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ricky gaither

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Of Billy Jack's four brothers, Ricky Gaither was the only one to go on camera with FRONTLINE to talk about growing up as a man in the Gaither family. Ricky paints a portrait of his younger brother's early denials of his sexuality, his devotion to his parents, and his discretion about his romantic life. Ricky also offers his own reading of the evidence against his brother's killers, Mullins and Butler.
Did people make fun of Billy Jack in school?

Oh yeah. They'd call him names, a fag, a queer. It was hard for Billy to deal with, because Sylacauga's a little town. Everybody knows everybody. So if you breathe the wrong way, they knew about it.

Did people beat him up, or try to?

Billy wasn't a pushover. He was a soft, easy-going guy, but when you triggered his button, you better be ready. This friend of ours picked on William, our brother, and Billy didn't like it. Needless to say, the guy didn't pick on William any more--right there, Billy took care of it. That's the way Billy was about the family. . . . Billy didn't deny anything about himself. He had gotten to the point where he felt good, and everybody that knew Billy, knew Billy was gay, and accepted him that way. Billy could be Billy wherever he went. He wouldn't hide anything. He wouldn't come up to you and say, "I'm gay." But if you asked him, he would tell you, yes.

Did your mom and dad know?

I believe so, I really do. In their hearts, I don't think Mom and Dad really knew how to accept it, knew how to deal with it. But Billy Jack was their life. I know that. Billy was right there with them, every day. . . . My dad was in the hospital one time, and we wasn't sure if he was going to make it or not. Billy Jack sat right beside my dad's bed, holding his hand, and he told him, "I'll never leave you. I love you." My dad will never forget that, and we won't either. . . .

When did you know that Billy Jack was gay?

I knew when I was 19. He came to me about that, because Billy and I went out on a double date. I talked to Billy, and I watched Billy. So when Billy and I got home, I talked to him.

What did you say?

I asked him, because the girl he was with was a real pretty girl, and he was having fun, but he wasn't being Billy. I could tell that. So we talked about his life and my life. He tried to tell me that he was not gay. And I said, "Billy, I just want to let you know one thing. Whether you are or whether you aren't, you're my brother. I love you. I'll never turn my back on you." From then on, Billy was Billy to me. I don't know if I knew before anybody else. But I just had to open that up with Billy, because that's really the first time I really stepped in his life and he really stepped in mine. . . .

How did Billy respond?

"No, I'm not gay. I may be bisexual." And I said, "Well, bisexual, whatever. It doesn't matter to me, Billy. You don't have to prove anything to me. Be yourself."

Why do you think he was saying no?

The world wouldn't accept him. The world would not accept you for being gay--that mentality. An intelligent person looks beyond everything. It's not what color their skin is, or the way they dress, or because they have piercings all over them, or because they're gay. It's their life. . . The One to forgive us for anything is not on this earth. . . .

Do you think Billy struggled to accept himself?

There was pressure, family pressure, because he knew that there was two in the family that accepted him, but he didn't know how the rest would feel. . . . Billy went to church, and believed in God. Billy was going to the ministry. . . . I can't comprehend that part of the Bible. Not to say anything against [the Bible], because believe me, I don't. But how can Billy believe so much, and Kathy believe so much, and because they live this lifestyle--

Was Billy disturbed by what the Bible says?

I don't think it disturbed Billy so much as it did me. That's the concept I have: Did my brother go to heaven or did my brother not, because of the way he lived? I know my brother went to heaven. I believe that in my heart. . . . But I'm not God, so I don't know. I try to understand, because they're still good people. They can go to church, and they can do things for churches, and talk with you about the Lord Almighty. But just because they choose to be gay--that's a conflict I have in myself. I guess that's really the only one, because of my brother and my sister, because I'd like to see them in heaven. And I think they will be. I really do. . . .

When did you first learn that Kathy was gay?

I found out about Kathy when we were in junior high school. It was a little country school. People started making fun of Kathy. . . . Kathy didn't tell me--our sister, Vicky, did. I asked Kathy, "Are they making fun of you and saying you're doing this, or you're this way?" She finally said, "Yeah." I said, "Why do you have such a hard time telling me?" We'd always been close. She said, "Because I know what you'd do. You're going to stop [the name calling at school]." And that's what I did--you don't talk about my sister because she's this way. It's the way of her life. . . . She is the way she is, and you're going to leave her alone.

How did anybody know in junior high school?

Kathy has always been the tomboy. . . . Kathy's the little brother that I always wanted before I had my brother. She has always had a deep voice. We've called my granddaddy at work. If she called, they'd say, "Your grandson's on the phone." If I called with the high voice I used to have, they'd say, "You're granddaughter's on the phone." . . .

And how did people tell about Billy?

After Billy turned about 18 or 19, he started being more "out" to people. He still didn't force the issue on anybody. He was comfortable within himself, because he found clubs that he could go to and be accepted and have fun and not worry about somebody saying, "Hey, you. Come here." Or somebody pulling a knife to his throat or something. But as far as being able to tell, you really couldn't.

