frontlineabout us program schedule teachers join us contact us
teachers' guide: justice for sale

About This Guide

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:

  1. Gender Roles
  2. Religion
  3. Science
  4. Popular Culture.
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.

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 additional resources.

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.

Introduction

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 gay community.

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 violent reaction?

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 gays.

Glossary

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 belief.

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 same gender.

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 feelings.

Discussing Difficult Issues: Facilitator's Notes
"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 speaking.
  • 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 incorrect.
  • Set a tone for cooperation by highlighting common ground and listing things on which people agree (i.e., "violence in wrong," "individuality should be embraced")


Statistics

  • 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 colleagues.

  • 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.
(National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 1996)

  • 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, 1998)

  • The most frequent sites of anti-gay incidents are schools and workplaces.
(Dr. Karen Franklin, 1998)

  • 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, 1997)

  • 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)


What does it Mean to be a Man?: Homophobia & Gender Roles

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 masculinity."

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 orientation.

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?

Identifying the Stereotypes
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 gay.



Homophobia & The Bible

"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 it."

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?

Defining Normal: Homophobia & Science

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 the sources)?

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 activity."

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 determined?

Public Opinion: Homophobia & Popular Culture

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, 1999)

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 come."

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 unchallenged.

What aspects of American culture foster homophobia?

Expressions of Sexual Orientation
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 relationships?


Denying Gay Heroes
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



Legislation

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 impossible.

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 citizens?

Looking  at the Law
The following legislation is proposed by advocates of gay civil rights. What are the potential sources of opposition to the legislation?

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.



Resources

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 media.

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 and denominations.

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.


home | about frontline | program schedule | teachers | join | contact us
pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation