On February 19, 1999, in Sylacauga, Alabama, 39-year-old computer programmer Billy Jack Gaither was brutally beaten with an axe handle. His throat was cut, and his body was set on fire. One of his convicted killers, Steven Mullins, testified he killed Gaither because he was "queer."
Why have gays like Gaither and Matthew Shepard become the target of such brutality? What is the source of this kind of hatred? "Assault on Gay America" explores whether there are possible links between the forces that drove Billy Jack's killers and the forces that fuel homophobia in the general law-abiding public.
FRONTLINE examines Gaither's life and death through interviews with his family, friends and killers, detailing how Billy Jack dealt with his homosexuality with his family, and with neighbors and friends in the Sylacagua community. The program also explores his killers' motivations, including trial testimony that one of them, Steven Mullins, may have had a secret homosexual sex life.
Interwoven with Billy Jack's story is FRONTLINE's larger examination of anti-gay attitudes, fears and beliefs that seem to permeate American society and lead to anti-gay violence. In recent years, psychologists and social scientists have been researching the nature of homophobia and the cultural and historical context for understanding heterosexuality and homosexuality. Among those interviewed is forensic psychologist Karen Franklin who studied negative reactions to gays among thousands of young people and conducted a scientific study of perpetrators of anti-gay hate crimes; Also interviewed is sociology professor Michael Kimmel who has examined how the rules and ideals of masculinity contribute to Americans' anti-gay attitudes and fears.
While a majority of Americans have come to believe that homosexuals deserve the same rights as heterosexuals, almost half of them believe that homosexuality is a "sin" or "wrong." Toward the conclusion of this report, FRONTLINE explores the religious argument against gays with Reverend Donald Fado and Daniel Helminiak --both say the Bible does not condemn homosexuality--and with Reverend Jerry Falwell. Falwell speaks for many religious leaders in maintaining that Bible scripture proscribes homosexual acts and is evidence of God's judgment against homosexuals. He admits, however, that anti-gay rhetoric may have gone too far.
Falwell also believes that gays 'choose' homosexuality and can change their sexual behavior, despite scientific studies that are indicating a biological/genetic factor in sexuality.
Billy Jack's sister, Kathy--who is also gay--tells FRONTLINE that she and her brother both tried to become heterosexuals. "I tried once, and I said, 'I can't do it,' because I knew for years, this is me ... I've got to be me. Billy tried several times."