In early September, the Stutte family was putting their lives together after their home in Vonore, Tenn. burned down, save a single wall on which an anti-gay slur was spray-painted. But when Carol Ann Stutte did something seemingly innocuous—she cancelled her hair appointment, mentioning the fire—she unlocked the door to a community that she never knew existed in eastern Tennessee.
Her hairdresser, Jaime Combs, and Combs’ partner, Carla Lewis, happened to be active in the eastern Tennessee LGBT community. When thinking of how to help, Lewis thought of PFLAG Marvyille and posted the news on the group’s Facebook page, as news of the fire hadn’t yet surfaced in the media.
Becky Lucas, the teacher and mother who recently formed PFLAG Marvyille and is part of the NIOT network, catapulted into action. Lucas called Carol Ann and asked, “How can we help? What do you need?”
Recalling the phone conversation, Carol Ann said, “At that point, we were still in shock. I just started crying, and said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Their needs ranged from cotton swabs to a place to live. Lucas galvanized more than 60 people who attended the first PFLAG Maryville meeting just days before and asked them to also send out pleas to help the Stuttes. Lewis, of the Eastern Tennessee Equality Council and the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, was integral in garnering media coverage and setting up an online donation system.
The media began calling and donations flooded in. Various LGBT organizations and churches stepped forward. Lucas spent hours on the phone speaking with people offering items that ran the gamut from toiletries to their late mother’s furniture. A donated storage unit was filled “five or six times over,” Lucas said.
Of the hundreds of calls Lucas received, only three wished them harm. Though support was overwhelmingly positive, there was the possibility that they could also be targets. Lucas’ 12-year-old asked, “Is someone going to burn down our house?”
Despite the risk, Lucas said, “How I feel about the Stuttes, it’s what I would do for my own son.”
Lucas and Carol Ann spoke daily. The community organized potlucks, welcoming the Stuttes with homecooked meals and a group of supporters. They also assisted in securing the Stuttes a civil rights attorney.
Of Lucas, Carol Ann said, “She literally took the bull by the horns, getting everything we needed. It was like ground zero triage.”
Within weeks, the community raised more than $10,000 for the Stuttes. Monetary donations came from 36 states, the District of Columbia, Australia, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Carol Ann, her partner Laura and daughter Kimberly are currently living in Knoxville, Tenn. thanks to community support. Carol Ann said the county, the state, and now the FBI is investigating the fire. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department did not return calls for comment.
The fire did not surprise the Stuttes. Since they moved to Vonore five years ago they had been intimidated multiple times by a neighbor. Along with their home, their lives had been threatened and two of their dogs had been poisoned, Carol Ann said.
“To move to a place like this, where hate is like a disease, and then to go to a place like Maryville and Knoxville, it’s like a family welcoming you with open arms,” Carol Ann said.
The story of the Stuttes is really a story of how a small community came together to make a big difference, paving the way for change in eastern Tennessee.
“I’d say we have a bad reputation for hate crimes in this area. There’s just too many times when something like that happens and it usually gets swept under the rug,” Lewis said. “I want the Stuttes to know … that people like me are not going to let them suffer, we’re going to suffer with them and we’re not going to let this happen again.”
Both Lewis and her partner Combs’ activism was sparked two years ago by another tragedy in eastern Tennessee. Both were present when an armed man opened fire on the congregation at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. in 2008. The church is among six others that have supported the Stuttes.
“It was like feeling like you were all alone and then coming home,” Carol Ann said. “We finally felt safe and protected for the first time in five years.”