Hartwell Pride sparks tensions between gay community, churches

Attempt to stage drag show creates division among some factions.

Credit: Kali Thomas Photography.

Credit: Kali Thomas Photography.

A drag show proposed as part of a Pride celebration in Hartwell, a town of 5,000 residents 100 miles northeast of Atlanta, prompted an emotional showdown this past March between pastors, LGBTQ activists and a community theater. The conflict provides a real-time study of how freedom and fear play out in a small Georgia town in an era when conservative Christian values have an increasingly strong grip on American politics.

It all started when Hartwell Pride Vice President Annette Neal proposed renting Hart County Community Theatre for a family-friendly drag show to the theater’s board on March 13. Board directors in attendance, along with members of the theater — performers, producers, volunteers — approved the request, 14 to 2.

A week later, theater board director Kevin Thompson called a meeting out of concern the vote violated the theater’s bylaws because theater members, rather than just board directors, voted, breaking precedent. Board president Christopher Milford resigned the same day, citing personal reasons.

Three days later, a community notice ran in the Hartwell Sun inviting the public to attend a theater meeting to express “support or opposition of the vote to allow Pride of Hartwell (sic) to host a drag show at the theater.” Acting theater president Lani Sessoms disputes the language of that notice, saying the meeting’s intent was to discuss policies and procedures.

On Facebook, Hartwell’s Sardis Baptist Church and Liberty Baptist Church encouraged congregants to attend. Hartwell Pride Founding CEO Collin Graham asked members and allies to do the same.

Credit: Collin Graham

Credit: Collin Graham

The meeting devolved into a “Footloose”-style war of words, captured on video. One attendee asked if there would be orgies on stage. Pastor Mike Myers of Heritage Presbyterian in neighboring Royston cited Bible verses, warning that, “Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience.”

The Rev. Reid Hamilton of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Hartwell countered. “I work for a church where bishops gather in large assemblies, mostly of men in purple dresses,” he said. “So I’m not going to talk about how people dress.”

Local attorney Jeremiah Van Dora declared the theater’s bylaws “clear as mud.”

Michelle Wetherbee, owner of a local food and homewares store, brought a photo of her grandfather, Lt. Col. Walter Percival Rhyne, in drag at a military event. “Drag is not new to this community,” she said. “First Baptist Church, right here downtown, had a ‘Tootsie’-style drag show in the ‘80s. They borrowed dresses from Mayor Saliba.” Said former board director Traci Mason, “If this were being billed as a female impersonator vaudeville show, I don’t think there would be as much contention. The disagreement is about who it’s helping.”

The board voted to overturn the first vote, 6-2.

Credit: Kali Thomas Photography

Credit: Kali Thomas Photography

The Way Home

Hartwell looks a lot different now than when I grew up here in the 1990s. For thrills on Saturday night we rode the strip between McDonald’s on one end of town and Ingles on the other. Now when I go home, I can order a latte and buy a rifle within two blocks of each other. I love that I can sit at a bar (a bar!) and run into a high school classmate and also meet someone who just moved here. Walking the streets is a good reminder that small towns don’t represent any single belief or interest. That this downtown thrives proves coexistence isn’t just possible for growth, it’s essential.

“I’ve lived a lot of places,” said Hart County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lindsey Ingle, sitting in her office next to a coffee shop called Common Ground. “This is home.” Ingle moved to Hartwell in 2015 to live with her partner, Julie Yeargin, an eighth-generation Hartwellian whose father served in local law enforcement for more than 30 years. “Everybody knows her and her family, and she’s always been out,” Ingle said.

So when Ingle fielded calls and emails from five Chamber member businesses after the theater meeting, she felt disappointed. “We support every member evenly,” she said. “They did not want to be part of an organization that supported (Hartwell Pride),” which is also a member of the Chamber.

Since then, the Chamber has welcomed 14 new member businesses, affirming Ingle’s confidence about Hartwell’s welcoming nature. “I really, truly do believe in my heart of hearts that love will win as it always should,” she said.

