will they show the real soul that can emerge from under the fear-based fundamentalist rant that’s often the only thing, other than the sweet music, that you hear from Tennessee? Dolly’s fans can’t wait to find out.