Vigil to call for greater legal protection for gays in Ala.

The vigil is a chance to honor Alabama GLBT hate-crime victims and demand changes in state law

On Feb. 19, 1999, Billy Jack Gaither, an employee at the Russell Athletics apparel company near Sylacauga, Ala., was brutally murdered by two men. Gaither’s throat was sliced, and he was beaten with an ax handle. His assailants tossed his body on a pile of smoldering tires, then stood and watched him burn.

The victim was only 39 years old. He was also gay, which was the reason he was killed.

Billy Jack Gaither was beaten to death and his body burned on a trash pile in Sylacauga in 1999 by two men who claimed he had made sexual advances to them.

But Gaither and other Alabama gays and lesbians who have suffered violence because of their sexuality have not been forgotten.

Each year since Gaither’s murder, members of the Alabama gay rights and social justice communities have gathered to mark his passing and call for greater legal protections for gays and lesbians in the state.

This year is no different. A 14th annual vigil for victims of hate crimes will be held on the steps of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery, Sunday, Feb. 19, beginning at 4 p.m.

The event is a chance for attendees to honor the memory of the victims of hate crimes in Alabama and to demand that the Alabama legislature expand its existing hate-crimes law to better protect members of the LGBT community.

“Violence in Alabama is real,” vigil organizer Ralph Young told Weld Local in an email.  “Just look what happened to Billy Jack Gaither. We’ve got to stop blaming victims and see gay bashing for what it-a willful act of violence. There’s a hole in Alabama’s hate crime law and we’ve got to close it.”

Young, who is vice-chair of Equality Alabama, one of the event’s sponsors, cited FBI statistics indicating that gays and lesbians are the third most targeted group for hate-biased crimes and yet are the only group not covered by Alabama’s law.

One of the speakers at the vigil will be state Rep. Patricia Todd (I-Birmingham), the first-ever openly gay elected official in Alabama.  On Feb. 7, Todd filed legislation, referred to as HB28, which would add language regarding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s 1994 hate-crimes statute.

“Gay? Fine by me.” When Hoover High student Sara Couvillon wore a t-shirt that expressed this sentiment, she was (temporarily) forced by school authorities to stop wearing it.

Other speakers at the vigil confirmed at press time are Sam Wolfe, a civil rights lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery; Sara Couvillon of Birmingham, a student at Hoover High School who was told by school officials last fall that she would not be allowed to wear a T-shirt that read, “Gay? Fine by me”;  and James Robinson of Huntsville, Ala., the director of GLBT Advocacy and Youth Service, a community service agency that helps gay youth.

Todd, who also serves as board chair of Equality Alabama, submitted a measure similar to HB28 during the 2011 legislative session but was unable to get it placed on the committee calendar.  “I’m trying to work with the chairman of the judiciary committee, Paul DeMarco (R-Homewood), to try to get it placed on the committee calendar,” Todd told Weld Local in a telephone interview. “In the Alabama legislature, the committee chairmen really control the agenda for the committee. They have sole discretion as to whether to bring up a bill or not.”

How will the inclusion of this new language in the hate-crimes bill make gay people safer? “I don’t know that having a hate-crimes [law] necessarily deters violence,” Todd said. “But what it says, when you include somebody in a group in a hate-crimes law, [is that] we in the state recognize that people may be subject to violence solely because they are part of that group, and we as a state do not accept violence against any group.”

There seems to be a continuing need for this change to the statute, backers say, citing such recent cases as the beating of a lesbian by a group of people at a bar in Opelika, Ala., in early February.

The bill may face some opposition in the state house, according to Todd. “The interesting thing is that the opposition, which is usually the Republicans, say that all victims should be treated the same [and] there should not be enhanced penalties for people who belong to a certain group,” she said.

Todd expresses some understanding of that view point (“I wish it were true,” she said, later adding, “I think all victims should be treated the same”), but notes that Alabama “already [has] a hate-crimes law that includes race, ethnicity, things like this. We are telling the public that we recognize that people can be victims who are part of a certain group or demographic. “

In addition, other state statutes, not just the hate-crimes law, include enhanced penalties for such offenses as killing a police officer or killing a child, Todd said.

Todd said she found it interesting that a Republican state senator, Gerald Dial of Lineville, has submitted his own amendment to the hate-crimes law. Dial wishes to add enhanced penalties for those who burglarize or commit criminal mischief against religious property, including churches.

