Carmen McClain and her girlfriend, Jasmine Martinez, are Blount County teens who came out of the closet to everyone they knew this past year.
With this year being the first time they could truly be themselves, and with June being Pride month, they wanted to do “something kind of big, kind of bold in public, since this is my first ever expressing myself out in public,” according to McClain.
The teens decided to paint traditional, rainbow Pride flags on a well-known bridge in Alcoa. Located at the intersection of Darwin Street and Faraday Street, the bridge is designated as a free speech area by the City where people are allowed to express themselves through graffiti.
After the teens finished painting four Pride flags on the bridge last Tuesday and were packing up their things, they noticed a middle-aged woman carrying cans of spray paint approach them.
“This lady came over and she told us she was going to spray paint over our stuff,” McClain, 16, said. “My girlfriend started recording, and we just stood there and let her do her thing. We weren’t going to fight her — there was no reason to get on her level.”
The teen continued: “She said a lot of very immature, disrespectful things to me and my girlfriend. We just left and we posted the video.I posted it on TikTok and she (Martinez) posted it on Instagram and that night it blew up everywhere all over the place,”
The original videos have since been taken down by TikTok because the woman’s comments put them in violation of the social media platform’s “hate speech” rules, according to McClain, but copies can still be found on platforms such as Reddit.
The videos showed the woman — who has since been identified as Tabitha Dardeau Travis — as she began to paint over the teens’ mural, arguing that she had a right to do so because she pays taxes.
“I have just as much right as you, actually I have more damn right, because you know what? I work, I pay taxes, I’m an American, born here,” she said in the video.
Both Martinez, a senior at Alcoa High School, and McClain, who goes to Heritage High School, have brown skin. Martinez identifies as Hispanic and McClain as Italian and Native American.
“I’m sick of you all’s shit,” Travis continued as she sprayed over the teens’ rainbows. “Y’all are just constantly, it’s constantly something, always trying to stand out, make a big freaking scene, if y’all would shut up…”
“We’re making a scene?” demanded one of the teens.
“Cause all you wanna do is express, express, express,” Travis said.
Hard Knox Wire along with other news organizations have tried to reach Travis in order to get her side of the story. Soon after the teens’ initial videos went viral, she apparently shut down all her social media accounts and hasn’t been available by phone.
Travis is reportedly an employee of Blount Memorial Hospital, but the medical facility’s public relations staff didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
The videos struck a chord with many of the teens’ friends and neighbors. When the couple came to repaint their mural, they found they had company waiting for them at the bridge.
“Some people said they were going to come and support us, that’s what they did. There was a lot of people who showed up and helped us to repaint,” McClain said.
And so things went the next few days, with the teens and their supporters going to the bridge every morning to repair the defacement that had inevitably taken place the night before.
When they showed up Friday, however, things were different.
“It really got defaced, “ McClain sad. “Lots of bad things painted on it. It broke my heart, so me and my girlfriend came here at 7 a.m. to repaint but the cops came. They told us they were going to have the city just paint over it because of those vulgar things painted on it, and we were like ‘Well, we are gonna repaint it’ but they were like, ‘No, we are going to put a stop to it.’ This kind of discourages us because they are supposed to be here to help us, but they are giving up on it and just having the city paint over it.”
Despite the repeated reminder that not everyone in their city accepts them, McClain and Martinez have been encouraged by the sheer volume of support they’ve gotten. “A lot of news places have been contacting us, a lot of people have been donating to us, a lot of people have been texting us words of encouragement,” said McClain.
Abi Lucas, 21, is one of the individuals who has shown up to support the young couple. Lucas, who has been involved with LGBTQ causes since her brother came out when she was eight years old, went to the bridge Friday to lend her experience to the teens.
“We’re kind of in the hopes of putting together something out of this,” she said. “We don’t really have anything on this side of Blount County for LGBTQ people. We’ve been hoping to get something started for youth, so we are hoping that this can be the start of that.”
According to Shannon Brown, licensed clinical social worker and owner of Psychotherapy & Forensic Services, LLC (a LGBTQ affirming psychology practice in Blount County), the support that teens receive from their community is vital.
Decades of research have shown unequivocally that how LGBTQ teens are accepted or rejected by their families, peers, teachers and the rest of their community determines their vulnerability to tragic outcomes like suicide, addiction and homelessness.
“Those children and adolescents who experience rejection from the aforementioned are more likely to attempt suicide, more likely to experience depression and anxiety-related disorders, are more likely to have substance use disorders, and are more likely to engage in unprotected sex at rates that are higher than their non-LGBTQ peers,” Brown said. “These issues are a direct result of oppression and discrimination against our LGBTQ youth.”
She continued: “On the other hand, 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.”
At least 50 young LGBTQ activists also gathered in Knoxville on Friday evening for a protest against alleged unequal treatment at the hands of police. The protest, organized by Knoxville Queer Youth and Lenoir City Diversity, started at Krutch Park before marching to Knoxville Police Department HQ and then back downtown.
Most recent protests and rallies have been peaceful, but Friday’s march was marred by what witnesses described as a deliberate attack on one of the youths by the driver of a black sedan. The car bumped one of the protesters as they were marching down the middle of Gay Street. The protester wasn’t hurt.
Legal observers said the driver’s actions, which were captured on video, appeared to be intentional but the victim didn’t want to prosecute.
Alyssa Spiers, organizer of the event, said, “Human rights and safety are everyone’s cause. We also hope that these events will bring community members together to form a stronger bond. It’s time to stand together.”
Knoxville Queer Youth plans to continue having protests on Fridays through Pride Month. The protest on June 18, for instance, will be against the anti-trans laws that were passed this year in Tennessee.
Spiers also attended a rally that was held Sunday on the bridge for the Alcoa teens.
“Painting a bridge with pride colors isn’t someone trying to shove being gay down your throats,” Spiers said. “It is a symbol to other Queer people, especially youth, that we’re here and you’re seen. As someone who runs a Queer youth group, I know how that woman painting over it affects them. It makes them feel even more isolated than they already are. It makes them nervous to be just who they are.”
She added: “Whether you agree with someone’s sexuality or not, no one deserves to feel alone or afraid to be themselves. We all deserve community. We’re here. We’re staying here.”
According to Spiers, activists decided to repaint the bridge despite police instructions not to do so.
As of Sunday evening, the bridge in Alcoa was once again covered with rainbows, she said.
Jenna Stambaugh can be reached at email@example.com
Published on June 14, 2021