The Last Frontier for Gay Rights

A powerful liberal activist, a rural conservative town and a debate that won’t end

The Last Frontier for Gay Rights

A powerful liberal activist, a rural conservative town and a debate that won’t end
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Word spread fast through the county that fall. Comments streamed across Facebook and in the halls of the high school and through the pews of churches: There was a gay-straight alliance starting up at Alexander Central High. It would be known as the P.R.I.D.E. Club: People Respecting Individuality, Diversity and Equality. Its detailed acronym notwithstanding, theories about it swirled. There were rumors that the school would have “transgender restrooms,” or that a “homosexual-based curriculum” would be used in health and physical education classes. Some community members were upset about the school district’s lack of communication. A woman wrote in to the town newspaper: “It is heartbreakingly sad that our morals have come to this.”

P.R.I.D.E. Club posters were torn off the walls of the high school, which is home to 1,350 students. Club members laminated the posters to prevent defacement and took to taping them on all four sides like a picture frame, to make the ripping down just a little harder — tips they had learned from GLSEN, a national organization that promotes gay rights education. Underneath the main flier, they taped a smaller poster in case the first was torn down, and sometimes under that poster they put a sticky note imploring students to love, not hate. Three notes, they hoped, were better than one.

The sense of siege extended to adults — on all sides of the controversy. Robbin Isenhour-Stewart, an art teacher and the club’s co-adviser, said she received “biblical hate messages” taped to her classroom door. The Rev. Phil Addison, a Southern Baptist minister, said he found trash on his lawn and his mailbox kept getting knocked down; he suspected it had to do with his public criticisms of the club. “I don’t know that it was them,” he told me, “but if not, it was a huge coincidence.” David Odom, a school board member, said his daughter came home asking why he was taking the Bible out of schools.

At a school board meeting in October 2015, more than 150 people showed up. Taylorsville, N.C. — where the high school is located — is a small town (population 2,100) within rural Alexander County (population 37,000); school board meetings usually drew fewer than two dozen people. But pastors asked their church members to attend, and so they did. Held at the squat beige building that houses the school district offices, the 6 p.m. meeting was standing room only. Residents spilled out through the hallway and into the parking lot. People prayed and preachers spoke while the proceedings went on inside. One pastor posted on Facebook that a teenage boy gave his life to Christ, right there in the parking lot of the Alexander County Board of Education.

Inside, the seven members of the school board opened the floor for public comments. There was a sign-up sheet and five minutes allotted for each speaker. A man stood and read verses from the Bible condemning homosexuality. The older sister of the P.R.I.D.E. Club’s founder shared how much the club would mean to teens like her sibling. A former school board member spoke in support of the club, as did a doctor who was the wife of a local United Methodist minister. Isenhour-Stewart’s husband, also a high school teacher, shared statistics about the high suicide rate among LGBT youth and explained that bullying was a problem, which made a safe space like the club necessary. Addison expressed concerns that the club was getting special treatment since public school teachers were openly endorsing it.

The last name on the sign-up sheet belonged to someone who loomed large over the discussion — and who knew he wanted to have the last word. Mitchell Gold — the CEO of the $230 million furniture company Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, one of Alexander County’s largest employers — had been a fixture at town meetings and civic functions for years. He’d moved to the area nearly 30 years before, and for more than a decade, he had been preaching the gospel of gay rights, making it his personal mission to lobby religious groups to accept the LGBT community, especially youth. He was so publicly identified with this cause that some residents suspected he was the force behind the new P.R.I.D.E. Club. He wasn’t, he told the crowd — but he supported it. As he had done many times before, he shared his own story of being a gay teenager who struggled to be accepted. “I am proud to make sure in this community every child knows there is somebody out there that does not believe they are broken,” he said, according to the Taylorsville Times.

Mitchell Gold, co-founder of furniture manufacturer Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.

Gold was determined not to let the issue drop. Three months later, he brought it up again at a county commissioners meeting. Locals had started to worry that Gold was moving his business because he had recently bought a facility in a neighboring county. He assured the commissioners he was committed to remaining in Alexander County — the additional facility was just a good deal — but he also wanted to address “the elephant in the room.” “The kind of bigotry that exists in this county,” he said, “that happened when the high school wanted to put in a gay-straight alliance, it’s inexcusable.” The town videotaped the proceedings, which were posted online and covered in the newspaper, prompting a heated exchange in the letters-to-the-editor section. “Mr. Mitchell Gold,” one reader wrote, “you will not hold Alexander County hostage to promote your lifestyle nor will you force us ‘bigots’ to accept it.”

