Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Cecil W. Wooten, July 16, 2001. Interview K-0849. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Chapel Hill as a receptive and tolerant community

Wooten describes how Chapel Hill, North Carolina, offered a tolerant and receptive environment for gays and lesbians during the 1980s. Interestingly, he describes it as a place where people would notice gay and lesbian couples, but that they thought "they shouldn't notice so they try not to notice." This comment was provoked in response to a visiting friend's opposition that Chapel Hill was much like West Hollywood in its reception of gay people. Nevertheless, Wooten argues that Chapel Hill was a generally welcoming place for gay people during that era.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Cecil W. Wooten, July 16, 2001. Interview K-0849. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Okay, so everybody that I ask, or everybody that I speak too, I ask what their perception was in terms of the Town's perception of gay men whether that was in the 50s, 60s or 70s. You have a pretty good perception of the 80s. When you came here, did people really, I mean, were gay people really recognized as being in the presence of everybody else in Chapel Hill? Was thereߞthe average person on the street would they know that there were gays in Chapel Hill?
CECIL W. WOOTEN:
I think so. I should preface this by saying that I have a tendency to be kind of naïve and also to be kind of a poly-anna. I have never sensed any hostility at all in Chapel Hill andߞ
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
But people recognized thatߞ
CECIL W. WOOTEN:
Yeah, it was amazing, my oldest friend lives in West Hollywood, and when I moved back to Chapel Hill in the early 80s. He came to visit one weekend and we were walking down Franklin Street and he said, "This is like being in West Hollywood!" And I sad, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, there are all of these gay people everywhere and," and he said, "They don't seem to be making anyߞ" I mean, he didn't see any people madly making out on the streets, but I saw men holding hands, women holding hands, men and women kissing each other, they were sort of friendly affectionate kisses, I mean, it wasn't heavy petting. I can remember in 1985, I guess, I had a boyfriend and there was some sort of gay function at Pywacket. Restaurants in town wouldߞ
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Was it a 'Gayla' hosted by the Independent?
CECIL W. WOOTEN:
No, it was before those, but I think that every spring a restaurant in Chapel Hill would have a fundraiser to raise money for charity and one of the charities, I think was the gay and lesbian health project and so we went to this, and you basically paid fifty dollars for lunch and then they donated the proceeds, and I rememberߞit was fun to me, because it was wonderful to be in a restaurant, you know in a public space and be able to kiss your boyfriend and have everybody be very supportive. And many of the patrons there were gay people, but not everybody, but this went to breast cancer, and all sorts of gay charities, but everybody there was obviously very supportive and I remember, with my boyfriend, kissing him right in the Pywacket at lunch. [Laughter] Nobody better than I, and I think that Chapel Hill is a place where people do notice, but they think that they shouldn't notice so they try not to notice. It is not like West Hollywood where people really don't notice, but I noticed on the bus, this was about three years ago, I got on the N Bus, and there was a lesbian couple that lived in Estes Park, who sat in the back of the bus at 8:30 in the morning and just really made out. [Laughter]
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
At 8:30am!
CECIL W. WOOTEN:
I mean, they were really going at it, I thought that they were going to be having full sex. [Laughter] And I was not really interested in that, but I was real interested in the reaction of other people in the bus and with one exception, a woman who was sort of gawking, everyone was trying desperately not to look. Because I am sure that they felt that they shouldn't notice, as Joe Herzenberg used to say to people, "We don't do that in Chapel Hill." [Laughter]