This Viewer's Guide was developed to enhance
understanding and heighten awareness of many issues presented in the FRONTLINE
film "Assault on Gay America." The film, which first aired on
February 15, 2000, on PBS, examines the brutal murder of Billy Jack Gaither, a
thirty-nine-year-old gay man from Sylacauga, Alabama, and explores the roots of
homophobia in America.
The central question of this Viewer's Guide is
"What can we learn from the life and death of Billy Jack
Gaither?" specifically looking at homophobia directed toward gay men
in contemporary American culture. Central issues are organized into four areas
highlighted by the program:
Because Gaither's killers claimed that his sexual
orientation motivated his murder, his death reminds us all that gay men,
lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people are potential targets, and his story
holds important lessons for everyone. Yet, at the same time, Gaither's
experience was not universal. He was a gay, white, middle-class, Christian man
from a small town who chose to keep his sexual life private. When using
"Assault on Gay America" to discuss these issues it is important not
to assume that Gaither's choices reflect the lives of all people who do
not identify as heterosexual.
- Gender Roles
- Popular Culture.
This guide is designed for use in any number of
forums--including as an aid for individual reflection, family dialogue,
facilitated group discussion, and connection to classroom curriculum. Included
in the guide, you will find background information on the history, scientific
study, legislation, and debate over male homosexuality and issues of masculinity
in our culture, as well as discussion questions, statistics, a glossary, and
If you are planning a facilitated discussion, look for
facilitator's suggestions and activities set off in boxes. You can also
access additional background information by following the hyperlinks noted
throughout the text and visiting the film's companion Web site.
NOTE: The companion web site for Assault on Gay America will premiere on February 15, 2000 at 10 PM EST.
Gays and lesbians in the U.S. have never been more visible or
been more free to openly express their sexuality. Gay characters are featured
in popular prime time television shows like Will
& Grace, Spin City,
and Dawson's Creek. Celebrities like rock star Elton John and
comedian Ellen DeGeneres have proclaimed their homosexuality while maintaining
lucrative careers. Yet, while a majority of Americans have come to believe that
homosexuals deserve the same rights as straight citizens, half of them believe
that homosexuality is a "sin" or "wrong." (Alan Yang,
Columbia University, 1999)
Such contradictions provide the backdrop for gay life in
America. As visibility and acceptance increases, so does negative backlash. In
an era when expressing open prejudice against some groups, including people of
color and Jews, is no longer acceptable and in some cases illegal, anti-gay
epithets are prevalent.
The story of Billy Jack Gaither demonstrates that cultural
acceptance of this negative rhetoric can have very real consequences. And, as
"Assault on Gay America" shows, this impact extends well beyond the
During the trial of Gaither's murderers, no one
disputed that Billy Jack Gaither was gay. No one claimed that he posed a
physical threat or attacked his killers in any way. His murderers testified
that their violence was provoked when Gaither asked if they were interested in a
sexual encounter. Assuming this is true, why didn't his killers say no
and walk away? Why do some men see being propositioned by another man as the
ultimate insult? Why can the prospect of being mistaken for gay generate such a
By looking closely at the Gaither murder, as well as listening
carefully to a gay high school student and a variety of scholars whose research
has shed light on the causes of homophobia, "Assault on Gay
America" explores the conflicting attitudes Americans have towards
bisexual (or bi) - people who have sexual and romantic
feelings for both genders.
heterosexual (or straight) - people who have sexual and
romantic feelings primarily for the opposite gender.
heterosexism - the belief that heterosexuality is
superior to other sexual identities and/or discrimination based on that
homophobia - a term used to describe the
misunderstanding, fear, and/or hatred of gay, lesbian, or bisexual people.
homosexual (or gay; or lesbian when referring exclusively
to women) - people who have sexual and romantic feelings primarily for the
transgender - a person who crosses traditional gender
boundaries, often dressing or passing as a gender different than that usually
associated with the biological body into which they were born. Some transgender
people are homosexual and some are not. Some opt to surgically change their
physical bodies to match their current gender identification or
"Assault on Gay America" provides an opportunity
for people to explore complex issues surrounding sexual orientation and
homophobia. If you are planning to facilitate a group discussion, keep in mind
that these issues can be deeply emotional, touching on people's core
beliefs about family, religion, gender roles, and justice. It can be difficult
for discussion participants to grapple with strong feelings and engage in a
productive dialogue at the same time, but there are ways in which a facilitator
can encourage a safe environment for discussion. |
- Before your discussion begins, think about how
to end the discussion in a way that leaves people feeling empowered and safe
rather than frustrated, angry, defeated, or afraid. One option is to choose a
final question such as "What moments in the program made you feel hopeful?