What was happening in Alexander County was a version of the debate unfolding in recent years in towns across the country, places where the laws have swiftly changed but deeply held beliefs have not. Today’s national conversation about gay rights often assumes that the battle for gay equality has been largely won; but in these conservative regions, far from the cities and coasts that are synonymous with gay culture, the LGBT community is still in the process of making its presence known, rendering visible what has long been hidden in plain sight. Along with countless other rural communities, Alexander County is part of this next, and too-often-overlooked, frontier in the LGBT rights battle — with one twist that has thrown the usual tensions into starker relief: Few places in rural America have a Mitchell Gold, a gay rights activist who is also one of the most powerful men in town.

I have no problem with Mitchell Gold as a man. ... But I do not approve of his lifestyle.
Rev. Bill Orren

Alexander County lies at the edge of Appalachia in western North Carolina, an hour north and a world away from Charlotte. It’s beautiful country, where rolling farmland gives way to breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge foothills. The landscape is dotted with nearly 100 churches, more than half of them Baptist. “We’re the buckle of the Bible Belt,” locals repeated to me, and as proof, many mentioned that it had become legal to sell alcohol countywide only in 2016. One county over, where the city of Hickory is located, there are chain restaurants, a university and stretches of suburban sprawl, but when you drive over the bridge to Alexander County, as one resident put it, it’s like “going 30 years in the past.”

For more than a century, people in these hills have crafted furniture, drawing manufacturers that come for the abundant timber and textiles and skilled labor. That’s how Gold ended up here in the 1980s. His job in sales with Lane furniture company took him to Virginia and on to North Carolina, where Bob Williams joined him. They had met and fallen in love in New York, and in 1989, they went into business together, producing their own furniture line out of Taylorsville, the county seat. Around the region now, as people talk of the manufacturing businesses gone to China and the jobs that are never coming back, the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams company is touted as an unmitigated success: a local brand with 34 stores, including outposts in Washington’s Logan Circle and Virginia’s Tysons Corner. MGBW was for years Alexander County’s biggest private-sector employer; today, with more than 660 employees in North Carolina, it’s a close second.

Inside the main factory, on a morning this past January, the sewing machines did not hum as much as they roared with industrial strength, while the upholsterers fired rounds from staple guns, sealing fabric onto wooden frames. “That’s my idea of a symphony,” Gold told me, “when you hear the rhythm of the factory.”

Gold’s shiny black shoes clicked on the concrete floor — made slick so it’s easier to slide furniture across it. At 67, he is trim with silver hair and dark eyebrows and dark-framed glasses. He’s a prototypical extrovert, with seemingly boundless energy. “Peggy, how are you doing?” he asked an employee — and then greeted another and another as we wandered through the facility. “Clifford, doing all right?” “Willy, you doing all right?”

Gold with Bob Williams in 1997 with pets Lulu, left, and Shebe. (Courtesy of Mitchell Gold)

It’s tough work, these jobs — full of heavy lifting and paid by the piece. This isn’t a union area, and many of the highest-skilled MGBW factory workers make between $25 and $30 an hour. Compared with its competitors, though, MGBW has earned a reputation for its perks: an in-house health clinic with an on-staff nurse practitioner, a cafe with a full-time chef, and an on-site day care, where in 2016 Roy Cooper, now the state’s Democratic governor, spoke at the graduation ceremony. Those amenities are rare here, a pastor told me: “Silicon Valley, sure. Rural North Carolina? No.”

Gold and Williams have offices on opposite sides of the building, separated by the factory floor. “He is diagonally the farthest away from me possible,” Gold said, and when I asked if that was intentional, he didn’t answer. Their romantic relationship ended in 2002 (they are both married to other men now), but the business partnership remained. “We’re best friends,” Gold said.

Williams is as reserved as Gold is not, and he tends to leave the front-facing activism to Gold. “Bob works and then goes home and stays home,” Gold said, and Williams nodded in agreement as we sat in his office.

In the early years at the factory, Gold had told me, “people really didn’t know we were together. People didn’t think about it. So we go on vacation and the plant manager tells us that somebody asked, ‘Now, Mitchell and Bob work together all the time. Why would they go on vacation together?’ It was kind of cute.”

