An enthusiastic crowd gathered in Montgomery on a cold dreary afternoon to remember victims of hatred and violence yesterday. The annual vigil takes place “to remember Billy Jack Gaither and all who have been victims of violence and intolerance due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation.”
The keynote speaker was Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center where his primary responsibility includes leading their LGBT Rights Project.
Mr. Wolfe gave a chilling recap of the murder of Billy Jack Gaither, describing in detail how his killers cut his throat, tormented him, and beat him senseless before throwing his body “like a bag of trash” onto burning tires. He praised those who were present, and others who fight for acceptance in this state, and reminded those in attendance that “silence helps the oppressors.”
Ultimately, it is up to young people to change our world and our state, and if Stephen Light Youth Activism Award recipient Sara Couvillon has her way, change is coming.
Miss Couvillon is a student at Hoover High School, outside of Birmingham, where last year she drew the attention of school administrators by wearing a t-shirt that read “gay? fine by me.” School officials said it violated the dress code, and compared it to wearing a shirt advertising drug use.
“Pot is illegal. Being accepted is not,” she told the administrator.
She also said that she experienced hatred coming from the anonymous comments on an article about the experience on al.com, the web site of the Birmingham News. But she also said, “I know one thing that surpasses hate; that is love.”
More recently Miss Couvillon was instrumental in forming the Hoover High School Gay Straight Alliance.
The Billy Jack Gaither Award was awarded to James Robinson, executive director at GLBT Advocacy and Youth Services in Huntsville, AL. Mr. Robinson shared the story of his turn around from a destructive lifestyle to one where he is secure in who he is and in his work helping others who are struggling with similar issues.
He shared part of a story from a phone call he had received the night before from a man who had been oppressed and beaten down by his family and his church and society. Mr. Robinson receives calls such as this on a regular basis, and is there to offer support and as a resource.
Alabama’s hate crimes statute does not offer protections to persons based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Representative Patricia Todd presented the awards and said she has bills to expand Alabama’s hate crimes law and strengthen the state’s anti-harassment legislation prepared, but it’s going to take some changes in attitude from other legislators to move the bills forward.
The vigil was sponsored by AL NOW, Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, Equality Alabama, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, New Hope Metrocpolitan Community Church, PFLAG, Southern Poverty Law Center, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery.