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PFLAG sets up shop in Gaston County

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You'd think starting a gay rights group in Gaston County would be an uphill battle.

We're talking about the county where, in early 2009, commissioners voted to support a gay-marriage ban in the state constitution -- an issue they have no authority to change.

An area where there aren't organized meeting places for the LGBT community (like Charlotte's Lesbian and Gay Community Center). And churches, like Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bessemer City, break off from their national bodies when they accept gays in leadership positions or speak up for same-sex marriage. An area where a politician's spouse used the media as a bully pulpit to speak out against homosexuals -- like in February when state senator Jim Forrester's wife, Mary Frances, wrote a piece titled "The Real Homosexual Agenda" in 2008 for the Christian Action League, a group that routinely speaks out across the state against gays, sex and alcohol. (Jim Forrester led the charge to ban same-sex marriage in North Carolina.)

Despite the county's perceived homophobic reputation, residents Robert Kellogg and Amy McCarthy Sifford recently went on to found Gaston's first chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. And while the pair expected to be the subject of personal attacks for starting the group, surprisingly, PFLAG has, so far, found support in the conservative county and little backlash.

Sifford, who is a lifelong resident of the area, had never heard anyone speak well of gays.

But a letter in a local newspaper that urged people to stand up for their beliefs -- written by Kellogg after the commission's vote -- spurred Sifford to action.

"Whenever you hear about a minority sexual orientation [in Gaston County] it is always framed in a negative way," Sifford said, who added that she has a gay family member. "I felt like it was time for people who had different ideas about it to be visible. As a heterosexual, I feel like it's my obligation. If I say that I'm going to be an advocate, if I say that I affirm minority sexual orientation, then I need to make that known."

But when Sifford became one of the faces standing up for the LGBT community, there were some in her family who weren't very happy. According to Sifford, one family member told her not to use her maiden name when she spoke to the press about gay issues. "When somebody tells me not to do something, that makes me do even more," she said with a laugh.

Kellogg, on the other hand, ran across some anti-PFLAG rhetoric in cyberspace.

"The biggest struggle is coming up against community resistance. Not face-to-face but different attitudes through Internet chatter or people in the religious community," Kellogg said. "In Gaston County, it's really a mind-set. People don't understand that this is not a choice or a lifestyle, this is who we are. There is still that struggle here with a lot of people and how they think and believe."

Still, Sifford and Kellogg have found that many others in the community support the cause.

The group had its first meeting in May, before it was officially a chapter, to gauge interest. About 30 people showed up, and the founders were excited.

"We were expecting about five to 10 people," Kellogg said about that initial meeting. "We would've been happy with 10, but we saw it was 30 people, and it wasn't just gay and lesbian or bisexual individuals -- but family members and heterosexual community members that wanted to express their discouragement of the way things have been."

Does this mean that Gaston County isn't as closed-minded and homophobic as some people may think?

Matt Comer, a gay rights activist and editor of the Charlotte-based gay and lesbian newspaper Q-Notes, said that though Gaston County is no "liberal bastion," people are getting to the point where they respect other views.

"Although they might disagree with them, [Gaston residents] have gotten to the point where they allow people to have their own groups and advocate for themselves. Even if there is disagreement, it's civil," Comer said.

The interest in Gaston's PFLAG harkens back to the origins of the national organization, which was started in 1972. According to PFLAG's Web site, when Jeanne Manford marched with her gay son in New York's Pride Day parade, many of the parade participants approached Manford and begged her to talk to their parents. She decided to begin a support group. The first formal meeting took place in March 1973 at a local church -- approximately 20 people attended.

Gaston's chapter of the group -- which meets at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Gastonia -- is currently in the middle of its membership drive, and the organization's officials are planning upcoming programs and social events. But Kellogg knows that in order to change people's attitudes about gay and lesbian people in Gaston County, PFLAG has to lay a strong foundation that encourages people to speak out.

"I think there are more people that support the gay and lesbian community, but they are afraid to speak up and be seen as supporters because of what it might mean to them personally," said Kellogg. "There are still community, political and family repercussions for people standing up for what they believe in."

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