The topic of gay rights rarely came up when they first moved to North Carolina. “And it’s not like there haven’t been gay people here since forever,” Williams said. “It’s just one of those things no one talked about.”

“It’s, you know, my Uncle Joe has a roommate. Aunt Sally, she has a roommate,” Gold added.

For Williams, who was raised in a small town in East Texas, the move to North Carolina was like coming home. It was Gold who was the obvious oddball: a New Jersey boy transplanted to the rural South, not to mention a secular Jew in a Southern Baptist stronghold. Both men became big donors to progressive causes and the Democratic Party, even while doing business in a deeply red county — one that went 76 percent for Donald Trump. “I don’t think people know what to make of us,” Gold said, unprompted, as we left Williams’s office and walked back onto the factory floor. “I think, in general, that Bob and I freak them out. Who are these gay guys running this company?”

The Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams factory in Taylorsville, N.C. The company is the second-largest private-sector employer in Alexander County.

From his perch in the North Carolina foothills, Gold watched the march of gay civil rights, but he also saw what to his mind was its chief impediment: religion. Or at least certain strains of religion. He thought as long as conservative pastors in town, and religious leaders across the country, preached against homosexuality, the gains of the gay rights movement would be limited, if not rolled back. In 2005, he started an organization, Faith in America, with the goal of combating “religion-based bigotry” against the LGBT community.

He sent a three-page letter about it to every Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams employee. He wrote, “I fully recognize that for some of you this will be very VERY hard to understand and deal with.” He didn’t sleep worrying that half the employees wouldn’t show up the next day — but in the end, he said, only one person quit.

“I want to educate people,” he told me. “What I want to educate them about is the harm that they’re causing.” Gold, whose Judaism had once taught him he was an abomination and who had contemplated suicide as a teenager, was most concerned about the religious messaging sent to young people. “I don’t want a kid to go through what I went through,” he said. “It was torture.” He familiarized himself with Christian teachings, reading books that reconciled the Bible and homosexuality. He quipped, “I’m the only Jewish person in America who has read all these Christian books.”

Gold approached his activism like a salesman running a marketing campaign. Faith in America took out ads in newspapers and organized town hall events. He went on Fox News and PBS and CNN, and he co-edited a book with first-person narratives about growing up gay. In his office, he still keeps Faith in America posters stacked against a wall. (Last year, the organization merged with the Tyler Clementi Foundation, named for the gay Rutgers student who committed suicide in 2010.)

One lawyer in town told me that over lunches together, Gold had helped him “evolve” on same-sex marriage. An executive at MGBW told me the same. Gold said that over the years, he had heard from factory workers who thanked him for starting to open up their minds on the issue. When a family physician in Hickory wanted to start a support center for LGBT youth in the region, one of his first phone calls was to Gold, who became an integral supporter of what became OUTright Youth. As the gay rights movement progressed nationally, it also inched along in the Catawba Valley, which for the past eight years has hosted its own pride festival in Hickory, advertising it as “The World’s Shortest Pride Parade.”

Still, Gold’s message was, on the whole, a tough sell in Alexander County. For one thing, the very reason he gained an audience — his business success — was part of the reason residents viewed him as different, set apart.

He also doesn’t live in the county, instead residing just outside it, in a luxurious Adirondack-style house with lakefront views. He drives a Bentley to the factory and hobnobs with celebrities, decorating his office and home with framed photos of himself with Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Cher.

His ideas were particularly fraught among Alexander County’s evangelicals. He wanted to remind them that some biblical literalists had once supported segregation and fought interracial marriages — history that some conservative ministers in the area told me they didn’t see as analogous to LGBT rights. Within months of Faith in America’s launch, pastors held a revival in town and invited a self-proclaimed “former homosexual” preacher to speak. Gold sat up front at the event. “I wanted everybody in the community to see my face listening to this person,” he said. Afterward, he went out to dinner with the speaker and a local pastor; neither side came away persuaded.

Every so often, something bubbled up and reminded Gold how far his mission still had to go. In 2012, when same-sex marriage was on the North Carolina ballot, the state voted decisively to outlaw it. Gold’s assistant remembered coming into the office the day after the vote and seeing Gold on his computer, scrolling through the results. What he would have found was that Alexander was one of two counties that had voted the strongest against same-sex marriage.

Lisa Childers, left, with her fiancee, Stacy Rhodes, at their home in Hickory, N.C., near Taylorsville. Childers has worked at Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams for 11 years.

