And now, the rings: First same-sex marriage in Bibb County
What Tangerine Summers plans to do in Third Street Park on Saturday was a crime at one time. It landed her in jail more than once.
Tangerine is Ray Robert Grissett, a gay man who describes himself as Macon’s oldest-living female impersonator. The 60-year-old recalls times in the 1970s and ‘80s when dressing in drag could mean trouble in downtown.
“Things have changed a lot,” said Grissett, who at age 17 began performing inside the city’s gay bars. “If you worked in the club, you had to go in as a boy and come out as a boy. You couldn’t wear female clothes on the street. They would lock you up.”
The Telegraph was unable to obtain records confirming Grissett’s arrests, but according to archives, other drag queens and transgender people, called transsexuals back then, were arrested for violating a city ordinance that prohibited people from masking their identity in public.
“There is a concern that these people could be involved in homosexual activities or criminal activities,” Macon Police Chief Jim Brooks told The Telegraph in a 1985 article about the arrest of a drag queen. “It is in the best interest of the community to control people from masking their identity, period.”
Up until the mid 1990s, there were several gay bars downtown, including We Three on Cotton Avenue, The Red Wood, Topaz and Pegasus Lounge. Other gay bars would open in the early 2000s but none remain.
Even so, LGBT people and allies will gather downtown Saturday to watch Tangerine as part of a Pride Month celebration in the city.
It marks the first such celebration on record here since 2003.
“We decided that we can’t go another year without showing visibility here in Middle Georgia,” Scott Mitchell, who organized the event, said. Recent slayings of LGBT people, he said, namely the shooting death of 28-year-old Ronald Peters in Decatur earlier this month, prompted this weekend’s Pride event in Macon.
Peters was on the way to a MARTA station early June 4 when two men hopped out of a truck, put on masks and demanded Peters hand over his bag. One of the gunmen used an anti-gay slur before shooting him to death, according to a report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The event also falls on the 50th anniversary of the famed Stonewall riots where police and LGBT activists clashed outside a New York City hotel.
Macon has its own history of hate crimes that targeted LGBT people.
The motive was clear in the case of a gay man named Larry, who on a hot night in June 1992 was shot five times outside the home he shared with his partner, Jim. The week before the shooting, the couple reported to police that someone scratched the word “fag” onto their cars.
Larry survived after 66 days in the hospital. The couple moved to Atlanta that October, according to Telegraph archives. Because the episode was of a sensitive nature, The Telegraph chose not to identify the pair.
In January 1993, Elizabeth Davidson drove down from Tennessee to visit friends in Macon. The 25-year-old went to the Pegasus Lounge on Third Street, one of two gay bars open at the time, and was fatally shot by 16-year-old Dion Felton, according to archives.
Felton and three other teens had followed a man into the Pegasus earlier that night and were asked to leave because they were harassing patrons. The four returned 90 minutes later and Felton started shooting. Davidson was killed and another woman was shot but survived.
The bar closed for good the next day.
Over the Rainbow
A local activist made the news at a Macon Pride month event in 1995.
It was at the “Gay Pride Rally and Picnic” on Orange Street Park where a crowd of about 75 enjoyed balloons, barbecue sandwiches, cole slaw and singing. It was there that local AIDS activist Johnny Fambro announced he would run for City Council.
Fambro, who was gay, told The Telegraph that though his platform would be focused on the LGBTQ community, he chose to make the announcement at the Pride rally “to soften the attack opponents will make against (my) lifestyle, to get it out in the open early.”
Though Fambro did not win the election, he left a legacy.
Fambro was one of the first to sound a call to action when the AIDS epidemic hit in the early 1980s. He also directed the Rainbow Center and the Central City AIDS Network, which helped find housing for more than 400 people with HIV and AIDS in a 23-county area. He died at 63 in 2014.
On June 26, 2015, less than a year after Fambro died, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages.
Lauren and Paige Hightower were the first same-sex couple in Bibb County to tie the knot. The couple married in Vancouver in 2004, but both were surprised by the emotions they felt years later at their ceremony in the Bibb County Courthouse.
Aside from some anti-gay Facebook comments on a Telegraph story about their wedding, Hightower said they haven’t had any negative reactions from the public.
The First Baptist Church of Christ, which was founded in 1826, the same year as The Telegraph, voted in late 2017 to allow gay weddings there. The church aims to “accept, include and value all people,” according to its website.
There are more places of worship, such as Centenary United Methodist Church, that welcome people from all backgrounds and experiences.
Other places of worship may not always be as welcoming.
Singer Molly Stevens, a Macon native who graduated from Tattnall Square Academy in 2001, made headlines in 2018 after competing on NBC’s “The Voice.” She told The Telegraph about her experience coming out as a lesbian.
“Being a Southern Baptist, I thought that was a big sin and that I was going to go to hell for it,” Stevens said. “Coming out to my parents was tough. I don’t think they knew how to take it.”
She married Ashlee Stevens Lawson in late 2018. They live in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Stevens said she has a good relationship with her parents now. One Sunday in March, Stevens was in town visiting and decided to attend church with them at Ingleside Baptist.
The sermon that day, delivered by lead pastor Tim McCoy, was centered on “a life that pleases the Lord.” It was early in the sermon when McCoy first mentioned that “God is pleased when we practice sexual holiness.” He had the congregation read and repeat verses from Thessalonians.
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality,” McCoy said in the March 17 sermon, which was recorded and published on the church’s website. “That each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the gentiles who do not know God.”
At one point in the sermon, McCoy named off sexual situations and asked the congregation to say aloud whether it was moral or immoral.
Stevens took to social media the next day.
“When he said ‘Sex between someone of the same sex’ and had congregation repeat ‘immoral’ I quietly walked out and left,” Stevens wrote in the Faebook post. “I don’t know about anyone else’s. But my God was holding me tight when I exchanged vows with my wife six months ago. My God has held me tight my entire life and I’ve felt it. I’ve never questioned if God loves me.”
She added: “I hurt for the teenage kid yesterday sitting in that pew knowing they are gay and hearing directly from the leader of the church that they are not on the right path and are placed into a category of being ‘sexually immoral’ I was that kid once. Thank God I found the truth and courage to not believe that stuff.”