“Love is the protective factor”

A rainbow Pride painting on the bridge in Alcoa where the controversy began. Photo submitted.

The one law of human nature that never falters is the law of unintended consequences.

Take what happened after a woman accosted two LGBTQ  teens celebrating their first Pride month as a couple at a bridge in Alcoa. The teens had gone to the bridge (designated as a “free speech area” where residents can express themselves through graffiti) to paint rainbow Pride flags early this month, only to discover that not everyone in their community was going to embrace their decision to step out of the proverbial closet.

After painting the bridge, Carmen McClain and girlfriend Jasmine Martinez found themselves confronted by an irate woman named Tabitha Dardeau Travis who painted over their mural while insulting them. The teens videoed the conflict and posted it on their social media accounts and the videos went viral overnight, setting into motion a chain of events where the bridge was repainted and then vandalized several times over.  

The consequences haven’t stopped there, of course. Blount Memorial Hospital, for instance, announced that Travis is no longer an employee. 

But those who work with teens like McClain and Martinez on a regular basis hope the ultimate consequence is a community that’s more supportive of LGBTQ members then it has been in the past.

 As the saga over the bridge has played out, community members have shown support for the teens in many ways. 

“After the video went viral, some people said that they were going to come and support us. That’s what they did; there were a lot of people who showed up and helped us to repaint,” McClain said. In addition to receiving help with repainting, the teens have also been the subject of several news stories by local and national media, protests and rallies have been organized in their support, and they’ve received both donations and a multitude of declarations from those willing to stand alongside them. 

This support may be vital to both their health and the well-being of other LGBTQ youth in the area, according to Shannon Wilson, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Blount County.

“LGBTQ children and teenagers who experience parent, family, and community acceptance experience healthier levels of self-esteem, less isolation, and have fewer incidences of mental health-related disorders. Love is the protective factor. Discrimination, oppression, and suppression are directly related to the existence of these problems,” Wilson said.

One Blount County woman acutely aware of the difference that positive support can make in the lives of nonconforming teens was Lisa Burnette.

When she heard about the confrontation on the bridge, she decided to do her part to create a support network for LGBTQ teens in Blount County. She created the Facebook group, “A Mom for You: standing in and standing up for the LGBTQ community,” which has over 260 members after only a week and has a goal of “calling all moms, mom figures, soul sisters, and more….to show love and acceptance to those who need it and a shoulder to cry on.”

Photo of the bridge submitted by Lisa Burnette.

Burnette said that she was inspired to create the group due to her own experiences as a “punk teen with blue hair back in the 1980’s.” 

“The events on the bridge brought up old feelings. I’ve always been against inequality. Those experiences of being different as a teen made me more open to everyone. I would hang out in the gay bars where everyone could be themselves.,” Burnette said. 

Burnette recalled what Blount County was like when she graduated from Maryville High School in 1984.

 “If you were gay and wanted to come out, you moved away from town,” she said. 

She is optimistic about the culture change in Blount County that her group represents. “This is an anti-Karen group coming together,” she said. “We’re angry, but we want to be more than that. We want to be helpful, be a part of a group where people can come to get support. There is only one Tabitha Travis in Blount County, but there’s 260 of us in the group now standing against the hate that she showed.” 

Burnett hopes that the group helps LGBTQ people in the community to feel like there are people on their side and for allies to be findable when there is a need for them. “Everyone wants to feel validated,” she said. 

Crystal Colter

Crystal Colter, a psychology professor at Maryville College, said that she joined the group because she saw first-hand the difference that a supportive environment can make in the lives of LGBTQ teens when she worked with high school students at a four-week residential program for gifted students in Virginia back in the early 2000s. 

“Many students were able to express themselves and openly identify as their authentic selves (including LGBTQ identities) for the first time. That part was beautiful — four weeks of living into their true selves,” Colter wrote during an email interview. 

“The heartbreaking part of the story is that as we approached the end of the program (every single year) far too many of those students would go back… I want to say, ‘into hiding’… and remind various new friends, teachers, etc. that their families and/or schools and/or churches and/or friends back home did not know and/or wouldn’t be accepting of who they are… and that we should please be careful not to mention any of that when their families came to pick them up at the end of the program.

“It was absolutely devastating for them and for us to watch that beautiful vision of living a full life as their authentic selves (surrounded by peers and adults who loved them completely and for exactly who they were) come crashing down after four spectacular weeks of absolute magic.”

She added: “I think of those beautiful young people often and hope that they have all found their way to loving, supportive communities, workplaces, faith communities, relationships, etc. They were/are beautiful and perfect just as they are.”

Persephone, who came out as trans in 2016, also shared about their experience with supporting LGBTQ youth. Since coming out they have taken on a role as a second mother to LGBTQ youth through both their involvement with roller derby and with the activism community. 

“Many of these teens do not have good relationships with their parents, but they still need the things that all teens need. Many are dead named at home and end up raising themselves as they grow up. It ends up detrimental to them in adulthood,” Persephone said. 

“I give them rides home, rides to school. I’m also there for them to get on Facetime and call me any time for emotional support. So many of these teens have issues with depression and anxiety, with feeling suicidal and self-harming. I’m just there to tell them that I love them,” Persephone said. 

Persephone, who has also been involved with the organization Voices for Trans Youth, shared about one trans teen who she met through roller derby and to whom has since become a “second mom.” Persephone explained that she was even introduced as their “second mom” to their real mother — to the latter’s enthusiastic approval.

“It’s important to have people out there for you. Everyone needs friends. They need someone to talk with them, not to them. They need someone telling them they are fighters. They need to know that they are seen, heard and accepted,” they said.


 Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com

Published on June 22, 2021