The employees had heard the comments over the years. “There ain’t nothing but a bunch of queers that work there,” a man told Richie Nelson, MGBW’s head of quality control, four or five years ago, when they struck up a conversation at a restaurant. “He just kept going on and on,” said Nelson, who is gay. Eventually, he decided to reintroduce himself. “I said, ‘I’m Richie. Richie, Queer-as-Hell Richie.’ ” That did it: The man got up in a huff and left. Around here, Nelson said, “I guess you still have that kind of closed mentality.”

And yet, the county and the company forged a partnership, spurred on by economic need as much as anything else. The walls of the MGBW offices are lined with awards, including a plaque for “Large Business of the Year” from the Alexander County Chamber of Commerce. The company sponsors area nonprofits and fundraisers and recreational sports leagues, where adults and kids display the logo on their uniforms. “I don’t think there’s been a season that a ball team hit the field that they weren’t wearing the colors of Mitchell Gold Bob Williams,” Taylorsville Town Manager David Odom, who is also a school board member, told me. “He has established a clear track record of benevolence here.”

Odom added: “A few people, who are biased and judgmental, I can promise you do not represent the majority of folks in Alexander County. They may think they do, but they don’t.” Otherwise, he argued, few parents would let their child wear a Mitchell Gold shirt, and few workers would take a check from a gay employer.

Though the company hardly had droves of gay employees, it did become an LGBT oasis of sorts in the Carolina Piedmont. Dan Swift, Gold’s executive assistant of 12 years, had been closeted at his old bank job and applied to MGBW partly because it would be gay-friendly. Ken Hipp, an executive with 17 years at the company, had worked at a conservative mortgage company in Charlotte when he first came out. “I was really looking for a different kind of environment,” he said. “Basically, I said I’d do anything just to be here.”

Lisa Childers has been a brass nailer for MGBW for 11 years. The decorative nailhead trim on headboards and armchairs? That’s her handiwork. It’s a painstaking job, but it has afforded her a nice life: a little brick house in the country and a pristine lawn, where she spends happy hours keeping up the flower beds and the fire pit and the in-ground pool.

Childers and her partner, Stacy Rhodes, have been together seven years now. On their first date, they met in Blowing Rock, a scenic town an hour northwest of Taylorsville. They went out for tapas and then for coffee. Rhodes took Childers on a walk to a park, and they stopped at a white gazebo near a pond. As they strolled, Rhodes looped her arm through Childers’s. “I was dying inside because I would never show affection,” Childers told me. “I went with it, but I was about to die.” There were rules she had learned for being gay in the rural South, rules for self-preservation. “I used to walk a lot with my head down,” she said.

Childers attaches nailheads on furniture in the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams factory. Growing up in Taylorsville, she had learned the rules of being gay in the rural South. “I used to walk a lot with my head down,” she says.

The two women met me for dinner at a sports tavern in Hickory, not far from where they live. Rhodes, at 32, is almost 20 years younger than Childers, and she sees their struggle through the eyes of a different generation. It’s not that it has been easy, but she is bolder than Childers. “I wish she had a quarter of the self-assurance and confidence that I have,” Rhodes said.

Childers, whose freckles make her look younger than her age, grew up in Taylorsville, where she always knew she was attracted to girls. When she came out to her parents, they sent her to a preacher for counseling, and after that, they rarely spoke about her sexuality at all. Her siblings have struggled to accept it, especially her brother, who is a Baptist minister.

She proposed to Rhodes in the white gazebo in Blowing Rock, and they will marry there in September. Only two members of Childers’s family are planning to attend the wedding. “We don’t always get what we want,” she said. Her nephew will be her best man; he used to work at MGBW, too.

At work, Childers can be out and open, thanks to Gold, but she knows not all of her co-workers approve. “A lot of them would accept you as a person, but if you sat down and asked them if being gay is right or wrong, they’re going tell you it’s wrong,” she said. According to Childers, Gold had done a lot to promote tolerance in the town, but he couldn’t achieve his ultimate goal of getting people, even in the factory, to be fully accepting of homosexuality: “Most of them have Southern Baptist roots that have preached since you were old enough to sit in a pew by yourself that it’s wrong and you’re going to hell. It’s been beaten into their brain.”

In the community, strangers often stare at Childers. Unlike Rhodes, who wears makeup and presents as traditionally feminine, “you can pretty much look at me and stereotype me,” Childers said. To prove it, toward the end of dinner, she pointed to a group of women walking toward our booth. “Y’all, watch people’s eyes. Like these ladies. I guarantee one of them will take a look.”

