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Out Mag: "Is Alabama really the worst place to be a gay person in Bush's America?"

Striking Back at Hate: A “political funeral” held in New York City for murdered Alabamian Billy Jack Gaither and other victims of antigay and antiminority violence, March 1999. Photo from OUT Magazine

YES appears to be the answer. Where to begin…first, I highly recommend going out and grabbing up the January issue of Out Magazine. I am posting the excerpts here from its web site, but the complete article is only available in the print version. BUY IT.

Anyone speculating about which state is the most homophobic in the nation probably needs to look no further than Alabama. Out magazine poses and answers the question — “Is Alabama really the worst place to be a gay person in Bush’s America?”

My wife Kate, a native Alabaman, escaped from the nightmare, and even she couldn’t believe the depth of the hatred and homophobia exposed by this article, including the heinous statistic that 44% of gay Alabamans are physically beaten and assaulted — by their own family members. It’s truly upsetting, and depressing. You wish the queer community would just get the hell out of there, but as with all stories like this, there are those that still want to stay and fight for their rights. I would consider this an almost insurmountable mountain of intolerance that runs both deep and high — and all the way to the state house. Judge Roy Moore, famous for wanting to keep a gigantic slab of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, is planning to run for governor. He says some frightening things about gays in this story that make you wonder what could happen if he is elected — and he just may be.

The author of the article, Unsweet Homo Alabama, is Bob Moser. He served as editor of the great progressive local paper here in the Triangle, The Independent Weekly, from 1995 to 2000. He is a senior writer for the Intelligence Report, an investigative magazine published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

Unsweet Homo Alabama

I came home from this year’s summer vacation to find just one message waiting on my office phone. That was a pleasant surprise—until I got the message. “Don’t know if you’ve heard, but we had two more gay men killed while you were gone. Just 10 days apart. The vigil’s tonight at the state capitol.”

That was no surprise at all. You see, I live in Alabama. It’s been three long years since I left 21st-century America—the West Coast, specifically—and moved to a state that remains, in the words of the Reverend Helene Loper, a long-suffering activist, “stubbornly pre-Stonewall.”

When I first got here, out and proud and clueless after years of living in places where holding hands in public with your boyfriend doesn’t seem like a death sentence, everything surprised me. Because I’d grown up in NASCAR country in North Carolina, I figured that I could handle anything Alabama could dish out. But I wasn’t expecting to meet a grand total of just two out gay people in my first three months in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital city. I wasn’t anticipating how flummoxed folks would be when they met me and discovered I was openly gay. (“Oh, honey,” said one new office mate, shaking her head and patting me on the shoulder, “You’re going to be fucking miserable.”) I wasn’t prepared to yank my poor little dog in frantic dashes through my “progressive” neighborhood, leaping over fences and cutting through backyards to avoid SUVs full of teenage boys hollering, “Hey, faggot!” (I have no idea what tipped them off.) And I sure wasn’t ready for the flamboyant bodybuilder I met at my Baptist-run gym. He sported the kind of fussed-over hair, poofy muscles, and sibilant drawl that make it impossible to even consider trying to pass for straight. Except that he was. When I asked him to the office Christmas party, the poor fellow agonized for days before announcing, “I’m not ready to be public like that.” But I work for a civil rights organization, I protested—the kind of place where people are required to like gay people. “You just don’t know what it’s like,” he said. “You’re in Alabama now.” I guess so.

Anyplace else in 2004 America, gay people—and even some straight ones—would be shocked, outraged, and bellowing for justice if two gay men had been killed in less than two weeks. In Alabama we just numbly reassemble for another candlelight vigil on the marble steps of the bleached-white state capitol, right near the spot where Gov. George C. Wallace hollered, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” On particularly awful occasions, like this double-murder summer, as many as 65 of us will show up. The few, the brave, the homo-bamians. We stand here wondering how many more of us are going to get burned like witches, struggling to keep the candle wax from dripping onto our hands and pants, glancing nervously over our shoulders whenever a muffler-free pickup truck goes roaring by on its five-foot tires. You just know they’re going to holler something creative like “Faggots burn in hell!” You just hope they’re not hanging around waiting when you walk back to your car.

