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Posts for August, 2011

Dolly’s family

Timothy Kincaid

August 2nd, 2011

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to name an amusement park after yourself. It take a boatload of charm and goodwill to get away with it. And Dolly Parton has both, in spades.

Along with an entertainment career including top-five country hits in each of the past five decades, half a dozen movies, more than 3000 songs, a themepark complex, a production company, the title of Queen of Country Music, and the respect of most everyone who’s ever worked with her.

Dolly also has a long history of supporting the gay community ranging from simple statements of inclusion (“they accept me and I accept them“) to endorsement of issues, projects with LGBT themes, support for AIDS causes, and perhaps most importantly to being the voice of comfort and love to gay kids growing up in the Bible Belt.

So when I heard that a lesbian couple accused a themepark owned by Parton of being insensitive to gay couples, I dismissed it as a misunderstanding.

On July 9, Olivier Odom and Jennifer Tipton attended Dollywood Splash Country with two children. But the ticket agent requested that Odem turn her shirt inside out so that the slogan “Marriage is so gay” not offend other customers. He noted that Dollywood is a “family park”.

And the Dollywood complex does have a “family” dress code which restricts slogans:

To preserve our family atmosphere proper clothing is required including shirts and shoes (sandals or flip-flops are acceptable). Clothing with offensive words and/or pictures will not be permitted inside the park. Guests may not wear character type costumes on park.

For decades, the word “family” has been utilized as code for “no gays allowed.” Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, American Family Institute, Family Values Coalition, and a host of other “family organizations” have all used the slur “anti-family” to tell the world that LGBT people are not only unwholesome and dangerous but an enemy of home, hearth, and protection of children. And even secular use such as “family programming” or “family counseling” has at times defined family in ways that exclude LGBT people.

Which makes Dolly Parton’s response to the issue even more interesting:

I am truly sorry for the hurt or embarrassment regarding the gay and lesbian t-shirt incident at Dollywood’s Splash Country recently. Everyone knows of my personal support of the gay and lesbian community. Dollywood is a family park and all families are welcome. I am looking further into the incident and hope and believe it was more policy than insensitivity. I am very sorry it happened at all.

This is the appropriate response: owning responsibility, reassuring the community, and promising further review. A well crafted apology.

But there in the middle is a seemingly innocuous sentence that sets an entire industry of anti-gay activism on its ear. Lesbian couples are not welcomed as some exception to the family image, but because the Dollywood definition of “family park” already welcomes them. This is a revolutionary statement for Bible Belt mentality.

Dollywood is careful that it’s image is not like some amusement parks which seem to cater to vulgarity and crassness. No, Dollywood is a safe place designed for the family. It’s wholesome and unoffensive and protective of the innocence of children, so naturally it’s where gay families belong. Because gay people are part of what Dolly calls “family“.

And this casual presumption of inclusion in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is what makes Dolly Parton a particularly effective ally and a truly wonderful person.