One woman, then a second woman, passed us by, but sure enough, the third person in the group — a middle-aged woman with a gray-streaked bob — fixed her eyes on Childers. I craned my neck and watched. The look was unmistakable: a deliberate glare, one of focused hate.

We sat in stunned silence for a moment, until Childers broke the tension. “Did you see that? That look straight into your soul? It kind of numbed my heart there for a second.”

“That one right there,” Rhodes said. “That was it.”

“She kind of made me shiver,” Childers said.

Sometimes Childers worries that people are right in their judgments. “I know I didn’t choose this life,” she said, “but what if I am wrong? What if I’m going to go to hell? Because of being me.”

Rhodes turned to reassure her. “I prayed for you and you showed up. God wouldn’t give us this if it were wrong.” Childers believes that, but the questions still rise up in the back of her mind. Later that night, she texted me, “The constant preaching against it will always be in my memory.”

The Rev. Bill Orren of Millersville Baptist Church in Taylorsville. He says he has had only brief interactions with Gold over the years. “The only capacity that I’ve ever seen Mitchell Gold in is when he’s advocating for homosexuality.”

Ten minutes from the factory, Millersville Baptist Church and its big, stately brick building rise up on a steep, grassy hill. There is a giant cross on the hill, and at night it is emblazoned with lights. When I met the church’s pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Bill Orren, the sun was setting as he walked me to a Sunday-school classroom off the fellowship hall.

I had come to see him because some of his church members work at MGBW, and people in town had told me Orren might have some thoughts about Gold’s activism. He would not be among the most strident voices, they hinted, but perhaps he could articulate views that many Alexander County evangelicals hold.

Few in his congregation wear a suit and tie, but Orren does; that day, his was charcoal and finished with a white pocket square. He radiated authority. “I am going to just tell you from the get-go,” he began after we took seats opposite each other. “I have no problem with Mitchell Gold as a man. As a businessman. I have no problem with him being part of our community. But I do not approve of his lifestyle. And I do not approve of any lifestyle that is pushed down my throat.”

“Lifestyle” — it is a loaded term I heard over and over again in Alexander County, from people who oppose or have reservations about homosexuality, implying that sexual orientation is a choice, not innate. Other Southern Baptists I spoke to reiterated what Orren did: that they saw being gay or transgender as a sin to be contained, not a civil right to be accommodated.

Orren looks for a passage in the Bible. Gold “has said some harsh things about pastors and what we believe,” Orren says.

“This is America,” Orren continued. “Even if you don’t agree with somebody, you got to respect their right to believe what they want to believe, even though you might think they’re, you know, out in left field somewhere.” As he sees it, Gold is the media darling, always put in a positive light, all while Gold fails to respect his views. “He has said some pretty harsh things about pastors and what we believe.”

Orren said the church should do more to love gay people, but his words were harsh — tough love, as he sees it. “You’re a female, right? You have the body parts of a female, don’t you? Well, I’m a male, and I have the anatomy of a male. Would you not say that is natural?” Orren leaned in to make a point. “You take two men together. Why would a man take the male anatomy, which produces life, and put it in a man where death comes out? Think about that. That’s unnatural.” (Gold had mentioned hearing a similar argument from a minister once: “I looked at him and said, ‘The parts fit just fine. I would contend the parts fit better.’ ”)

Orren has had only brief interactions with Gold over the years. “The only capacity that I’ve ever seen Mitchell Gold in is when he’s advocating for homosexuality,” he said. But when I asked him whether he had reservations about his church members working for Gold, he surprised me with a quick no. “I think he’s a great businessman,” he said. It was a common refrain I heard from ministers in the county, even those who disagreed with Gold’s views. Orren was nearly effusive in his praise of the factory. “Hey, he treats his people right. You couldn’t ask for nobody that treats anybody better.”

One of Millersville Baptist’s own, Ellen Smith, has worked at Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams for 24 years. “Ellen loves Mitchell and Bob,” two other employees told me. And it’s true. She dotes on Gold especially (“Mitchell, there’s a bond there,” Smith said) and can’t say enough good things about the company, where she started as a seamstress and worked her way up to be a supervisor.

We were in her little office with wooden walls in the middle of the factory. Smith told me she hadn’t worked for MGBW but two years when everything changed: Her son was riding in a car with his boss from his after-school job. A handsome football player, just 18, an honor roll student. There was a wreck. “He got killed instantly,” she whispered, a lump in her throat.

