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Controversy stirs in Charlotte over 'deviant' art

commission April 10, 1997
Web posted at: 8:45 p.m. EDT

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From Correspondent Brian Cabell

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) -- At a hotly contested recent meeting of the Mecklenburg County Commission, commissioners voted to end funding for any art project they consider deviant and incompatible with family values.

Protesters outside the commission chambers shouted "Shame! Shame!" and those inside were no less vociferous.

"This is division, this is hatred, and it's history repeating itself," county Commissioner Lloyd Scher said. "Hitler began with these teachings."


The source of the controversy was "Angels in America," a Pulitzer Prize-winning play presented in Charlotte last spring. Among its themes, to the dismay of some demonstrators and commissioners, was gay life in America.

"It think it's immoral," said Commissioner Hoyle Martin. "I don't like it at all. It's against everything I've been taught. It's against everything the Bible says, it's unnatural, it's unhealthy."

Commissioners to decide arts funding

The commissioners decided that from now on, they, not the quasi-public Arts and Science Council, will decide which art projects get funded and which don't.

"There is an element of intolerance that exists in this proposal, and I think it is not representative of the people of this community," observed Michael Marsicano of the Arts and Science Council.


A recent poll found that county residents strongly believe art experts, not county officials, should judge the merits of art.

The controversy leaves the city of Charlotte, which welcomes 6 million visitors a year for business and pleasure, with a possible public relations problem.

Officials remember how Colorado's tourism was hurt by fallout from an anti-gay rights law a few years ago.

cobb protest

They may also recall that a resolution in Cobb County, Georgia, condemning the gay lifestyle cost the suburban Atlanta county an Olympics venue, income and prestige during the 1996 Summer Games.

'Immoral' health programs also at risk

"I would say that you need to evaluate the community in total, not on any one particular, single issue," said Melvin Tennant of the Charlotte Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The controversial resolution affects more than just art. Its wording also allows commissioners to stop funding for any health program it considers immoral or deviant. Some commissioners already have expressed reservations about agencies dealing with AIDS and teen pregnancy.


That makes Townlee Moon of the Mecklenburg Council on Adolescent Pregnancy uneasy.

"We do feel threatened, because we get about 30 percent of our budget from the county, and we're afraid we will not be funded again," she says.

Charlotte, which calls itself the Queen City, likes to think of itself as prosperous and progressive. Contending with the ultraconservative views of some of its residents, then, might best be regarded as "growing pains."


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