He’s gay and he’s Dolly’s cousin

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KNOXVILLE – James Howard is proud of his East Tennessee heritage. As Dolly Parton’s second cousin and Pigeon Forge native, he is a product of an Appalachian tradition dating back to the days when Martha Huskey and her sons founded a little village in the Great Smoky Mountains area called White Oak Flats. Today they call it Gatlinburg.

Down in the valley in Sevier County , Howard’s relatives were also busy settling the area we now know as Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood and many other tourist destinations. Growing up in the area, he was loved and supported by his family and his peers. Coming out at the age of 15, he was gently encouraged to be himself by those around him.

Defying the stereotypes, the Pentecostal family stepped up for the young Howard, better known to all as “Jamie.” Having had several gay and transsexual family members previously disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity to his extended family, he was blessed with acceptance, in complete defiance of the pervading cultural myth mandating that all Appalachians are narrow-minded, bigoted folks.

“My family was there for me,” Howard says . “There was no problem whatsoever with my family members or people at school.”

Being the only “out” gay person at Sevier County High School while he was a student there, Howard states emphatically that he was never the object of discrimination or homophobia. He points to his cousin, Dolly Parton, as at least partially the reason for his acceptance.

“Dolly’s goodwill in the community helped me,” Jamie says .

Currently an employee of the Pigeon Forge Chamber of Commerce, Howard is also “out” at work where his employer, the previous owner of Gospel Music Television, works well with him, once again defying pervasive stereotypes.

“The older ladies at work have adopted me,” Howard says. “I was even ‘adopted’ by one of their husbands.”

Recently, he served as the guide for a film crew, shepherding them through Dollywood as part of the production of a documentary. “For the Love of Dolly” is still in the back room with no definite release date so far.

At age 34, this single Pisces, who has been an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church – Knoxville for the last 13 years, is looking forward to going to the MCC Conference planned for July 2005 in Calgary , Alberta . It will be Mr. Howard’s first trip west of the 100th meridian, and he is excited about going.

Confessing that he has a weakness for travel, Howard points to his recent trips to New Orleans and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., along with jaunts to destinations in Texas .

Howard may be familiar to Knox area readers in his previous role as liaison for local news sources in last year’s “Gay Days at Dollywood” clash over the use of Dollywood’s name by the local organizers of that event and protests by radical rightwing religious elements in the area. Jamie can be reached at jamiedolly2000@yahoo.com.