The company and Gold helped take care of her — “anything I needed.” After that, she was committed. “I could have taken another job, but my heart belonged here, and it still does.” Later, when her daughter was ill and hospitalized in a nearby city, Gold offered her family a place to stay so they could be closer to the hospital. “It’s the compassion,” she said.

Working for gay men was not a factor for her. “I live the way I believe, but I don’t judge people. I don’t condemn people — I pray for them. The lifestyles are so different, but they have been so understanding and so kind, there’s no room for any different feelings. There’s no room.”

I asked her about Gold’s gay rights activism to faith groups. And this is where she struggled to find the words. She doesn’t want to offend him. But as much as she loves the company and her career, she loves her faith more. “I will always stand for my Christianity. My faith in God comes first. Beyond everything.”

What do you believe? I asked. “I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman,” she said. She started to speak and then trailed off. “And now comes the test. I either say it, and own up to it, and not be afraid because I know God is my savior. This is my test, kind of.” And if it was a test, if she had to make a choice, it was clear she would choose her church and what it teaches. “Like I said, I really think the world of Mitchell and Bob.” As she spoke, she teared up and reached for a tissue box on her desk. “At this point, I don’t think about their lifestyles. I have no reason to.”

Rebecca Mills, left, hugs teacher Robbin Isenhour-Stewart at Alexander Central High School in Taylorsville. Isenhour-Stewart is one of the advisers for P.R.I.D.E. Club, which Mills started. A group of students started a rival Bible Club, and scheduled it to meet at the same time as P.R.I.D.E.
The idea of the club formed after Mills and her best friend, Matthew Bowman, came out to each other. Bowman graduated before it got off the ground; Mills started the club as a senior. Now 20, she visits when she can.
Rebecca Mills, left, hugs teacher Robbin Isenhour-Stewart at Alexander Central High School in Taylorsville. Isenhour-Stewart is one of the advisers for P.R.I.D.E. Club, which Mills started. A group of students started a rival Bible Club, and scheduled it to meet at the same time as P.R.I.D.E. The idea of the P.R.I.D.E. Club formed after Mills and her best friend, Matthew Bowman, came out to each other. Bowman graduated before it got off the ground; Mills started the club as a senior. Now 20, she visits when she can.

In the fall of 2015, two high school teachers made an appointment with Gold at his factory office. Gold had reached out to Robbin Isenhour-Stewart and Tiffany Boston, as co-advisers of the new P.R.I.D.E. Club, to see how he could help them. They were nervous to meet him. “He’s like a local celebrity,” Boston told me. The board of education meeting was coming up, and they asked if Gold would speak out in support of their students. “He’s a big fish in our little small pond,” Isenhour-Stewart said. “And when his voice says something, people listen.”

Despite rumors in town, neither Gold nor the teachers started the P.R.I.D.E. Club. Its creation belonged to two students and best friends, Matthew Bowman and Rebecca Mills. When one came out, the other said: I know and I’m proud of you and I still love you. When the other came out, it was the same. Bowman, now 21, was the naturally political one, who kept up on the latest in gay rights advocacy. Forming a gay-straight alliance had been his idea, but when it didn’t get off the ground by the time he graduated, it was up to Mills during her senior year. Mills, with her facial piercings and her hair dyed in changing shades of blue and pink and purple, was not afraid to stand out, despite her natural shyness. As Bowman put it, “Rebecca’s used to telling people to stick it.”

Mills, now 20, asked her favorite teacher, Isenhour-Stewart, to be the P.R.I.D.E. Club adviser. Isenhour-Stewart reached out for help from her colleague Boston, who signed on despite having reservations. Boston had graduated from Alexander Central, and she knew the community well, but she was also gay and black in a county that is 91 percent white. “I feel like it’s easy for me to become the poster child for diversity, you know? It’s kind of lacking around here, and I don’t want to be the poster child,” she told me. Up until that point, she kept her private life largely that — private. “But I said, ‘You know what? This is my chance to say, yes, I am a lesbian. I am a teacher. I am a black female. And I have just as much right to be here.’ ”

I can’t look at a kid and think that they’re an abomination, I just can’t.
Teacher Robbin Isenhour-Stewart

The backlash started before the club ever met. Mills, who had endured her share of bullying in the past, says she got into a yelling match with another student in the hallway. Students raised questions about the club in class, forcing her to defend it. “I was trying to explain to them it’s not bad,” she recalled. “We’re not trying to turn people gay.” Some teachers expressed disapproval, rooted in their religious beliefs. A group of students, with the support of local pastors, started a rival Bible Club, and scheduled it to meet at the same time as P.R.I.D.E.

