During the big debate in Congress over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, when Jesse Helms was dementedly brandishing homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe in the well of the Senate, conservatives proposed that federal arts, funding he cut off entirely. It was a waste of money, they said, when there were so many other more pressing social needs. That idea didn't fly, but last year in Georgia some right-thinking officials had the chance to put it into practice. Their motives and the consequences of their political spite are of wider relevance at a time when the Christian right is pouring its energies into a campaign against the gay "life style." What happened in Georgia could be a harbinger of similar actions to use defunding as a tool of censorship. At the least, it is an object lesson in the deleterious results when narrow-minded ideologues use the power of the purse to punish artistic expression they abhor.
It happened in Cobb County, an affluent, couservative political precinct of 470,000 in suburban Atlanta. Last summer, when a local theater group presented Terrence McNally's play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, the local gentry were so spooked by the work's homosexual quotient that their duly elected representatives cut the county's entire $110,000 arts budget.
Nine arts organizations lost funding because of the cut, and all were compelled to reduce community programs, including such subversive institutions as the Cobb Children's Theater, the Cobb Youth Chorus and the Cobb Youth Museum. Deprived of its customary appropriation, the Georgia Ballet, a local company, went into debt in order to give its annual holiday performances of The Nutcracker. Subsequently, the Metropolitan Arts Fund of Atlanta turned down a grant request from the company because without the county's money the troupe had become a risky investment. The Pandean Players, a classical string quintet that performs more than 100 times a year in the region, lost 11 percent of its budget and had to discontinue discounts for students and senior citizens. The Cobb Symphony Orchestra, which lost more than $12,000, canceled plans for a children's concert series. John Schmedes, artistic director of the Telltale Theatre, which has reached about 130,000 community youth over the past four years with plays about safety belts, self-esteem and the dangers of drugs (at a cost of only 5 cents per citizen), said his program would be "drastically affected" by the cut.
County Commissioner Gordon Wysong has neither seen nor read Lips Together, Teeth Apart, a play about two straight couples spending the Fourth of July weekend at a house on Fire Island inherited by the sister of a gay man who died of AIDS. But Wysong said he received complaints when the play appeared at Marietta's Theatre in the Square last July, so he began a public campaign that led to the passage on August 10 of a commission resolution condemning "gay lifestyle units" He portrayed his crusade as a revolt against such threats to the Republic as Atlanta's recently passed domestic partnership legislation, which he called a "raid on the treasury and on the value system of the taxpayers" because it provides benefits to same-sex partners; the relaxation of restrictions on gays in the military; and the plan to bring the 1998 Gay Games to Atlanta.
In passing the antigay resolution, the commission had planned to deny funds only to those organizations that offered art inconsistent with "strong community, family-oriented standards." But the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way challenged that measure immediately, so the five commissioners decided, "When in doubt, cut it out." Two weeks after their antigay foray began, they ended all arts funding. "It's purely a tax issue," says commission chairman Bill Byrne, echoing his four brethren. The $110,000, which amounts to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the county's annual budget, was earmarked instead for police dogs and video cameras for squad cars. …