Todd suggests that if the Republicans have a philosophical objection to enhanced penalties that they should be consistent in the way they treat legislation. “I hate hypocrisy,” she said, adding that, “If they pass Dial’s bill and don’t allow mine on the committee calendar, that truly is homophobia,” Todd said. “And that’s something I will continue to address [as long as I’m] in the legislature.”

In Oct. 2011, Todd also pre-filed legislation to expand the state’s 2009 anti-bullying law to explicitly prohibit harassment in schools on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Todd says that the state Department of Education needs to have more information at its disposal to understand how to properly train teachers to handle bullying of gay students. “I am still not happy where the state Department of Education is on implementing training for teachers on this anti-bullying bill,” she said. “If you look at statistics around the county, most of the kids who are bullied are suspected of being gay. Many of them commit suicide from this bullying. The Department of Education has no clue about how to train [educators] around LGBT.”

The representative said that the point is not to condemn the department but to help them. “We don’t necessarily fault them,” Todd said, adding that, “[We can] help them work up a curriculum that they can use.  We have resources to help teachers to talk about those issues and to help parents to talk about those issues.”

According to Todd, there are resources available on the subject from groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the SPLC, and she said that “there are other agencies around the country who have developed good curriculum.”

In fact, Todd indicated that her bill to add language regarding sexual orientation and gender identity to the school bullying law does not necessarily have to be passed if, she said, “I can get [the department] to recognize that they need help…  I think legislators don’t have to always legislate things before we try to work internally, but if I don’t get cooperation from the board, I will push forth my bill.”

According to Todd, she was planning to set up a meeting with Tommy Bice, the new state superintendent of education, “and get a feel from him on the issue.”

It is important that her bills include language about both sexual orientation and gender identity, according to Todd. “Sexual orientation is more about who I love, who I’m attracted to,” she said. “Gender identity is how I identify my gender, and that includes people who may — you know, we have young girls who may dress like boys and pass as males in the society, and vice versa. It’s a whole range of folks who want to express their gender differently than their birth gender. We see more of this as more people feel comfortable with coming out about this. Those two things are not necessarily the same people.”

Wolfe, a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, helped launch the national LGBT Rights Project, which has received attention from CNN and the New York Times.

It was Wolfe and the SPLC who came to the aid of Couvillon in August 2011 when she was told by school officials that she could not wear a shirt expressing sympathy for gays and lesbians.

Hoover school authorities relented after receiving a letter from the SPLC threatening legal action. “It isn’t easy being singled out, but if I can give someone else the courage to be who they are then it’s worth it to me,” Couvillon said, according to an Equality Alabama news release.

Couvillon will be given the Stephen Light Youth Activism Award at the vigil, according to Young.

James Robinson will receive the Billy Jack Gaither Humanitarian Award, which is awarded annually by Equality Alabama to a person or organization that, according to the group’s release, has shown “courage in the struggle against hatred and contributed to the creation of a just society.”

Robinson, a special education teacher, founded GLBT Advocacy and Youth Services two years ago. The non-profit organization, the first of its kind in Alabama, as far as Robinson knows, seeks to support local organizations in offering resources to gay and lesbian teens. The organization hosts a weekly support group Monday evenings at The Studio, Huntsville’s drop-in center for runaway teens.

Many kids are tossed out of their homes by their parents when they come out as gay, according to Robinson, or suffer other abuse and isolation. “The longer I do this, the more I hear personal stories,” Robinson told Weld Local in a telephone interview. “The more people talk to me, I realize how common these problems are, and I realize how significant it is that we address it.”

Robinson speaks regularly to church, school and community groups and believes that there is a value in gay people standing up and speaking out, especially to audiences who are predominantly heterosexual. “For your community, we need to come out and be heard,” he said. “In Alabama, the more I say the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and people hear it from me standing in front of them, the more walls are broken down.”

Todd emphasizes the importance of speaking out, especially given the continuing threats faced by gays and lesbians. “I can tell you personally I’ve received two death threats since I’ve been in the legislature, and prior to that – probably due to my activism re this issue – I’ve received hate mails and slurs and things like that,” she said. “Hate crimes still happen. And [gay] people have been the subject of hate for decades. This vigil reminds us that individuals do die due to hate crimes, and we need to shed light on it and let people know. It won’t go away, and we need to continue to fight it whenever we see it.”

The event is free and open to the public and is co-sponsored by several groups, including Equality Alabama, the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, the SPLC and PFLAG (Parents, Friends, and Families of Lesbians and Gays) Montgomery.

Jesse Chambers is the editor of Weld Local and a contributing editor at Weld for Birmingham. Send your feedback to editor@weldbham.com