ATLANTA -- When a lesbian soccer coach appeared to be ousted from her job this month at a Christian university in Nashville, it sparked an outcry from supporters and students who claimed she was a victim of an anti-gay bias they considered to be decidedly un-Christian.
Details of her exit are unclear. The president of Belmont University says the school does not discriminate against gays and lesbians, and the coach, Lisa Howe, isn't saying much.
But Howe's departure was the latest in a series of recent developments that has forced Nashville -- stalwart buckle of the Bible Belt and key purveyor of Heartland-friendly cultural product -- to consider, perhaps more substantively than ever, questions about the rights and roles of an increasingly outspoken gay and lesbian population.
In May, Chely Wright, singer of the No. 1 country hit "Single White Female," became the first mainstream Nashville star to come out publicly.
In recent months, Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel -- the Southern-themed restaurant chain that once declared it would only hire people with "normal heterosexual values" -- disclosed to the Human Rights Campaign that it had formed an internal group to address gay and lesbian issues. The company also donated money this year to a local gay rights group.
In September 2009, the combined city-county council passed, by a 24-15 vote, an anti-discrimination policy to protect gay government workers. The measure passed over the protestations of conservative Christian groups, like the Family Action Council of Tennessee, which warned of a flood "not of water, but of the homosexual movement."
Gay leaders say that such a "flood" seems unlikely.
"I sincerely doubt gay Nashville will ever be enveloped into the mainstream here," said Blake Boldt, managing editor of Out & About, a monthly gay newspaper. "I mean, change is kind of glacial for the most part."
Boldt and others also point out that Nashville is a complex metropolis that defies easy stereotyping. Though home to Music Row and the Southern Baptist Convention -- two powerful champions of heterosexual norms -- it is also a Democratic stronghold in a sea of conservative counties, with a diversified, globally connected local economy of which the music business is only a part.
"I always tell people that if you see somebody walking down the street in a cowboy hat, they're probably a tourist," Boldt said.
To critics of Belmont -- a fast-growing, 5,900-student college that, in its own words, is seeking to "rise to national prominence" -- the awkward handling of Howe's exit was an illustration of an institution fumbling between traditional and cosmopolitan value systems.
Howe, 41, coached six seasons at Belmont, taking the women's soccer team to its first appearance in an NCAA tournament in 2008, and a year later guided it to a conference co-championship, for which she was named conference coach of the year.
On Dec. 2, the student newspaper printed a statement from the school saying Howe had decided to leave the job. A second news release from the university said she did not resign, nor was she dismissed, but had entered a "mutual agreement" with the school to move on.
Howe, in a phone interview, declined to discuss the details. But players have said that Howe told them she was forced out after she disclosed at a team meeting that she is gay, and that her partner is expecting a baby.
"They told her that her morals and values and her decision conflicted with Belmont's morals and values," said Erica Carter, 21, a forward on the team.
A student protest soon followed, along with a faculty senate resolution supporting gays and lesbians at Belmont. Condemnations rang out from the pages of the Tennessean, the local newspaper, to the website for Sports Illustrated.
Howe's exit was applauded by the state chapter of the Southern Baptist Convention, from which Belmont separated in 2007 as it chose a more ecumenical path. Randy Davis, head of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, told the Baptist Press that Belmont leaders "have shown great courage in acting from the perspective of a Biblical worldview."
Howe said she wasn't seeking the limelight, but had simply tried to be honest with her players about her sexuality.
"I'm a soccer coach," she said. "I will say, because of all of the support and all of the national attention we have right now, I feel a responsibility to educate and to raise awareness."
At a Dec. 8 news conference, Belmont President Bob Fisher declared that sexual orientation was "not considered" in employment decisions. Separately, Marty Dickens, chairman of Belmont's board of trustees, told the Tennessean that "we do adhere to our values as Christ-centered, and we don't want to make apologies for that."
Some city leaders have worried about the impact on the image of the city and the school. This week, Mayor Karl Dean, reacting to the firing, urged an expansion of the city's anti-discrimination policies.
Mike Curb, head of Nashville-based Curb Records and namesake for the school's highly regarded music business program, wrote a letter urging the school to rehire Howe.
"When our students enter the workforce, they will be entering an industry where gay people have made incredible contributions," said Curb, a former California lieutenant governor.
Wright, the country singer, has asked Belmont's president for a meeting to discuss gays' place on campus; he has agreed. "Belmont feeds the music industry in Nashville," she said. "That's where we get our leaders and that's who sets the tone on Music Row."
Wright said it is too early to say what coming out will do to her career. But Nashville, she said, was at a "tipping point" on gays rights.
"We have all of the pieces and parts and components of a cosmopolitan, progressive city. There's a big push for that, and we're being held back by -- I in no way want to disparage Christianity, I'm a Christian. But I want to disparage a lack of equality and fairness."
Others see less of a tipping point than a perpetuation of a mixed-bag reality for gay Nashvillians that is common in small and midsized cities across the nation in 2010. It is one in which the yearly gay pride festival may be held downtown without fear of hassle or threat, but one in which coming out can still be a dicey proposition.
James Williamson, 29, is an attorney who recently helped launch the city's first gay lawyers' association. Yes, there were tensions here, he said, as the gay community has become more visible. But in a city that prides itself on friendliness, even conservative Christians tend to be "more than welcoming" toward gays and lesbians -- even, he said, if they think you're going to hell.
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