Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.
— The Beatles
Lee Formwalt is a man of varied and large talents. He gained renown as a college professor, an activist, an author and as director of the local Albany Civil Rights Institute. Under his guidance, the museum’s attendance and relevance soared.
Museum officials, history will most likely prove, set the facility back considerably when they all but forced Formwalt out of the position at the end of last year. Of course, both sides are playing nice right now and saying the right things about his departure, but the bottom line is Formwalt would still be at the museum if he’d gotten the support of its board.
The historian has never been one to let personal issues stand in the way of doing his job. Perhaps that’s why Formwalt asked for my discretion when he revealed the most personal aspect of his life during an interview I conducted for a 2010 story on the racist Jim Crow laws. Out of respect for Formwalt’s wishes, I kept his revelation close to the vest.
Today, in an act of bravery few of us will ever understand, the historian reveals to The Albany Herald and its readers what he surprisingly shared with me. Following are his words.
— Carlton Fletcher
A little over a year ago, Carlton Fletcher wrote a column about “a city/county official [who] ‘came out’ to” him in the course of an interview he was doing on another subject. The official told Carlton, “While I am proud of who I am, I’m afraid there would be repercussions if I said publicly that I am gay. It wouldn’t change how I do my job; it wouldn’t change how I deal with the public; it wouldn’t change anything as far as I am concerned. But it would change how I am perceived and treated by many in the community. And, frankly, I’d worry about keeping my job and my own safety.”
Now that I have retired from my position as executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute, I feel free to disclose that I was the official in question. Although my homosexuality had nothing to do with my leaving ACRI, I strongly believe that, because of the homophobia in Deep South communities like Albany, revealing that aspect of my life would have made it much harder for me to be an effective community leader.
Coming out is not a one-time event for gay people, but a process we go through for the rest of our lives. When I came out to myself in 1994, waves of relief flooded over this cradle Catholic whose life had been affected by the anxiety and guilt I had felt for most of my 45 years because I was sexually attracted to men more than women. For the first time as an adult, I was at peace with my feelings. I lived in Albany at the time, and I knew I couldn’t share my newfound happiness with anyone else here for fear of the reaction I would receive. So I settled into my comfortable closet.
It took moving away to a gay-friendly community in Indiana-Bloomington to more publicly reveal who I was. My wife and children were very accepting of their gay spouse and father. In fact, my wife appeared on a local panel here in Bloomington that I helped arrange to discuss the struggles faced by straight spouses. We’ve since divorced amicably, and family gatherings at holidays now include my ex-wife and her husband, our children and their spouses or significant others, and my partner and me.
Having been out of the closet for 10 years in 2009, I had to make a difficult choice when I was asked to come back to Albany to run the ACRI. Because I was really committed to the mission of ACRI, I decided to go back into the closet in order to effectively lead the civil rights organization in a homophobic community.
Lest anyone doubt Albany’s homophobia, check out some of the responses to Carlton’s column on Dec. 19, 2010. Also, ask your pastor about accepting LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) persons into full membership in your church. A few months back, The Herald ran a series on bullying without a single reference to gay kids as victims. I suspect there was a fear that such a mention might indicate sympathy for gay and lesbian students.
Homophobes who persist on seeing homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, and a sinful one at that, can’t see that gay rights, including the right to marry, is a human rights issue. In this month when we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, it’s appropriate to note that his widow, Coretta Scott King, some of his lieutenants, including Dr. Joseph Lowery, and other civil rights leaders, particularly Julian Bond, have stated categorically that gay rights, including the right to same-sex marriage, are civil rights. Just last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed at a United Nations gathering in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
Secretary Clinton made it clear that the American record on human rights for gay people was not impeccable and that as recently as 2003 a number of states outlawed homosexuality. Gay Americans still experience harassment and physical violence, while a number of LGBTQ students are bullied and excluded by their straight peers. But that record did not prevent her from speaking out on this global issue.
Meanwhile, back home, the rash of gay youth suicides led columnist Dan Savage in late 2010 to launch the It Gets Better Project. Celebrities, leaders and ordinary citizens have made videos encouraging gay youth to hang in there and not give in to the depression and suicidal thoughts that come with homophobic harassment and bullying. Among the more than 30,000 user-created videos is one by Barack Obama in which the president says he didn’t know what it was like to be bullied because he was gay, but he did know what it was like to grow up feeling like you did not belong. He encouraged gay youth who are being bullied or feel depressed to turn to adults they can trust. And like the rest of the adults who made such videos, he encouraged young people that “it gets better.”
My hope for Albany is that it will get better for LGBTQ youth and adults. Racism is still a problem in the Good Life City, and it is something that we must continue to work at. But race is not the only arena in which civil and human rights are violated. I encourage the political, social, economic, cultural and especially religious leaders in Southwest Georgia to stand up and condemn the homophobia in our community. All of us need to speak out when we witness harassment or disparaging comments based on someone’s sexual orientation. Homophobic jokes are no more acceptable than racist ones. While others lead the battle for human rights on the world stage or through the Internet, we in Southwest Georgia can play our part on our own battlefields whether they be at the office, at social gatherings or in church.
— Lee Formwalt
Email Carlton Fletcher at email@example.com.