National Commentary

Anything But Straight: No Couching Message In Furniture Mogul

Mitchell Gold is an openly gay, Jewish furniture magnate who is larger than life in small town America. Where most people leave New York to live unassumingly in the countryside, Gold has brought charisma and pizzazz to the sleepy hamlet of Taylorsville, North Carolina.

Mitchell Gold is an openly gay, Jewish furniture magnate who is larger than life in small town America. Where most people leave New York to live unassumingly in the countryside, Gold has brought charisma and pizzazz to the sleepy hamlet of Taylorsville, North Carolina.

Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture factory is the largest employer in the area. It has offered Gold a unique opportunity to converse intimately with a wide variety of people in rural America. In many cases, he has challenged their basic assumptions, engaged in sensitive debates on the separation of church and state and examined the underpinnings of anti-gay sentiment.

What is most striking about Gold is that he is “out,” with a capital O-U-T. While most nationally known spokespeople have a platform in a large gay community, the Internet or on television shows, they can generally walk down the street without being identified as “the town’s gay activist.” This is not the case for Gold, who is seemingly recognized by everyone within a 25-mile radius.

As a result of his work for the GLBT community, the Advocate magazine named him one of its 2006 “Persons of the Year” and this month, Out Magazine called him one of the “Top 50 most powerful gay people in America.”

With his penchant for challenging the status quo, it is no surprise that the organization founded by Gold, Faith in America – which is led by Rev. Jimmy Creech – has launched a controversial and ambitious venture to take on anti-gay prejudice.

The "Call to Courage" campaign is a five-city experiment that will “educate the public on the parallels between historical precedents of religion-based bigotry and today’s struggle for full and equal rights for gay people.” Faith In America’s initiative officially kicked-off May 6 in Ames, Iowa. The campaign, which is largely taking place in key presidential primary states, will proceed to Reno, Nevada; Manchester, New Hampshire; Greenville, South Carolina; and Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The campaign will include grassroots organizing, direct mail, paid advertisements and a Town Hall Meeting. However, what is generating the most buzz are the in-your-face advertisements that flat-out call our opponents bigots and claim the Bible affirms gay people.

One billboard in Iowa says, “Religion-based bigotry, race and gender yesterday…sexual orientation today.” A print ad on Faith in America’s website shows an anti-gay Klan rally with one “ghost” holding up sign that reads “Obey God’s Words.” Underneath reads a caption, “Religion-Based Bigotry. It’s not new. History has proven it’s horribly wrong.”

The idea of using advertising to attack homophobia is not new. In 1989, Hunter Madsen and Marshall Kirk suggested in their literary classic, “After the Ball,” that this potent medium be used to advance gay rights. They advocated warm and fuzzy ads to introduce the public to gay people, followed by more shocking ads that tied today’s anti-gay messengers to the haters of the past, such as Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. The first part of this strategy was somewhat successful, as most Americans have been introduced to positive images of GLBT people. Indeed, Hollywood has reduced the need for such efforts by infusing gay characters into storylines.

Until now, however, no one has attempted the more risky advertisements on a large scale. In a sense, this is unknown territory and it will be fascinating to see how the public responds. Already, one point of resistance is African American preachers making the inane argument that gays have not suffered as much as black people – as if we are in a victimization contest.

"Gays aren’t denied the right to vote,” Rev. Keith Ratliff of Maple Street Missionary Baptist Church fumed in the Des Moines Register. “Gays were not considered to be three-fifths of a person. Gays did not suffer through Jim Crow, separate restrooms and water fountains, sitting in the back of the bus and segregated schools. Gays were not enslaved for more than 200 years in America, lynched and bombed by the thousands, like the black people were."

Yes, gay people were just tossed in Nazi concentration camps, lobotomized, institutionalized, jailed, fired from jobs, beaten senseless and murdered for who they are. And, of course, there is the slow spiritual and psychological death of the closet suffered by so many Ted Haggard types. But I suppose we have not suffered enough for the satisfaction of Rev. Ratliff and others of his ilk.

Perhaps, an exhibit highlighting the horrors faced by GLBT people throughout history might supplement Faith in America’s campaign. This way, people at the Town Hall meeting, for example, can fully understand the toxic consequences of anti-gay rhetoric and discrimination.

Gold has taken a daring step and hopes his success in the business world can be duplicated in the advocacy arena. At the very least, if the moral clarity of these ads forces the presidential candidates to speak clearly on GLBT issues, the bold campaign will have made its mark.

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