Chris Anderson embodies 30 years of progress: Chattanooga's first gay councilman sworn in today

Chris Anderson embodies 30 years of progress: Chattanooga's first gay councilman sworn in today

April 15th, 2013 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Chris Anderson answers questions during a meeting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

If you go

* What: Inaugural ceremony for Mayor-elect Berke and newly elected City Council members

* When: 10 a.m. today. Doors open at 9:15 a.m.

* Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.

* Admission: The ceremony is free and open to the public.

Newly elected City Council members

District 1: Chip Henderson

District 2: Jerry Mitchell

District 3: Ken Smith

District 4: Larry Grohn

District 7: Chris Anderson

District 8: Moses Freeman

District 9: Yusuf Hakeem

Incumbents

District 5: Russell Gilbert

District 6: Carol Berz

Webcast

This story is featured in today's TimesFreePress newscast.

Chattanooga CARES founder Jim Samples, 67, never thought an openly gay man would be elected to public office in his lifetime. But today Chris Anderson will be sworn in as Chattanooga city councilman for District 7.

Anderson said he is the first openly gay person to win a contested race in Tennessee.

"It's an opportunity to show that we are all the same and orientation does not matter. It's about how we do the job," said Anderson, who defeated two-term incumbent Manny Rico.

Anderson is one of only two openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender elected officials in the state, according to thenewcivilrightsmovement.com, a website that promotes gay rights.

"The long road that blacks had to travel to get to where they are now, the gays are having to travel that road to get equal rights," Samples said. "It's a new day here."

Anderson's election is a big deal, said Samples, who founded the HIV/AIDS outreach organization in the early 1980s. It's significant first because he's worthy of the job, and second because it shows Chattanooga is ready to accept a person regardless of sexual preference, Samples said.

Anderson lives in downtown Chattanooga with Phillip Powell, his partner of 10 years, and their two dogs. He is manager of the Bluff View Art District and vice chairman of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Regional Health Council. He also represents Chattanooga in the Tennessee Democratic Party as an executive committeeman, and he is an appointed member of the Chattanooga Board of Sign Appeals.

Anderson said he read hate messages on Facebook during the election and saw other hate messages during his campaign, but he puts that behind him.

"To an extent I have experienced some isolation, but I'll tell you that Chattanooga is a much more progressive community than some others in the South, and I feel privileged to live in a more accepting society than a lot of other people have," Anderson said.

His election signifies that more people understand that gay people are just normal people who happen to be gay, said Chuck Hill, past president of Tennessee Valley Pride. That acceptance did not exist 30 years ago, he said.

"I can tell you in 1980, you did not want to be a gay person in Chattanooga," Hill said. "Everything was extremely underground. You didn't see us in the daytime. You never saw gay people hold hands or kiss in public, which you do see now because of some of the strides that have been made."

Samples remembers when he tried to open Chattanooga CARES on Brainerd Road and the local merchants asked him to leave his office less than a week after he started. Most people called HIV/AIDS the "gay disease" at the time, he said.

"We've been taught in the Bible that homosexuality is against our religious upbringing," said Samples. "We not only live in the Bible Belt; we are the buckle."

People were so intolerant of homosexuals that Samples only notified people of CARES meetings by word of mouth. He also told people at his church, but he was apprehensive that if information was too widespread that someone would come and disrupt the group.

Now information about CARES is in several churches, and people debate gay rights in the newspaper, said Samples.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.