Dolly Parton's Dollywood Gets Into a Gay Marriage T-Shirt Spat

A patron says her marriage equality shirt was deemed offensive by Dollywood staff

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The Players:  Olivier Odom, professional welder and metal-working art instructor; Pete Owens, manager of Dollywood PR and Dollywood's Splash Country--a waterpark connected to Dollywood, an amusement park co-owned by Dolly Parton.

The Opening Serve: On a July 9 visit to Dollywood and Dollywood's Splash Country with her wife and a friend's children, Odom wore a shirt that read "Marriage is So Gay." Odom told us, "When we got to Dollywood Splash Country, the man at the entry gate whispered in my ear that I needed to turn my shirt inside out."  Dollywood has a dress-code policy where clothing that is deemed offensive is either covered up or turned inside out.

Owens confirms this in an interview with The Advocate, a gay and lesbian news magazine."Thousands of times a day our front gate hosts are asked to enforce our dress code policy," he said. "It doesn't have anything to do with who the people are or what their belief system is or with anything other than the fact that we try to prevent as best as we can upon entry of the park one of our guests being offended by something someone else is wearing."

In an interview with an NBC affiliate Odom said, "I was curious what he found offensive about the shirt. If it was the fact that it had the word gay on it or that it was in conjunction with the word marriage." Odom sent a letter to Dollywood on the 19th to file her complaint.

"I do not feel that your company has the right to restrict the freedom of speech of its patrons," she wrote in her letter. "My shirt was a political statement of equality."

The Return Volley: We spoke to Pete Owens yesterday. "Dozens of times a month, we ask patrons to turn their shirt inside out," he said. "The park tries to provide an environment that is away or removed from everything else in the world--where people can just enjoy themselves."

Owens also added, "Our park is open everyday to everybody. It's open to every and all kinds of families enjoying their day." He added that though he hasn't met with Odom and Tipton yet, he plans to do so.

Odom responded to Owens's comments in an conversation with The Atlantic Wire today. "I don't know how it's possible to go anywhere without seeing something political," she said. "If someone that wore a shirt that protested the repeal of DOMA, I don't think they'd be asked to turn their shirt inside out." Odom said that, though she didn't see this herself, her wife saw patrons wearing t-shirts with Confederate flags.

Odom pointed out that the park's namesake creates an image problem. "It was my impression that Dolly Parton and therefore Dollywood would support marriage equality," she said. "I know she's only a part-owner, but she's why people come." Dollywood's website cites that Parton is a co-owner of the park.  Earlier this month, Parton said she supported marriage equality in an interview with the Toronto Sun. In the same interview, she questioned Christian intolerance of marriage equality.

As of this morning, Odom said she has yet to be contacted by Owens or Dollywood staff.

What They Say They're Fighting About: Dollywood's "restrict[ing] the freedom of speech of its patrons," as written in Odom's letter. Owens confirms that the park and front gate attendants have to make decisions on what is offensive and that it's Dollywood's goal to try and leave politics at the door, thus creating a more enjoyable environment.

What They're Really Fighting About: If gay rights are offensive. Odom doesn't think so. She argues that the neutrality policy at Dollywood is broken if she can't wear a shirt promoting equality. The staff and employee who asked her to change her shirt think differently.

Who's Winning Now: It's tricky, but probably Odom. Granted, the rule that Odom objects to makes it so that she doesn't have to see homophobic shirts at an amusement park. But by deeming Odom's marriage equality shirt offensive, Dollywood has implicitly put itself on one side of the gay rights debate. What complicates this scenario is that main attraction of the park, Dolly Parton, has gone on the record supporting marriage equality and gay rights. Now the park faces an image and damage-control problem. It should be noted that Dollywood has had its share of gay rights controversy in the past as well. In 2004, the park asked a gay and lesbian group to rename a "Gay Day" event and faced protests and threats by the Ku Klux Klan as the event drew closer.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.