Gay history in Clarksville: 6 key moments for the local LGBTQ community
CLARKSVILLE, Tennessee (CLARKSVILLE NOW) – In the 1980s, being gay in Clarksville meant your privacy had to be kept extremely private. For Amanda Leigh, 62, much of that stemmed from widespread misconceptions about what it really meant to be gay.
“Back then, a lot of people just didn’t know what gay meant. So many people thought that being gay meant you were a pedophile, a predator, you wanted their kids, you wanted to convert everyone, ”Leigh told Clarksville Now. “They didn’t know what it meant and they weren’t interested in learning.”
Over the past 40 years, mentalities have radically changed. During Pride Month in June, Clarksville Now delved into the local history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender life. While we discovered many times of joy and prosperity, we also found times of discrimination and danger.
This is not a complete story of LGBTQ life in Clarksville – there is no doubt that LGBTQ life existed long before 1979. Rather, it is a snapshot of the moments that helped define Clarksville’s legacy in wrestling. for equality.
1979: continuation of the APSU Student Coalition for Gay Rights
In the fall of 1978, several students at Austin Peay State University organized a group called the Student Coalition for Gay Rights.
The students applied for recognition through the University’s Student Government Association, official recognition would allow the group to hold campus meetings and apply for funds to host events.
While the group’s request was initially approved, SCGR received a letter in February 1979 from the vice president of student affairs denying them recognition, according to documents from the APSU Archives and Special Collections at the Woodward Library. Reasons for refusing recognition of the group included concerns about what the community would think, and that allowing the group to function would mean that the university would approve of homosexuality.
Homosexuality was still illegal at this point, and it remained illegal in Tennessee until 1996.
After a battle in federal court, the university was forced to recognize the group in October 1979, when a judge ruled that students’ First Amendment rights had been restricted.
With this, the SCGR became the first Tennessee state college student organization focused on gay rights. Additionally, the legal battle would become a landmark case in First Amendment rights and has been taught at law schools, including Yale.
Bill Dannenmaier, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said his involvement as a straight man helped strengthen SCGR’s case.
“It helped keep the discussion on freedom of assembly, not perception or ‘way of life’ or behavior. We now know that “lifestyle” as a phrase is a bit of a fanatic, because it’s just who people are. It’s not something they chose, ”Dannenmaier told Clarksville Now.
“It’s a better world and, in part, this case helped make it so,” he said.
The group has changed its name over the past 40 years and continues today on the APSU campus under the name Sexuality and Gender Alliance.
1979: Opening of the first gay club
The location of Kimo’s Hawaiian Grill in downtown Clarksville was once a small, members-only club called Cooper’s General Store. Above the door hung the acronym CGS, which to the general public meant Cooper’s general store.
For those who were club members, however, CGS stood for Clarksville Gay Society. It opened on October 27, 1979 and was established as a private club.
Although the CGS wasn’t open for long, it was a place of gay celebration and liberation, and it featured drag performances. Clarksville drag queen Amanda Leigh, now 62, was on the CGS board of directors. She said confidentiality was necessary due to both public perception and the laws of the time.
Acting on his homosexuality was still illegal in Tennessee; the anti-sodomy law was struck down by the state’s supreme court only in 1996, almost 20 years later. Leigh and others said police and officers from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division entered the club several times to intimidate members. Clarksville Now could not find any documentation on these allegations.
Due to word of mouth about a potential crackdown on the club, CGS closed on April 6, 1980.
In July 1981, La Haberdashery opened, one of the many gay bars that opened and closed in downtown Clarksville in the 1980s and 1990s.
1981: bust of Trice Landing
While Trice Landing Park is known today for its fishing boat ramp and views of the Cumberland River, it was once a prime location for gay “cruises” and a high-profile police raid.
According to the Leaf-Chronicle records, officers from the Clarksville Police Department’s Vice Squad set up undercover operations to arrest gay men who would come to the park and search for connections.
In the spring of 1981, a police infiltration operation led to the arrest of 14 men. They were charged with offenses such as crimes against nature, attempting to commit a crime and common law obscenity.
