Tuesday, February 21, 2012

14th Annual Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence

On a cold and windy Sunday afternoon, after driving by the Montgomery Capitol and there being redirected to the Union Station Train Shed, I stand at one end of a semicircle of probably 60 people near an improvised stage.
It’s Feb. 19, and the LGBT community remembers Billy Jack Gaither and all the victims of hate crimes. Representative Patricia Todd, Alabama’s first openly gay elected state official, reminds the audience that Alabama still doesn’t recognized crimes committed against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals as hate crimes. In October 2009, President Obama signed the law that made a federal crime to assault individuals because of their sexual orientation. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act includes crimes committed because of sexual orientation or identity, but the Alabama code only addresses race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, and physical or mental disability.
A train rolls noisily by, as Todd, chair of Equality Alabama and associate director of AIDS Alabama, talks about the Hate Crime Bill she hopes to see pass this year; the bill, among its other aims, seeks to protect veterans too, in order to make it easier for conservative state representatives to swallow the pill. In Alabama, being gay is still considered by many a choice, if not something “unnatural,” or just plain wrong.
Sam Wolfe, a civil rights attorney with the Southern Poverty Center, is next to take the stage. He is visibly nervous, and struggles to keep his notes on the lectern in the cold wind. Wolfe describes in detail how Billy Jack Gaither was brutally murdered at age 39 on the night of Feb. 19, 1999. His killer, Steven Mullins, had met Gaither at a bar in Sylacauga, in Talladega County; it was “the queer stuff” Billy Jack began to talk about that triggered Mullins’ homicidal plan. Mullins lured him into taking a ride with his friend, Charles Monroe Butler.The three of them drove to a remote location in the woods, and there Mullins slit Gaither’s throat and then beat him to death. Mullins and Butler were sentenced to life in prison without parole; yet, Gaither’s murder has not yet been recognized as a hate crime.
Even after his death, Billy Jack’s father denied that his son was a gay man, Wolfe says. Billy Jack hadn’t come out. He was too afraid of disappointing his family. Billy himself had conflicting feelings about his sexual orientation due to his religious beliefs, according to his sister Kathy. He had been engaged more than once, in his attempt to be accepted by his family. Kathy, who is gay herself, had come to terms with her own sexual orientation, but she claims Billy never did.
Wolfe has been pivotal in launching SPLC’s LGTB Rights Project, which focuses primarily on ensuring safety for LGTB students in schools across the Southeast.
The freight trains continue passing by, inevitably loud, but not loud enough to drown out the shaky yet strong voice of 16 year-old Sarah Couvillon. Last year, Sarah wore a T-shirt that read: “Gay? Fine by Me.”  Hoover High School officials thought that was against the school rules and one of them, as Sarah recounts to the audience, equated that to wearing a pro-marijuana T-shirt. They claimed to be concerned “for her safety”; conversely, they chose not to grant Sarah her Constitutional right to free speech and, ultimately, to be who she is: a gay adolescent.
According to a recent study by the Gay,Lesbian & Straight Education Network, nine out of 10 LGBT students experience harassment in school. When positively supported by the staff, LGTB students contribute to “a range of positive indicators including fewer reports of missing school, fewer reports of feeling unsafe, greater academic achievement, higher educational aspirations, and a great sense of school belonging.”
As a straight individual, only occasionally I feel addressed by the speakers; yet, it’s enough for me to look around as the made-up of the audience speaks for itself.  Most attendees are longtime supporters of the cause, as this is their cause. However, next to me are Rev. Bob Graetz and his wife Jeannie, active participants in this 21st century battle for equal rights. The Graetzes were among the not so many Whites who actively participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and many other civil rights actions to follow. Their home in Montgomery was bombed once in the middle of the night when one of their children was only 9-month old: fortunately, it was just a big shock, but the message was clear. Some didn’t like what they were doing; they were considered “traitors to the white race.” Yet, their contribution to civil rights movement, as the one of other Whites, has been crucially important in the struggle of African Americans for justice and equality.
The Graetzes would be the first ones to tell you how essential it is to create alliances and work together towards the realization of Martin Luther King Jr’s “beloved community” beyond the strictures of identity politics. This is even more relevant in Alabama where social separation and inequality persist.