What do you hope for?"
- Set ground rules by
asking people what they need to feel safe and respected, and post the list where
everyone can see it. Such rules commonly include things like: no interrupting,
no using slurs or put downs, and speaking only for yourself (saying, for
example, "I think" rather than "people believe" or
"everyone knows that.") Some groups may also want to agree to rules
about confidentiality or how to take turns
- Remind participants that a discussion
is different than a debate and that in a discussion people share and listen
rather than try to convince others that a particular viewpoint is correct or
- Set a tone for cooperation by
highlighting common ground and listing things on which people agree (i.e.,
"violence in wrong," "individuality should be
- Estimates of the numbers of gays and lesbians in
any typical group or population range from 2-10%. If accurate, that would mean
there are approximately 8-27 million gay and lesbian Americans and millions more
who have gay or lesbian relatives, friends, neighbors, or
(National Coalition of
Anti-Violence Programs, 1996)
- In the six-year period between 1990 and 1996,
the FBI recorded more than 25,000 gay bashing incidents in the U.S., and this
number is on the rise.
- More than 2,550 incidences of anti-gay harassment and violence were reported in 16 U.S. cities in 1998. (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 1999)
- Nearly all (94%) of gay men, lesbians, and
bisexuals report being victims of some kind of harassment. Forty-four percent
report having been threatened with physical violence. Nearly one in five report
having been punched, hit, kicked, or beaten at least once in their lives because
of their sexual orientation.. (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force,
- The most frequent sites of anti-gay incidents
are schools and workplaces.
- More than 22% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual
youth skipped school because they felt unsafe, compared to 4.2% of their
heterosexual peers. Forty-six percent of gay lesbian and bisexual youth
attempted suicide compared with 8.8% of their heterosexual peers.
(Massachusetts Department of Education,
- Twenty-six percent of adolescent gay males
report having to leave home as a result of conflicts with their family over
their sexual orientation. Forty-two percent of homeless youth self-identify as
gay or lesbian. (Pediatrics, 1987; Traveler's Aid,
1991 - GLSEN)
Program correspondent Forrest Sawyer asks Charles Butler why
being propositioned by a man was disrespectful when a similar proposition by a
woman would be "cool." Butler can't articulate the reason,
but sociologist Michael Kimmel suggests that the core of the answer is not
homophobia, but rather, the enforcement of traditional gender roles. Kimmel
argues that "the first rule, maybe the most important rule of all
masculinity is no sissy stuff. What makes a man a man is that he is
relentlessly repudiating the feminine....As a result, homophobia becomes the
'straightjacket' pushing us toward a traditional idea of
What do you think about Kimmel's theory? If this is
true, how does it limit heterosexuals as well as homosexuals?
Women are significantly less likely than men to commit
violence as an expression of homophobia. In a study of 484 San Francisco Bay
Area community college students, 4% of women admitted to anti-gay violence or
threats compared to 18% of male students. "Perpetrators feel that they
are entitled, if not expected, to help to punish people who are stepping out of
bounds for their male role or their female role," says forensic
psychologist and study author Karen Franklin. She further states that men who
commit anti-gay violence commonly believe that "men who don't know
how to carry themselves are asking for it."
What kinds of behaviors do you expect from men that are
different from those you expect from women? What do you think gives someone the
sense that they are entitled to punish those who step out of line?
The work of both Karen Franklin and Michael Kimmel seems to
indicate that many people believe they can spot a man who is gay. In reality,
the behaviors people identify as stereotypically gay are those that cross the
boundaries of traditional masculinity/feminity. That is, gay stereotypes are
often about gender roles, not necessarily about sexuality or sexual
Why might people want to believe that they can always tell
if someone is gay or not? Have you ever assumed someone was heterosexual and
later found out they were gay? Did this alter your perception of what it means
to be gay?