The Leaf-Chronicle has repeatedly published the names of the men, their addresses and often their places of work in coverage of arrests and court cases. It was common practice at the time; the practice has since changed.
Several of the men received pre-trial diversions, and a handful pleaded guilty.
One of the men, APSU professor Pete Wenger, died on January 30, 1982, after falling off a cliff along the Red River. He had left his home the night before, threatening to kill himself because of the media coverage.
1992: Murder of P’Knutts
P’Knutts was a 38-year-old drag queen living in Clarksville. Born Jerry Cope, P’Knutts worked as a bartender at Brown Derby, a tavern then located at 321 Commerce St.
On the evening of January 13, 1992, it closed for the night when a theft is believed to have taken place. In the process, P’Knutts was stabbed and killed, according to Leaf-Chronicle records. The murder is still not cleared up.
Leigh and P’Knutts were best friends, and Leigh told Clarksville Now that she has found some peace in the past 30 years since losing her friend.
“It’s still this heartbreaking and I continue to miss her dearly,” said Leigh. “In my heart, I know who did this, but both are dead. ”
In Leigh’s house hangs a painted portrait of her friend. And after the murder, Leigh said attitudes around town had dramatically changed about drag artists and transgender people.
1999: Murder of the FPC. Barry winchell
Pfc. Barry Winchell was a 21-year-old gay soldier stationed at Fort Campbell. On July 5, 1999, after a fight with other soldiers that revolved around Winchell’s sexuality, Winchell was beaten in his sleep with a baseball bat. The next day, Winchell died at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Winchell’s death attracted national attention, and in particular, it led to a calculation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy, instituted by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994, which allowed LGBTQ people to serve in the military for so long because they weren’t public about their sexual orientation.
Months later, Clinton admitted the failures of the policy and cited Winchell’s death as questioning how the policy was implemented, according to New York Times records.
Winchell’s death also prompted the Pentagon to order staff training to prevent harassment of LGBTQ people in 2000, the Times reported.
Two soldiers have been charged: Pvt. Calvin N. Glover was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. CPS Justin R. Fisher was sentenced to 12.5 years in plea bargaining.
In 2010, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed by President Barack Obama, allowing gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemen to speak openly about their sexuality.
2005: Clarksville’s first pride
In 2005, David Shelton hosted the first pride celebration, which took place on May 21. It was sponsored by the Christian Community Church of Clarksville and was held in what was then Fairgrounds Park, now Liberty Park.
More than 800 people showed up in the first year and 1,200 the following year, in 2006.
While it was a fun, community-driven event with inflatables, face painting, and music, Shelton said Winchell and P’Knutts’ deaths were a motivator.
“What we wanted to do with Pride was try to do what we could to deal with these two events. Back then, it was also “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and there was no equality in marriage. … There are all of these things that we have today that I hope no one takes for granted, ”Shelton told Clarksville Now. “It was the environment, so if we knew we had Pride in Clarksville, we had to honor those two people.”
Tributes were paid and a portrait of P’Knutts was auctioned off – the same one that now hangs in Leigh’s house.
“The whole event was about pride, but not just to recognize where we came from, but also to say to the community as a whole, ‘We’re here, we’re gay. Now how can we help? ‘ Shelton said.
2015: First same-sex marriage in Clarksville
On June 26, 2015, with a 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the United States Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
That day, the first to arrive at the Montgomery County Clerk’s office to get married were Travis VanZant and her future husband, Michael.
“We were planning on going to another state to get married, and they happened to legalize it in all 50 states,” Travis said of him and Michael’s spontaneous decision.
They had been together for six months when they got married and they just celebrated their sixth birthday.
Although VanZant and her husband have faced many hardships, including difficulties in adopting children and obtaining health insurance through their respective jobs, they have taken in several children together and continue to hope to adopt one day.
“Being able to be with the person I love and not having to worry anymore is amazing,” said Travis.
AFTER: LGBTQ Clarksville on what it means to move from self-acceptance to pride