Credit: Kali Thomas Photography

Credit: Kali Thomas Photography

God’s Country

Hartwell Pride Founding CEO Collin Graham, 28, grew up a few miles southeast of town in rural Hart County, where he and his cousins carved footpaths through the woods between their houses and their pursuits building forts, shaping mud pies and shooting BB guns. Like many who grew up here, he spent Sunday mornings in the pew of a Baptist Church.

Graham, whose sex was assigned female at birth, never liked dresses. His younger sister, Marisa, collected Polly Pockets; he favored Hot Wheels and WWE figures. He remembers middle school classmates picking on him for his skater-style clothing and referring to him using homophobic slurs.

Fed up with being picked on, he got blonde highlights and started wearing makeup before his freshman year at Hart County High School. After moving to Royston, he joined the youth group at Franklin Springs Pentecostal Holiness Church and read the Bible alone at a cafeteria table on school days.

He had never heard the term transgender, but he knew he wasn’t comfortable in his body. “It feels like looking in a mirror and not recognizing who’s looking back at you,” Graham says. His experience did have a name: Gender dysphoria.

After moving to a new school in Iva, South Carolina, his junior year, he felt comfortable enough to wear­­ the loose-fitting jeans and T-shirts he felt comfortable in. He cut his hair short after graduating in 2013 and adopted the name Collin a year later. In 2017 he began receiving doctor-prescribed testosterone.

His goal with Hartwell Pride, the organization he created in 2020, is to prevent anyone in the community from feeling alone and unloved like he did. Pride recently applied for 501c3 status. As the organization grows, Graham hopes it will provide support in the form of housing assistance, healthcare and a school system presence for queer people of all ages.

­Graham met his partner, Kim Cravens, in 2021 at the inaugural Hartwell Pride event in Graham’s backyard. Cravens attended as a vendor, representing her downtown business, Empower Yoga. After that, Graham recruited a board of directors and scheduled the 2022 Pride event, to be held in the parking lot of Cravens’ business. Graham promoted it, including its drag show, on social media and in the Chamber of Commerce newsletter. As far as opposition, Ingle says, “it may as well have been crickets.”

Pride was set to take place in October 2022, but the night before, Empower Yoga’s landlord, Medra Ashmore, informed organizers they couldn’t use the parking lot, saying she had to consider the interests of the building’s other tenants, an auction company and The Hartwell Sun, which needed access to the lot. Pride’s board of directors went into crisis mode, alerted performers and attendees and promised to reschedule the event. The new date was set for April 15 this year in Railroad Street Park.

Credit: Andy Buchanan

Credit: Andy Buchanan

A Win and a Prayer

An estimated 750 people attended the Hartwell Pride event this past April. There was no drag show, but music played on a PA, local vendors sold wares and kids bounded between outdoor games and a face-painting station. MedLink Georgia and District 2 Public Health hosted information booths, along with the Northeast Georgia Council on Domestic Violence and the Lake Hartwell Libertarian Party.

Liberty Baptist Church pastor Andy Buchanan invited his congregation to the church to pray for the community that day. “Our spiritual enemy is working to normalize perversion in our area,” he wrote on a Facebook post.

“I think children are very impressionable,” Buchanan later said when questioned about his post. “And when they’re presented with ideas by adults that run contrary to what the word of God teaches, I think there’s a danger in that, impressing false ideas in their minds.”

Around 1 p.m., pastor Mike Myers of Heritage Presbyterian Church arrived with a stack of pamphlets titled “Jesus Christ, Pride, and You.” His goal, he said, was to talk to Pride attendees about the word of God.

Graham saw his detractors standing in the sun and pulled several bottles of water from a cooler. He descended the stairs from Railroad Street Park, a greenspace built over the old rail line, to the sidewalk where they were stationed.

“Please don’t harass anybody,” Graham said to Myers, offering a bottle.

“No, we don’t plan to, but we do hope you think about the Lord Jesus,” Myers said.

“I do — every day,” Graham said, before walking away.

Sporting a classic slick back haircut and a tattoo sleeve, Pastor Grant Myerholtz of Mt. Hebron Baptist Church in Hartwell was also in attendance.

“Sometimes our lives and our community seem to get broken to pieces,” he said in an opening prayer, as Graham bowed his head and clasped his hands. “But on days like this we realize things can be restored.”