Try Prof. Kimmel's exercise with your own group. List
all the stereotypical characteristics associated with masculinity. Then list
characteristics that describe men who don't fit the descriptions on your
first list. Is there anything you consider positive on the second list? What
is the impact on society if men are discouraged from exhibiting positive
characteristics from the second list?|
*Note that your lists describe stereotypes about gender roles,
which, in real life, are not necessarily linked to sexual orientation. For
example, not all gay men are effeminate and not all effeminate men are
"Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it
is an abomination." Leviticus 18:22
In much of the Western world, this single line in the Hebrew
Bible is the basis of a deep belief that homosexuality is wrong. That belief
has inspired some Christian fundamentalists to found "transformational
ministries" to help gays reject their homosexuality and "return to
God." A small minority express public hostility towards gays and their
families by appearing with accusatory protest signs at the funerals of
gay-bashing victims or people who have died from AIDS. Still others have used
their belief to justify murder. This pattern of using the Bible to justify
hostility and violence has escalated so greatly over the past decade that even
Rev. Jerry Falwell, arguably the most famous Christian fundamentalist in
America, has begun to express concern that homophobic rhetoric may inspire
anti-gay violence. "I began to see that the level of hostility on both
sides has reached a point where it is very volatile," says.
"We've got to reach the hearts of people to stop
Is there a relationship between the declaration that
homosexuality is a sin and gay bashing?
Roman Catholic priest and Biblical scholar Daniel Helminiak
points out that the prohibitions listed in Leviticus were more about preserving
a distinctive Israelite culture than about condemning specific acts, including
homosexuality. That is, they referred to ritual impurity, not moral
condemnation. Others have argued that this line from Leviticus simply meant
that a man should not treat a male sexual partner in the same way he would treat
a female sexual partner.
A bumper sticker popular in Christian fundamentalist circles
reads, "God said it, I believe it, that's the end of it." But
given that many people of faith routinely ignore other "direct"
biblical commandments (e.g., requiring women to marry their rapists [Deut.
22:29], putting adulterers and adulteresses to death [Lev. 20:10], or not eating
certain categories of food [Lev. 11]), some have concluded that the insistence
on a literal interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 is more about modern politics
than about obedience to God.
Many Biblical injunctions are routinely dismissed or
ignored. Why so much furor over this particular instruction?
Many scientists argue that viewing homosexuality as deviant
behavior is based on faith, but not on science. In 1974, the American
Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its list of mental
disorders, a position it has since reaffirmed. Further, the APA rejects the
practice of "reparative therapy" because it defines homosexual
desire as natural, not deviant.
"Deviant" is a relative term that depends on
our perception of what is "normal." Who defines what is
"normal" in our culture? How do you define normal sexual activity?
Does your own definition of "normal" match those of your family,
peer group, community, or culture? Where did those beliefs come from (what are
Some scholars have speculated that the conflict between
societal expectations and natural biology actually produces homophobia. A 1996
experiment by Prof. Henry Adams at the University of Georgia tested that theory
by determining whether or not homophobic men were more likely to be aroused by
homoerotic images than non-homophobic men. Indeed, Adams concludes, "that
guys who hate gays, who are homophobic, in fact respond to homosexual
If same sex feelings are not uncommon, but society labels
them as deviant, what are the consequences? Can you think of examples from our
own culture of behaviors previously considered to be deviant that are now
largely agreed to be normal?
Because civil rights laws in the United States have been based
largely on characteristics over which people have no control, such as being born
with a particular skin color or physical handicap, much scientific attention has
been paid to the question of whether one's sexuality is biologically
determined or chosen.
What are the implications of concluding that being gay is a
choice? What are the implications of concluding that being gay is biologically
Gaither's story illustrates the importance and power of
words in our culture. Forrest Sawyer questions Charles Butler about his violent
reaction to Gaither's proposition saying, "He just asked you. It
was just words, right?" A public service announcement made by Judy
Shepard, who son was also murdered because he was gay, urges young people to
think about the impact of their words.
