Billy Jack Gaither died on Feb. 19, 1999. He was 39. He lived in Sylacauga, AL. He was beaten to death with an ax handle, covered in kerosene, and his body was burned on a pile of old tires. His attackers were unrepentant: Gaither, a gay man, had propositioned him, they said.
Now, even if their story were true, the adult response to an unwanted advance is simply, “no.” But their story really strains credulity: why would any Southern gay man proposition skinheads whose prejudices were well known in the community?
Larry Hammond, who owns The Tavern, a bar once frequented by Mullins and Gaither, said Mullins once taunted blacks at a restaurant. Wearing a Ku Klux Klan t-shirt, he pressed his back against the window so the diners could see the racist insignia, Hammond said.
Mullins once caused a scene in the bar by using racial epithets when blacks entered, Hammond said.
But the bigger questions are these: where did Mullins learn that behavior and why was it tolerated by his community?
Thankfully, it's become socially unacceptable – even in most places in the South – to do stuff like flaunt your KKK t-shirt. The prejudice may still be there, but it's more subtle.
One prejudice that is still acceptable in many communities is homophobia. And tolerance for that particular prejudice helped kill Billy Jack Gaither, Matthew Shepard, and it drives many GLBT young people to attempt suicide rather than face the bullying of their schoolmates and even teachers.
When some members of community do push back against such prejudice, they get a little taste of what their GLBT neighbors live through every day. One example is the furious reaction of many in Lauderdale County who jumped to the defense of Coach Bob Grisham. The teacher was disciplined for ranting against “queers” and Michelle Obama's “fat butt” in front of his class.
The disagreements in person were bad enough, but even uglier on Facebook, where some repeatedly referenced their “Christian beliefs” before posting comments like this one from a local business owner:
It's not even possible to unpack the craziness here and it's hard for me to stomach the sheer ignorance and meanness.
Really, what WOULD Jesus do about attitudes like this?
And how do vulnerable young people respond when the adults around them spew such ugliness? What are they teaching the kids around them about the people in their community?
The men who killed Billy Jack Gaither were aged 21 and 25 – pretty young to have such hate-filled hearts. If any adult in their life had ever talked with them about respect for others and tolerance of diversity, it might have made a difference.
Now I'm sure folks like Mr. Dabbs will protest that they haven't killed anybody and don't plan to. Ever. And I believe them. They really aren't trying to hurt anyone and don't plan to. They simply don't realize the power their words and their actions have on the people around them – particularly the young.
Marion Hammond described to PBS the affect Gaithe's death had on her small town:
Well, I think the loss of Billy Jack has opened a lot of people's eyes. Any town you live in, there is a gay person here, there, and yonder. And they didn't realize it. It's like there was no gays nowhere but in the big cities. They're everywhere. They're all over this country. And until then, I don't think it was ever realized that they were in a small town.
I have two sons. It's opened my eyes that one day they might have been gay. They're 20 and 18, so I don't believe they are. But if they was, I could live with it, when one day I might cried for three hours or more.
I remember thinking whenever they was so little, “Please, never be gay.” But now it's like a part of nature. . . . He taught me that it just happens. It's nothing you do. It's nobody's fault. It's just the way you are.
Tragedies like this represent a learning opportunity. We see the end result of hating and fearing people who are “different.” Adults have a responsibility to act: the next generation watches us and pays attention to what we say, do, and what we tolerate in our community.
This is what the defenders of Coach Grisham don't understand: the next “Billy Jack Gaither” could be sitting in a school room right now listening to a homophobic rant from a teacher. And so could his killer – who's learning from an authority figure that prejudice is not just ok; it's encouraged.
The annual vigil to celebrate Gaither's life, remember his death, and remember the victims of all hate & violence is in Montgomery on February 17th, at 4pm on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.