Knoxville residents Olivier Odom and Jennifer Tipton, a lesbian couple who were married last year, recently garnered headlines after a particularly difficult trip to Dollywood water park Splash Country. A Dollywood employee refused them admittance to the park because Odom’s shirt included the phrase "Marriage is so gay."
They were later allowed inside the park once Odom changed her shirt, but both women were disappointed by the employee’s poor treatment. Odom wrote a letter to Dollywood officials that she posted on Facebook, one that would later catch the attention of local and national media.
The couple were visiting Splash Country with the two young daughters of long-time friends, and felt compelled to set an example to them about equal rights and having respect for all human beings.
Dolly Parton herself eventually apologized for their experience in a statement to ABC News. Though they appreciated her apology, the couple still feels park officials haven’t taken the incident seriously. In an interview with Out & About Newspaper, they share their perspective on the controversy.
You must have felt a range of emotions when you were first prohibited from entering the park. What was your initial reaction?
Olivier: Initially I was a little surprised. I was really shocked. It was just a rapid response. I thought "How do I handle this situation and make sure these girls are OK without causing a scene?" The man said "This is a family park," and that’s when I physically started shaking. I didn’t make a fuss about it; I just thought we should go in and have a good time with them. I was very insulted. I was there with my family, and I was going to be made to explain to these girls what happened.
Jennifer: We had friends with kids and we were babysitting. We took the girls for three nights. They’re our family.
Olivier: I’m sure you can understand. When you live away from your immediate family, you make another family. I think that’s been part of the misrepresentation in this. Some people are saying that we’re trying to shove our values down their throats. We had to explain to our kids what happened and why I had to turn my shirt inside out. I told them that I think maybe the man at the gate is homophobic and he doesn’t think that gay people should get married. I sat them down and asked if they had any questions. I told Sophia (one of the children) that I was going to write a letter to Dollywood and that sparked her curiosity. My main motivation for writing the letter was that I wanted them to understand how to handle a situation with tact without making a scene or being angry, that you can voice your concerns and your opinion without screaming.
Did you have any idea the shirt might stir up a response?
Olivier: I thought that for a moment I might potentially catch flak from other patrons at Dollywood, but I didn’t expect it coming from the staff.
Do you think that Dollywood’s response was adequate?
Jennifer: On the same day that Dolly released her statement, (manager) Pete Owen scheduled a meeting for us to meet with Pete and the general manager. He declined to meet with us if we wanted to bring an advocate and minister for support and clarity.
Olivier: When Pete called me on that Friday, he said he preferred to meet with us alone. I said we would be more comfortable if we could bring our advocate, and we went around and around about seven times, and then eventually ended the conversation.
Dolly Parton has been openly supportive of the GLBT community. Is there some disconnect with her personal beliefs and the actions of those who work for her?
Olivier: I appreciate the fact that she said that all families are welcome at the park. I appreciate her sentiments and that she said she would look into the matter. You have to keep in mind Dolly Parton only owns 5% of the park. It was almost like she was trying to distance herself from it.
Jennifer: It didn’t sound like she had even talked to the park management when she made her statement.
Would you return to Dollywood? What things need to happen to make that possible?
Jennifer: Probably not. I wish I could say that I would. They just need to clarify some things. You know, no hard feelings. Live and learn.
Olivier: I think it would benefit their employees and their patrons if they changed their policies. If they decide not to, then probably not. There are three basic things that I’d like to see. I want them to clarify their policy and make it a more inclusive policy of the LGBT community. It’d be good if they provide sensitivity training to their employees so they know what is and is not offensive. And then if they create a clearer dress code policy.
Jennifer: We’re expecting a letter from Dollywood soon, but I’m not sure if it will address our issue or if it will just be the usual letter when patrons have a formal complaint. They’ve offered to refund our money, but that’s not what we’re wanting.
What have the reactions been like from other people?
Jennifer: We’ve gotten a lot of support. We had an email from Australia from a straight man. There’s been an outpouring of love and hate.
Olivier: There are some really negative emails, and I won’t share those because of the expletives. We had one from an older gay man in Knoxville and it was just vulgar. But we’ve gotten more support than negative comments. I would say it’s 75-25.
Jennifer: We did a talk show with a radio station in Philadelphia. They were really cool. There was a lawyer for the Women’s Rights Project who’s gotten in touch with us and given us some good ideas for the next steps. Before this I had no idea that we in Tennessee didn’t have equal rights.
Olivier: If anything, it (this experience) has made us accidental activists and made us more aware of how we don’t have rights. I moved here from Asheville four years ago, and I think it’s almost funny that this is the first incident of discrimination I’ve reported. But because I had two kids with me, it’s very important for me that they know it wasn’t right.