My virgin vigil came just a few months after I’d arrived in town. Despite the grim occasion, I found myself looking forward to it in a strange way—at least I’d get to see some of my fellow homo-bamians in the flesh. Since the vigil was commemorating the third anniversary of Billy Jack Gaither’s murder, I figured there’d be quite a crowd. Gaither’s slaughter in February 1999 was one of the nastiest hate crimes in recent history. Just up the road in rural Coosa County, the 39-year-old was slashed with a pocketknife, beaten with an ax handle, and burned on a pile of tires by two guys who did the deed because “he was queer.”

A dozen people showed up for Gaither’s vigil. Slumping away afterward, forlornly chewing the wax off my fingers, I couldn’t help wondering, Is there something in the water down here that rendered gay people spineless, speechless, gutless?

A couple of days later I started to catch a clue about why Alabama remains, in the opinion of longtime gay activist Ken Baker, “clearly the nation’s most closeted state.” The then–chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, Roy Moore, a likely candidate for governor in 2006, chose to celebrate the Gaither anniversary by spitting out the ugliest display of judicial homophobia in decades. Moore, best known for installing a washing machine–size Ten Commandments monument in the entrance to the state’s judicial building, tacked a 14-page “special concurrence” onto a decision denying a lesbian mother custody of her children. In it, Alabama’s highest judicial officer declared homosexuality “abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature.” Gay sex, he wrote, is “an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it,” an “inherent evil” that “should never be tolerated.” And if homo-bamians continued to insist on fornicating? The state might have to use force, Moore wrote, wielding a biblical “power of the sword” to root out this evil once and for all.

Martha Weaver holds a photo of her son Scotty Joe Weaver who was murdered in Pine Grove, Alabama, during the summer of 2004. Photo from OUT Magazine

“All he didn’t do was hand out the rope,” says Baker. No need for that; rope is always in plentiful supply for Alabama’s homophobes—literally and figuratively. There’s the literal rope that bound 18-year-old Scotty Joe Weaver, the first of this summer’s victims, to a chair in his trailer in rural Pine Grove, where he was beaten, strangled, stabbed, mutilated, and partially decapitated over a period of several hours. His body was then dumped in the woods and set on fire, just like Gaither’s. Then there’s the rhetorical rope that led the accused killer of 40-year-old Roderick George, shot in the head while reportedly cruising downtown Montgomery, to matter-of-factly inform police he’d done the deed because George “made inappropriate sexual advances.” He probably figured the cops would give him a pat on the back and send him home. Hadn’t he done what Alabamians are supposed to do when they’re confronted with an “inherent evil” that “should never be tolerated”?

It must have been quite a shock for him to find himself charged with murder. But at least he can rest assured that if a jury convicts him, there will be no hate-crimes enhancements tacked on to his sentence. The state’s hate-crimes statute makes no mention of sexual orientation. Which means that when the FBI’s hate-crimes stats come out next year, Scotty Joe Weaver and Roderick George will not be counted.

Other residents of Alabama have weighed in on the article in comments at the Out website. Go read them.

What can we do about this? Anything? Help the remaining gay folks in Alabama to fight the good fight? Give up on this Red state and tell gays to get the out? I have no idea where to begin. I cannot fathom this level of hatred and bigotry — gay is the new black. Later in the article, it’s stated that because Alabama “lost” the last battle over civil rights, these haters are not going to sit back and let gays gain equality. It’s their last cultural stand.

The folks at Equality Alabama, based in Montgomery, clearly need all the help they can get.


Moser also wrote a great article comparing life in Alabama with the gay-friendly area of NC in which I live entitled “In the Triangle, gay-bashing wasn’t happening to us“. You can sample more of his work at the The Independent Weekly in the Bob Moser Archives.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding