ARTICLE

Lessons from Laramie – and Sylacauga

Today is the 11th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. I don’t think anyone can contemplate this date without a mix of strong emotions. But for me, the date always brings a special blend of anger, shame and guilt.

Today is the 11th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. I don’t think anyone can contemplate this date without a mix of strong emotions. But for me, the date always brings a special blend of anger, shame and guilt.

Many people will use this day to commemorate the life of Shepard, a 21-year-old who was brutally murdered in a hate crime in Laramie, Wyo. Many will remember the people in Laramie who spoke out against hate and homophobia after Shepard’s death. Their efforts snowballed, inspiring a movement that led to the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act which is now before Congress.

That’s what most people will remember. But I’ll remember Billy Jack Gaither, who was murdered just a few months later in Sylacauga, Ala., not far from my hometown.

Unlike Laramie, Northeast Alabama reacted to this anti-gay murder with an uncomfortable silence. Gaither’s friends and at least one local pastor spoke out about the crime. But for the most part, rural Alabamians turned and looked away. Many people didn’t even want to talk about the fact that Gaither was gay.

Looking back, I see that I was part of the problem, part of the silence. At the time of Billy Jack Gaither’s murder, I was working for a newspaper not far from Sylacauga. Sylacauga was outside our “coverage area,” so we let Associated Press report the story for us.

But as a reporter, I felt that the lack of local outcry was a story in itself. My editors told me I could run with my story if I could find an angle in Etowah County, where my beat was.

I struggled with the story for weeks, but it died before publication. It died because the gay community in my area didn’t have a public face. It died for lack of strong straight allies to speak out. And it died because the reporter didn’t push hard enough – because I was afraid I would cross the line from journalism to activism.

I’m not proud to be part of the silence that surrounded the death of Billy Jack Gaither. But it taught me some things. If we want to respond in the right way to acts of hate, we need more than just a conscience. We need spaces where LGBT issues can be discussed. And we need to have the courage to step outside our professional comfort zones, and take the risk of being considered an “activist.”

Every day at Teaching Tolerance, I hear from teachers who are doing those things. On this sad anniversary, I just want to say thanks to all of you. When you’re doing the work, you may not feel like you’re having a great effect. But, when that work isn’t being done, the silence is deafening.