Some words have more power to hurt or harm than others.
What words do you hear as hurtful? What words do you hear as violent? Have you
ever said anything hurtful or violent? What does it feel like to say those
words? What do you think it feels like to hear them?
Fifty percent of Americans disapprove of homosexual behavior.
While this number is decreasing--down nearly 20% from the late 1980s, most
gays and lesbians still feel constrained by limited social acceptance. (Yang,
While adolescence is often a time for exploring identity and
challenging conformity, the boundaries of acceptable identity in most American
schools are often too narrow to encompass peers who are gay or lesbian. From
sixth grade on, Derek Henkle was harassed from the moment he got on the school
bus. By high school, a lack of support from peers and teachers made the openly
gay Henkle feel like he was in "a war where you're the only one
fighting for yourself."
Billy Jack Gaither's homosexuality was accepted by his
community on the condition that he didn't "flaunt it." He
even acted as enforcer when other gay people showed up at the local tavern,
demanding that they "act like everybody else or don't
Some gay men choose not to reveal their sexual orientation
in their workplace or in their communities. What is the potential impact of
this choice on the individual and the community?
Not all cultures condemn, or have condemned, homosexuality.
Ancient Greece and Rome celebrated homosexuality as long as one of the partners
was of lesser social status than the other. Sex between student and teacher
among Samurai warriors in the 1700s was common. And families of silk workers in
Southern China at the turn of the twentieth century promoted long-term lesbian
relationships for both personal and financial benefits.
According to a 1999 Gallup poll, in modern America, 83% of all
citizens support equal job opportunities for gays and lesbians. And there is
increasing acceptance of gays in the media. According to the Gay and Lesbian
Alliance Against Defamation, about 2% of current TV characters are gay, lesbian,
bisexual, or transgender. Yet expressing hostility with epithets like
"fag" or "dyke" is still common and often goes
What aspects of American culture foster
It is inherently difficult to remain secretive about your
personal relationships and still be honest. Often, there are visible clues that
would indicate that someone is straight. These would include things like
wearing a wedding ring or displaying pictures of spouses and kids. List the
ways in which straight people inadvertently express their sexual orientation
that a gay person hiding his or her sexual identity might find problematic. How
would it make you feel to hide your important or significant
List as many famous gay, lesbian, or bisexual people as you
can. Does your list include historical figures, or is it dominated by a handful
of contemporary celebrities? Does it include any of the names listed below?
Many of these people are routinely included in standard school curricula, but
the fact that they may not have been exclusively heterosexual is rarely
mentioned. Why not? Would acknowledging their sexuality affect your perception
of their work? Would acknowledging their sexuality affect your perception of
their place in history?|
Leonardo di Vinci, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Eleanor
Roosevelt, Franz Schubert, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lorraine Hansberry, W.H.
Auden, Sir Francis Bacon, Edward Albee, Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten,
Socrates, Plato, Michelangelo, Tennessee Williams, Bessie Smith, Gertrude Stein
The first gay rights organization in the U.S., the Mattachine
Society, was founded in 1950. Active membership was limited to a few dozen
people because being publicly identified as gay could result in dire
consequences. In addition to ridicule, homosexuals ran the risk of being fired,
physically assaulted, jailed, or institutionalized. That began to change in
1969, when lesbians and gays at the Stonewall bar in New York City rioted in
response to police harassment. The struggle of gays and lesbians for equal
legal treatment continues today.
Information gathered by the National Gay and Lesbian Task
Force indicates that by 1990, 11.9 million people lived in towns, cities,
counties, or states with non-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation.
Now more than 100 million people live in such places. Sixteen percent of the
population lives in a city or state that offers domestic partner benefits, and
many more are covered by private corporations offering such benefits.
