LGBT group making strides in conservative East Texas
TYLER — When Troy Carlyle proposed launching a Web site for the East Texas LGBT community in 2006, one of his gay friends tearfully begged him not to do it.
"If you’re gay in Tyler, you’re expected to be quiet about it, and that’s enforced
in the straight community and, historically, in the gay community," Carlyle said. "The fear is just palpable here. He was certain that I would be assassinated."
Perhaps because Carlyle was new to the area and didn’t know any better — or perhaps because he’d already survived a brush with death from AIDS — he ignored his friend’s warning.
And three years later, Carlyle said he hasn’t received so much as a threat against his life.
Meanwhile, the virtual world he created through the Web site, www.tridd.com, has evolved into a real one in the form of Tyler Area Gays, or the TAG Project.
TAG, the first LGBT community organization in the history of this city 100 miles east of Dallas, now has 97 members.
In May, the group marked its first anniversary with a picnic in Tyler’s Bergfeld Park — coincidentally the site of a legendary hate crime murder in 1993, that of 23-year-old gay resident Nicholas West.
With about a dozen different programs including a flag football team that’s headed to Washington, D.C., for a national competition, TAG is now seeking nonprofit status and has started raising money toward its ultimate goal — an LGBT community center.
Carlyle, who’s lived all over the country and traveled the world as an elite Air Force pilot, said he’d never encountered a place as anti-LGBT as Tyler before he moved there in 2005.
But thanks to TAG, he said, the situation is gradually improving.
"It’s almost like a pressure cooker, and you’re seeing the relief valve starting to let the pressure out," said Carlyle, who chairs the group’s 10-member board. "What we [board members] agree on is, that’s a crazy way to live, that we’re not going to make progress until we come out of the closet and celebrate who we are. We have to raise our head and say we’re gay or lesbian, and that’s the only way things are ever going to get better here."
Air Force court-martial
Carlyle, now 47, is no stranger to homophobic cultures.
He grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, and attended the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He went on to become a transport pilot and join a top secret unit whose mission was so classified that he said he still can’t talk about it.
With a nickname of "Magellan," Carlyle’s life seemed to be lifted right from the script of "Top Gun." But then at age 29, he began to come to terms with the fact that he was gay.
He confessed to a friend, another pilot who turned out to be gay and responded by confessing to Carlyle.
But then his friend had a relationship that turned sour, and the civilian ex-boyfriend reported them both to the Office of Special Investigations.
Carlyle said they were the first people court-martialed after President Bill Clinton took office in 1992 and implemented "Don’t ask, don’t tell." Although Clinton’s order halted discharges for homosexuality, conduct such as sodomy continued to be prosecuted.
Widely characterized as a witch hunt, the case became the subject of national media attention. A story appeared in The New York Times under the headline, "Military’s Zeal Decried in Sodomy Case."
After a two-week trial in which he denied being gay — a defense he now regrets — Carlyle was convicted of sodomy based solely on the civilian man’s claim that they’d had sex. The prosecution requested a sentence of nine years in prison, but the jury opted instead for a dishonorable discharge.
With his decorated nine-year military career abruptly ended, Carlyle moved briefly to Texas, where he taught film and video at the Art Institute of Houston. Then he moved to North Carolina, where in 2000 he purchased a blues bar in the coastal town of Wilmington. He said he devoted the next five years of his life to the establishment known as the Rusty Nail.
Carlyle contracted HIV in 2003 from unsafe sex, but went undiagnosed and untreated until 2005, by which time he had full-blown AIDS. In December of that year, his brother and stepfather picked him up and moved him to Tyler.
"My family came to collect me and bring me home to die," he said.
But once in Tyler — a city that’s as well known for its world-class medicine as for its rose production and conservative politics — Carlyle found a good HIV specialist and got on the right medication.
As the haze of wasting syndrome lifted, Carlyle began to take note of his surroundings, and decided he wanted to change them.
"I asked where the gay community was, and everybody gave the same answer: ‘There isn’t one,’" Carlyle recalled.
Asked whether he’s ever been referred to as the Harvey Milk of Tyler, Carlyle shrugs off the question.
But another TAG board member, Tom Preston, quickly chimes in by saying, "He is!"
(Incidentally, the movie "Milk" was shown in Tyler, but only for one week after it had won an Academy Award and TAG members petitioned the theater.)
Preston, who’s 72 and straight, is a former English professor who served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Texas in Denton. After he retired, Preston and his wife moved to Lake Howell near Tyler.
Three years ago, when his wife died of cancer, Preston began looking for something to keep him busy.
A childhood friend who’s gay encouraged Preston to join the fledgling East Texas PFLAG chapter. Then Preston read Carlyle’s recent autobiography, "The Remainder of My Life."
"I was so impressed and so moved that I asked him to the house to have lunch," said Preston, who now flies a Pride flag on his property and said he’s driven by " a sense of the injustice that’s happened to the gay community."
Another TAG board member, 35-year-old Scott Justus, is a Dallas native who lived in San Francisco for 10 years but moved to Tyler about a year ago when the opportunity arose to purchase a family farm in nearby Brownsboro.
Justus, who works for one of the few gay-friendly employers in Tyler, Carter BloodCare, said it’s been a big adjustment but he thinks he’s in the right place.
"I’m here to make a difference," he said, adding that he has a bachelor’s degree in activism and social change. "San Francisco’s definitely a safe place to be, but that’s not where the work needs to be done. Why does somebody in this community have to move away from where they grew up?"
Another board member, 45-year-old Jolie Smith, is also originally from Dallas but moved to Tyler to be with her then-girlfriend in 1986. Smith, who now owns a property management company, said her involvement with TAG hasn’t hurt her business and she plans to advertise in the group’s Pink Pages.
Smith also talked about the discrimination her now-20-year-old daughter faced in school because she has a lesbian mom. And she confirmed that TAG is the first LGBT organization the city has seen.
There was a gay bar in Tyler in the 1980s, Smith said, but now the closest one is in Longview, 30 miles to the east. There’s also a predominantly gay church in Tyler, but the church refuses to be publicly identified as such.
"It’s really nice to finally have a voice," Smith said.
To be sure, the group has faced its share of challenges. TAG was kicked out of its original meeting place after it became known that members had appeared in Dallas’ Pride parade. When TAG took out an advertisement in the program of a local nonprofit group, the words "gay" and "lesbian" were removed.
And Carlyle shared a PFLAG pamphlet detailing 15 similar incidents that have occurred in Tyler over the last few years.
"The rest of the country stopped dealing with this 40 years ago, and these are the kinds of things East Texas is still having to deal with," Carlyle said. "None of these stories would have been surprising in the 1960s. We’re a time capsule."
Still, he acknowledged that things have gone remarkably well in the group’s first year, especially given that the city is run by evangelical megachurches like the massive Green Acres Baptist Church. For example, in February TAG hosted its first public LGBT fundraiser at a local Holiday Inn, and the event drew 60 people.
But TAG is young, and it remains to be seen what pitfalls lie ahead.
Carlyle said the group thus far has raised only about $750 — enough to pay the application fee for 501(c)(3) status.
He has ambitious goals, though, such as raising enough within the next year to purchase and/or build the community center. And he’s counting on people in places like Dallas for support.
"Of all big cities in the whole country, I think that people in Dallas can understand that things right on their doorstep are like this, that East Texas is like this," Carlyle said.
"Don’t forget that there are places that could use your help right at your doorstep."
To learn more about TAG or donate, go to www.tridd.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 5, 2009.