It troubled Isenhour-Stewart how the debate painted the LGBT community and religion as mutually exclusive. “I don’t believe in that type of God. I can’t look at a kid and think that they’re an abomination, I just can’t.” Her church in Hickory, part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), supports the full inclusion of LGBT people. “There were lots of personal attacks on my faith,” she said. “You can feel it kind of tear at your soul.”

She was pregnant with her second child that fall, and she worried about the stress. Boston, whose partner asked her to be careful, worried about safety. By the time the board meeting rolled around, neither felt she could attend. They didn’t want Mills to go either, but she went anyway, with her mother and older sister, who spoke on her behalf. “The whole time she was speaking, I just bawled my eyes out,” Mills said.

What many of the county residents did not realize was that the club’s existence had already been decided. Some people came to the board meeting thinking there would be a vote on the issue, but the district superintendent and the principal were supportive of the club, as was the board.

Rev. Orren attended the meeting, and he told his congregation to go as well. He downplayed the tension. “There were not people there with burning torches and sticks and pitchforks,” he recalled. As the meeting disbanded, though, the crowd felt menacing enough that an MGBW employee decided to escort Gold through the parking lot to his car. Not far away, Mills and her mother and sister were trying to back out of a parking space when a crowd circled her Volkswagen Bug. They were singing, she said, and while she didn’t know the hymn, they sang until a teacher came and told them they had to let her go.

The P.R.I.D.E. Club met for the first time the next day, and more than 60 students showed up. A school resource officer was stationed outside, just in case. Teachers and community leaders came in support. Gold was there. The adults at the meeting stationed themselves against the wall, all the way around the room, Isenhour-Stewart said, “like a metaphorical wrapping the kids in support.”

English teacher Tiffany Boston with students during the P.R.I.D.E. Club’s Valentine’s Day party at Alexander Central High.
Boston, who is a lesbian and a co-adviser of the P.R.I.D.E. Club, knows the community well. She graduated from Alexander.
English teacher Tiffany Boston with students during the P.R.I.D.E. Club’s Valentine’s Day party at Alexander Central High. Boston, who is a lesbian and a co-adviser of the P.R.I.D.E. Club, knows the community well. She graduated from Alexander.

Anna Watson, the associate executive director of OUTright Youth, works with LGBT teens and young adults in five counties in the region. “Alexander County, out of all the counties that we serve, that’s the one that I would have picked to have been the last one to get a gay-straight alliance,” she said. We were sitting on cowhide MGBW ottomans at OUTright’s center in Hickory, as Watson explained the anti-bullying programs she helps implement in area schools. She has facilitated trainings for Alexander County’s school system, and she has worked with its P.R.I.D.E. Club.

“We can’t take the stance of bashing the churches,” she said. Since so many educators attend conservative churches, she believes being critical of religion will only hinder her work. She often tells people that she is not there to change their beliefs. “I always start with that,” she said. “They let their guard down a little bit when I’m able to say, ‘I’m not here to change any religious belief you have. I’m not here to push an agenda. I’m here to give you the facts. I’m here to have a conversation about it.’ ” For her, it is a pragmatic choice.

When I asked Gold about her viewpoint, he said, “I understand why she has to do that, but it is kind of silly because we do want to change everybody’s beliefs.” He allowed that there was room for different approaches. “For her, what she needs to do is to be able to have a presence in each school.”

His job was to be a loud voice crying in the wilderness — to be “the biggest gay in town,” as he once joked to me. I asked Gold about the First Amendment critique I heard from ministers in the county: that they had just as much of a right to preach as he did. He said: “Yes, this is America. Yes, you are allowed to do that. … You are allowed on Sunday morning to say what you want to say” — and here he began to hit his hand on his desk to emphasize every word — “even though these are things that are causing innocent people enormous mental anguish and, in some cases, even death.”