Ricky, what was it like knowing Billy, growing up, when you were a kid?

Billy was just a good guy. He didn't bully anybody around like most of us did. My brother William and me did those things. Billy would usually say, "Leave him alone. Don't bother him. He didn't do nothing." He was always taking up for the underdog.

Even as a kid?

Even as a kid. We would pick on people. . . . and he'd say "He's not hurting you." Or we'd say something about somebody, the way most kids do, and he'd say, "Don't do that." Now, thanks to Billy, that's the way I've always taught my kids. . . .

Did you always know that?

My grandparents pretty much put that into me. But Billy just helped me see it, because at 19, I was pretty rough. Billy brought a lot of that out of me. I think a lot about, "Well, Billy wouldn't like that." He helped me out a lot. He really did. And I think he helped out more of us than what we realized until now. . . .

What has going through this horrible murder done to you, in terms of what you've learned about people's attitudes toward gays and lesbians in this country?

There's a lot of people, in my opinion, who aren't very smart. They think that they still live back in the 1800s, and this is the way it's supposed to be, and this is the way it's going to be. . . . Just like [Mullins and Butler]. From what I understand from court, they would call Billy, and he would help them, give them money, or give them a ride. . . . I don't know about Butler, but he helped Mullins, and Mullins is the one that killed him. It seemed to me, if Mullins should have been anything, he should have been his friend. He should have been the one to stand there and say, "Hey, no, you're not going to hurt him because, hey, he's my buddy. He's put food on my table."

And instead, what did Mullins say?

. . . That he couldn't stand him. He was a faggot, and that's why he killed him, because he was a faggot and he wanted his money. They went out and partied after they threw my brother on the tires. . .

When you listened to Mullins say that in court, what went through your head?

Death [of Mullins and Butler]. That's all I thought about the whole the time I was in court. I'm sorry, I'm only human. That's my brother, and he died for no reason. . . . To me, the way Mullins reacted, he might have actually been feeling bad about what he done. He couldn't look at any of the pictures of Billy that was placed in front of him. And I was sitting there thinking, "Well, why don't you look at them? That's what you did to him." . . .

When you listened to Mullins and Butler say that Billy Jack propositioned them, what's your reaction to that?

They lied. That's a definite known thing, especially to the family. Billy Jack didn't proposition people. They may come up and talk to Billy, because Billy wouldn't approach anybody that didn't approach him. He didn't push himself on people. He didn't push the gay life on people. He accepted people for what they were. And as far as them, I think it was a cover-up on their part. That's what I think.

What do you think they were covering up?

That they're gay. If they want to judge them by their looks, or by the way they sit or the way they act, then we go with that, and we say they're gay. Because I watched them. . . . I believe, if it'd been a one-on-one thing and Billy hadn't had his throat cut, Billy would be talking with me today. I think they may have had a little thing going, I really do. I've thought about that. Billy got caught up in the middle of a jealous quarrel or something. You can't make me believe that Billy was killed because he was gay, because they wanted his money, because of all the things he did for them, for Mullins anyway. Maybe not so much Butler . . .

Why do you think Mullins, specifically, did it?

Mullins was supposed to be this tough guy--a skinhead, a tough guy.

Macho.

Right. I think really what happened is when Billy, this supposedly sissy kind of guy with his throat cut, jumped out of the trunk and knocked this macho punk down, he was like, "Oh, man, I can't let him tell about this. There goes my image. There goes my reputation." So when his little chicken friend run up the road there because my brother did defend himself, even after all this, he didn't have any other choice. He was scared to death. Billy had already told him, "Just let me go. I won't tell anybody." And Billy wouldn't have. Billy would have swore up and down, "They hit me from behind. I never saw nothing." I know that from the heart.

He would have protected them too?

Right. He would have protected them. But they probably don't even have intelligence enough to know that Billy wouldn't tell nobody. Mullins had all intentions of killing Billy. That was his day that he marked down to kill Billy Jack Gaither. Why, I really don't know. . . .

What was your favorite thing about Billy Jack?

His laugh. Billy had a laugh that came from his heart-- everything came from his heart. It's hard to put into words. He was a loving person, very loving.

What did he laugh about?

The family, and different things. He loved it when the family did get together, because he stayed with Mom and Dad, and he knew that made Mom and Dad happy, for all of us to get together. And he would usually be the one to make it happen. . . .

Do you think the family has an easier time accepting Kathy being gay than they did Billy?

Yeah, they do.

Why is that?

I really don't know. . . . Women are women, men are men. People are people and it happens. As a matter of fact, you'd really probably be amazed at the numbers that it really does happen. But everybody's going, "Shhh, don't say nothing." I wish more people would step forward, because then maybe it would help. It can't help my brother now, but maybe it'd help the next person. Maybe this hate law can make a difference . . . That's something I'm hoping.


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