This week, Arkansas became ground zero in the cultural clash between fundamentalist Christian beliefs and gay rights.
It began with the publication of angry, anti-gay Facebook posts by Clint McCance, the vice president of Midland School Board, a school district in Arkansas. Infuriated by "spirit day" – a day when people nationwide wear purple as a show of support for victims of antigay bullying – Mr. McCance wrote he would only wear purple if all gays committed suicide, adding that he was gratified that homosexuals "often give each other AIDS and die."
Thursday night, McCance resigned on CNN, acknowledging that his comments were "hateful."
Yet the issue underlying them remains deeply divisive throughout much of the rural South as the push for gay rights takes on some of the aspects of a modern civil rights movement – with small groups attempting to make change on a local level. This week, protesters from Little Rock descended on McCance’s small town, Pleasant Plains, 80 miles away.
“Such movements tend to be grass roots that pop up more or less spontaneously in one community or another and are moved by individual people or groups of people who are deeply burdened by discrimination,” says Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The pushback from conservative Christians, however, remains strong. The protesters were met by local residents who carried American and Christian flags and played Christian music. As one preacher told a local television station, gays and lesbians think “they're all right, and [God is] going to let them think that and go to hell for believing what they're doing is right.”
Some local conservative leaders condemned McCance’s statements and say that the public viewpoint of gays has changed over the years. They stress, however, that the Bible still says homosexuality is a sin.
“There’s a live-and-let-live attitude now among the people I work with,” says Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, a conservative organization that works with churches in Arkansas. “It’s when homosexuality enters the social and political arena – gay adoption, gay marriage or 'don’t ask, don’t tell' – and a group is trying to change the culture that you get pushback.”
Mr. Cox, who has led efforts against gay marriage and adoption, disagrees with the notion that the push for gay rights has any resemblance to what other minorities have faced in the past. He says that the gay community does not share the same history as blacks in the US.
“They have never been segregated or enslaved,” he says.
The gay-rights community disagrees.
“The same tactics used to disenfranchise blacks in the South through institutional racism – all in an effort to paint them as ‘dangerous others’ – are currently being employed against gays and lesbians,” says Brock Thompson, author of “The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South.” “These tactics include bans on gay and lesbian adoption to efforts to bar gays and lesbians from public teaching positions. In a few instances, it is the exact same laws, merely replacing black with gay.”
Bullying in focus
The Arkansas controversy erupted at a time when antibullying has become a major issue nationwide after the suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi. President Obama has spoken out against bullying in a video. On Tuesday, the US Department of Education sent a message to 15,000 school districts and 5,000 college and universities stating that bullying is not acceptable and schools may have an obligation to intervene under federal law.
In the past, the gay-rights community in Arkansas has often been fragmented, but the McCance controversy has appeared to unite people. The Center for Artistic Revolution, a nonprofit organization promotes fairness and equality for all Arkansans, had already launched an antibullying education campaign before the McCance controversy. The group has seen increased interest this week, it says.
“These groups take inspiration from another group and that’s what makes a movement,” Professor Watson says. “They are inspired by the courage of others historically whether it is by women, African-Americans, or handicapped people in order to make change.”