Still, five states (AR, KS, MO, OK, and TX) have laws which
specifically criminalize same-sex consensual sexual activity and another 13
criminalize specific private consensual sex acts (e.g. sodomy) between any
adults. As demonstrated by the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision
upholding the arrest of a gay man for engaging in consensual gay sex with an
adult in his own bedroom, there are often different levels of intrusion in the
private lives of heterosexual and homosexual citizens. In many states,
retaining or gaining custody of one's children can be difficult for
lesbians and gay men, and becoming foster or adoptive parents is nearly
Opponents have often described the quest for gay civil rights
as a demand for "special" rights. Advocates of gay rights, on the
other hand, point out that asking to serve in the military or for protection
from discrimination in employment and housing are rights that other citizens
take for granted.
What rights do heterosexual citizens enjoy that homosexual
citizens do not? Can you think of historical examples from our own culture
where certain citizens were denied rights that are now granted to all free
The following legislation is proposed by advocates of gay
civil rights. What are the potential sources of opposition to the
Domestic Partner Benefits / Same Sex Marriage - There
are a wide variety of rights that come with legal marriage. Because gays and
lesbians cannot legally marry, they are denied certain marital benefits like the
right to citizenship for a foreign-born partner, to make legal decisions for an
incapacitated partners, to be covered under a partner's insurance policy,
to inherit from a partner, to live in "married student housing" on
college campuses, etc.
Hate Crimes Prevention - There are two aspects to hate
crimes legislation. The first calls for government agencies to track crimes
motivated by homophobia. Advocates note that failure to track these crimes
makes it easier to deny the existence and impact of homophobia. Currently the
tracking and reporting of hate crimes based on sexual orientation is sporadic:
it is standard practice in some parts of the country and completely absent in
others. A more controversial aspect of hate crimes legislation is the call for
enhanced penalties for all hate crimes. Further, if enhanced penalties are
enacted, advocates propose that "sexual orientation" be included in
the list identifying targeted groups. In a related issue, people also debate
whether or not victims of hate crimes should have the right to sue their
attackers for civil rights violations.
Employment Non-Discrimination Act - While a
number of cities and states have enacted laws specifically protecting someone
from being fired or evicted from housing because they are gay, there is
currently no federal law providing universal protection for all citizens
regardless of their sexual orientation.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue
- In 1993, in a compromise between President Clinton, who advocated to
allow homosexuals to serve openly in the armed forces, and the Joint Chiefs of
Staff and Congress, who opposed it, the Pentagon enacted a policy stating that
"homosexual orientation is a personal and private matter and will not be
questioned during service." However, homosexual conduct remains,
nonetheless, grounds for discharge.
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network -
A source for information relating to schools, education, and
gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth and teachers. Downloadable version of the
recent "Just the Facts Coalition" pamphlet distributed to the heads
of all 14,700 public school districts in the U.S.
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation -
Provide information on the portrayal of gays in the
Human Rights Campaign -
Primarily a lobbying organization. Includes information on
federal legislation and political policy.
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force -
The primary gay and lesbian civil rights organization.
Includes position papers on a variety of gay issues, as well as comprehensive
listings of state and local initiatives.
Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -
Provides support for families of gays and lesbians, including
introductory level information challenging basic myths. Also provides links to
religious groups run by or supporting lesbians and gays from several religions
National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs -
Supports victims of anti-gay violence through the recovery, counseling, and legal process. New York-based hotline of professionaly trained staff can also refer victims to resources in other areas of the country.
This Viewer's Guide was created by educational
consultant Simone Bloom Nathan, Ed.M., and Jim Bracciale, Erin Martin Kane, and
Jessica Smith of FRONTLINE's promotions staff. The writer is media
educator Faith Rogow, Ph.D., with input from the advisory board: David Barnett,
Director of the Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Concerns at
the University of Illinois at Chicago; Ernie Green, Ph.D., Human Sexuality Educator and Consultant, formerly affiliated with Lehigh University and the University of Pennsylvania; Kirsten Kingdon,
Executive Director, Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbian and Gays (PFLAG);
Marion Rice, Senior Director of Learning Media, Oregon Public Broadcasting; and
David Shannon, Director of the Violence Recovery Unit, Fenway Community Health
Clinic. "Assault on Gay America" is produced by Claudia Pryor
Malis. The field producer is Deborah Fryer. The correspondent is Forrest
Sawyer. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Michael Sullivan. The senior
executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning.