In Bloomburg there isn’t a stop sign, or even a blinking yellow light, at the center of town—just a bend in a winding two-lane road that meanders through the woods toward the Arkansas state line. Every now and then a logging truck piled high with pulpwood rumbles by on its way to the paper mill, scattering twigs and pine needles onto the blacktop below. Otherwise the town is quiet. There is no Dairy Queen, or any diversions to speak of; the closest movie theater is thirty miles away, in Texarkana. Even Bloomburg’s 1A high school is too small and too poor to have its own football team. But every November, when teenagers scrawl “Go Wildcats!” in white shoe polish on the back windows of their pickups, the boys’ and girls’ varsity basketball teams try to make the town proud.
Bloomburg never had much to brag about until six years ago, when the school district hired a young coach out of Arkansas named Merry Stephens. She was the first female coach in Bloomburg history, and also one of its toughest. When just seven girls tried out for the Lady Wildcats during her first year in Bloomburg, Stephens had them practice by playing against the boys. If they were used to making fifty layups at practice, she told them to do twice as many. It wasn’t long before the Lady Wildcats started winning. Stephens led the team to the state playoffs three times, and in 2004, when the team had grown to 25 players, the Lady Wildcats made it all the way to the final four. “Half the town went with them,” said one parent of the six-hour drive to Georgetown, just north of Austin. “We’d never had a team do so well.” The Lady Wildcats didn’t win the championship, but they were welcomed back as heroes. When the team’s bus pulled into town, people stood on their porches and cheered, and the volunteer fire department led an impromptu parade.
But even after the local Wal-Mart named Stephens Teacher of the Year and the district had chosen her as its Coach of the Year no fewer than three times, many residents felt uneasy about her. Stephens, it was rumored, was a lesbian. And in an area where ministers preach against homosexuality from the pulpit and tracts denouncing the theory of evolution sit next to cash registers in convenience stores, Stephens’ sexual orientation was not an issue that most residents of Bloomburg, or its school board, could overlook. In December, just nine months after the Lady Wildcats had gone to the finals, Stephens was abruptly put on leave. The woman she lived with, a teacher’s aide and school bus driver named Sheila Dunlap, was dismissed. The board’s actions made this otherwise placid town of 374 people erupt in controversy and became the central issue of the school board election in May. “It’s divided this town,” said history teacher Thresha Jones. “You’ve got people who feel that Merry and Sheila were done wrong. And then you’ve got people who think that what the school board did was the only right thing to do.”
ANYONE WHO HAS LOOKED through the classifieds for a job is familiar with the fine print at the bottom of most help-wanted ads: “We do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Employers can add the words “sexual orientation” to the list, but Texas law does not require them to do so. In fact, Texas offers no legal protections in the workplace from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sixteen states have amended their employment laws to offer such safeguards, and seven others have mandated these protections just for their state employees; the Texas Legislature has not. Indeed, at the Capitol this spring, the mood was hardly magnanimous when it came to homosexuality. Both the House and the Senate approved a proposed constitutional amendment, which voters will decide on in November, to ban same-sex marriage. (State law already prohibits it, but legislators want to go further by adding a provision to the constitution.) And while issues like school finance and balancing the budget languished, the House made it a priority to pass an amendment to the Child Protective Services reform bill that both required foster parents to disclose their sexual orientation and barred gays and lesbians from becoming foster parents. (The Senate version of the bill removed this requirement.) Of the four House bills that would have outlawed employer discrimination against gays and lesbians, all died in committee.
In Bloomburg, Stephens did not become the target of employer discrimination until several years into her tenure there, after she had been made the school’s athletic director. But the whispering started not long after she began coaching the Lady Wildcats, in the late summer of 1999. Stephens was pretty and vivacious, and at 34, she was old enough to have a husband and kids. So why wasn’t she married, people wondered? “They would ask me, ‘Is your boyfriend coming to the next ball game?’ or ‘When are you planning on settling down?’” Stephens said one afternoon this spring as we talked in the two-story log house outside town that she shares with Dunlap. “I’d have to change the subject or talk about the last boyfriend I’d had. If I told the truth, I knew my career would be over.” Still, as months and then more than a year passed without any sign of a boyfriend, the tomboyish Stephens remained the subject of gossip and innuendo. When she began spending a lot of time with Dunlap, it only fueled speculation. Who had sent her that bouquet of flowers at school? And what about her and Dunlap? Hadn’t they been sitting awfully close to each other at the last basketball game? “The talk of the town was ‘Are they or aren’t they?’” said Anna Doll, the owner of a local beauty salon, Style’n. “It’s been a five-year-long gossip session.”
Secrets are hard to keep in a town whose residents are nearly all related by blood