Lesbian Notions - Tennessee Burning

Used to be that cross burnings were the KKK’s calling card against African Americans. Now cross burnings have a different use.
Just ask Brandon Waters. He and his partner, Brian Harmon, were having a quiet evening at home on Thursday, June 29, when Waters looked out a window and saw a 7-foot cross burning on the front lawn of his Athens, Tenn., home.
They rushed out and doused the fire. In the morning, they went back out to videotape the remains. On one of the bricks used to prop up the cross was scrawled “Better Leave Now Fags.”
Waters called the Meigs County sheriff’s department, which started an investigation and called in the FBI to see if the incident would be considered a hate crime under federal statute. The feds said no, because under the federal hate crimes law, there is no provision for crimes against gays, lesbians, or the transgendered.
Clearly, Sheriff Walter Hickman isn’t familiar with the law - the nation’s or his own state’s. Tennessee has a hate crimes law that does cover sexual orientation.
“Why did they call in the FBI when they should have called in the state?” Waters asked me rhetorically in a recent interview. “Something doesn’t sound right. It seems like the police are not taking it very seriously.”
I couldn’t agree more. Even though hate crimes against the LGBT community decreased slightly in 2005, the anti-LGBT rhetoric that characterizes this nation’s political debate sends a clear message that we are and should continue to be seen as second-class citizens who don’t deserve full protection under the law.
According to the 2005 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, the number of anti-LGBT hate crime incidents fell 13 percent from 2004, and the number of victims who were tracked fell nearly at the same rate - 12 percent. The number of offenders, however, decreased only half that rate, by 6 percent.
This paltry decrease, says the report, “signals a truly retrograde environment in which years of progress resulting in fewer people willing to violently act out anti-LGBT bias has been substantially reversed. With respect to hate-related violence, we are in fact ‘back to the future.’”
That’s certainly true for Waters and Harmon. “We’ve had many incidents with people yelling at us - fags, queers. I can’t even sit out on my porch,” said Waters.
Clearly, there’s no reason for him to have any faith in the local sheriff’s department. “I feel like they’re just blowing us off. This is not the first incident I’ve reported to the police.”
Waters had a hit-and-run with one of the local “yellers.”
“When one of the policemen took the report, I told him my name. He asked, ‘How do you spell Brandon? Brandony?’ I was born and raised here, they all know me.”
With local law enforcement not taking any of these incidents seriously, Waters says he is fearful for his life.
He and Harmon have left their home and moved in with Waters’ mother. “I have been waking up in the middle of the night, having nightmares and smelling smoke that’s not there,” said Waters. “I’m really depressed. I just feel like my civil rights have been violated, like the police are not doing what they’re supposed to do, and I really don’t know who to turn to.”
Despite all this, Waters is willing to fight. His family has no resources to hire a lawyer, but he is willing to “pursue this as far as I can take it.”
If there was ever a case where national organizations could and should come in as knights in shining armor, this is it.
To my mind, this is a perfect opportunity for Lambda Legal or the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project to make their legal presence known in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s home state. With both sides gearing up for what will no doubt be a bruising campaign over the state’s proposed Amendment 1, which seeks to ban same-sex marriage, the Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign should work side by side with the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) to turn this hate crime around to the LGBT community’s political advantage. Not doing so would certainly be an opportunity lost!
In fact, TEP is now organizing a “Vote No on 1” campaign against the amendment. It’s time for us to play hardball. Why not use the image of a burning cross and the story of discrimination experienced by these two men who just want to live their lives to underscore the need for marriage equality in Tennessee?
I guarantee you that if the radical Christian right in Tennessee had visual ad copy like this to use to further its anti-same-sex-marriage agenda, it would certainly use it.
Libby Post is the founding chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda and a political commentator on public radio, on the Web, and in print media. She can be reached at LesbianNotions@qsyndicate.com.

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