Gold preferred to focus on the Christians who had changed: the denominations that had altered church teachings; the small but growing national contingent of evangelicals who supported same-sex relationships; and, in Alexander County, the mainline Protestant ministers who supported LGBT rights and the P.R.I.D.E. Club. He knew it was an uphill battle with those he dubbed the “hardcore evangelical Southern Baptist ministers.” He did not know what might break through to them or their congregants, but in every interaction, he saw an opportunity, the potential to make a sale. He wrote me an email one day, sprinkled with ellipses, as was his custom: “It’s impossible for me to know how many I or others might have changed….nor am I in some competition where I feel the need to keep score….but I know from the regular people who thank or tell me how they’ve changed….older kids or adults who I’ve given great peace to either from my book or a talk or whatever, that it gives me the energy to keep giving all this my time and $$ investment.”

Mitchell Gold and husband Tim Gold with their dogs at home in Conover, N.C., just outside Alexander County.

There were Bibles in the reception area of Alexander Central High when I arrived. They were displayed on a shelf, just above the yearbooks and across from the sign-in desk. Around the corner was Principal Doug Rhoney’s office, where, after we took our seats, he jostled his legs with the restless energy of the coach he once was.

Fearful. Scared. Worried. Those were the words he used to describe his first reaction to the P.R.I.D.E. Club. “I knew what it was going to be in our community,” he said. He talked to a few ministers in town to get their counsel. “I’m a strong Southern Baptist myself. I’m a very strong Christian,” he said. Despite any personal misgivings, Rhoney knew supporting the club was the right thing to do. “You’ve got to separate your religious beliefs and convictions and do what’s best for kids. At the end of the day, that’s what we done.”

“I’ve got straight kids, I’ve got kids that claim they live the homosexual lifestyle, all sorts that meet within the P.R.I.D.E. Club,” he added. “You never hear a peep about it anymore. In a very rural, Southern, Bible Belt community, we’ve been somewhat — I don’t want to say accepting — but we’ve allowed the school to provide support.”

He sang Gold’s praises as a businessman and booster of the school system, including his company’s donation of a $27,500 football scoreboard. “This is typical small-town America,” Rhoney said. “On Friday night, where’s everybody at? They’re sitting in that stadium.” The old scoreboard had been duct-taped and repainted and put back together, he said. One week it would work, the next week it wouldn’t. Now there’s a bright blue and gold one at the top of Cougar Stadium, next to the school. Underneath it, in big white letters, is the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams logo. And at every game, he said, the announcer thanks Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams for their support.

I asked Rhoney if he got any complaints about that. He grimaced, conceded there might have been a few snide remarks. “My response was, ‘We need a new baseball scoreboard. If your company wants to buy it, come on.’ ”

The scoreboard dedication was at a football game in October 2016, almost exactly a year after the infamous school board meeting. Gold and Williams wore matching blue Nike warm-up jackets with the Cougars’ logo, and they posed next to Rhoney for a photo published in the paper. Later, Gold walked his Doberman, Zola, across the field and held the ceremonial ribbon while Williams cut it in two with large prop scissors. “You worry that people are going to yell stuff, shout stuff,” Rhoney said. No one called out anything from the stands, at least as far as he heard. He counted that as progress.

The P.R.I.D.E. Club still meets every second and fourth Wednesday of the month in Boston’s classroom. Mills visits when she can. Bowman led an after-school program for the students last year. Gold has been a guest speaker, and he still drops by periodically. Along with Mills, he was there on a Wednesday in January, trailed by a company publicist, camera in hand. When he introduced himself to the 20 students, saying, “I have a factory down the street,” the kids giggled in recognition. He needed no introduction.

Isenhour-Stewart welcomed the day’s speaker, Alyssa Maynard, a recent Alexander Central graduate and former P.R.I.D.E. Club leader. Behind Maynard, at the front of the room, a screen projected smiling selfies of her and her girlfriend, also an ACHS graduate, their long blond hair intertwined. The students raised their hands with questions. How hard was it for you to come out? Are there P.R.I.D.E. clubs at college? How do you talk to parents who aren’t supportive?

“It’s completely different once you leave here,” she promised them. Some days, it felt like everyone she knew was gay. “It blew my mind how normal it was outside of Alexander Central.” She still lived in the county, but she worked and went to college in Hickory. “I have met so many LGBTQ people and so many people that are supportive, and I had no idea that the community was that big and that strong.” It had been a revelation, that there were people like them everywhere, if only one knew where to look. They had been there all along.

Tiffany Stanley is a writer in Washington.

Credits: Story by Tiffany Stanley. Photos by Carolyn Van Houten. Graphics by Tim Meko. Designed by Christian Font.