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marion hammond

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The owner of The Tavern, the most popular hangout in Sylacauga, Alabama, Marion Hammond had been friends with Billy Jack Gaither for twenty years. He was the first gay person she ever knew. Marion was familiar with Billy Jack's killer, Steve Mullins.
Tell me when you first met Billy Jack.

I met Billy Jack about 17,18 years ago, at a small party with a bunch of friends. It was a time in life when you went to somebody's house, you partied a little while, then you ganged up and you went to the bar. I met Billy Jack there, and me and him and a guy that took me to the party all went to the bar together afterwards. . . Billy Jack was just one of them special people that you instantly took a liking to . . .

When is the next time you saw him?

I saw him several times back in that era. Around 1995 or 1996, he walked in this bar, and I looked at him and I said, "Well, Billy Jack Gaither!". . . When I told him my name, he knew me automatically. We took up like we never had a space between us. . .

So you were close?

I would like to think we was close. I feel like I was real close to him. . .

Tell me what you were doing the night of February 19. Was it a normal night?

I was working the door. So far, it was all normal, until this guy come in and was announcing that they had found a body down there near where I lived. I knew then it was Billy Jack.

How did you know?

I just knew. I don't know how. Billy Jack had been missing. I knew they had found his car . . . and I knew that they had turned in the missing person report. . .The law come in a couple hours later, and all I could do was say, "Y'all found Billy Jack." And he said, "Yeah." . . .

Didn't he stop by here the night that he died?

Yes, he was here. And he didn't park in his normal place. He parked about six cars down. He walked up and he said, "Marian, don't worry about who's in my car. They're going to come in, in a little while. They're just not ready come in right now." And I wish to God I'd been nosy enough to walk over and see. But I knew Billy Jack didn't want us to really know who it was. So I didn't.

So he kept his private life private, and you all respected that.

Totally private. We asked him, we begged him, we pleaded with him, but it didn't do no good. I had girls that were single just beg Billy Jack, "Please, Billy Jack." [And he'd say] "No, I won't date 'em." And he never would. He never, never even laid a hand on anybody he dated.

Billy Jack walked through that door every Friday, Saturday night?

Every Friday and Saturday, and if he wasn't working during the week, he was through that door. If he went anywhere else, he was either here before or after. It's like, "Billy Jack ain't here. Wonder what's going on. He must have went to Birmingham." And a little bit later he comes in and says, "I been to the Tool Box." He always come by.

Do he like going to the Tool Box?

That was probably one of his most favorite bars. This was his home bar. But Tool Box was his bar of choice.

And tell me about the difference between those two things. This is his home bar.

This is the hometown local bar where everybody goes to see everybody and their friends, and to socialize. It's the only thing that is open after nine o'clock in this town. You have a choice of a movie, skating rink, and the tavern. The Tool Box is a gay bar in Birmingham.

Tell me how Billy Jack would behave here, as opposed to how he might at the Tool Box.

At the Tool Box, naturally, when he walked in, nine out of ten would know he was gay. Here, a lot of people didn't know he was gay. . . . People would walk up and say, "Is he gay?" And we'd say, "Yeah." If they walked over to Billy Jack and they say, "Are you gay?" he'd say, "Yes, and I love it." You couldn't hurt his feelings on it, so we wasn't worried about it.

Did he have to deal with people not liking gays at all? Did he have to face that kind of thing? And if he did, how did he deal with it?

I'm sure there was a few of them. I know of stories of where one said something and kept saying something until he was told, "Either shut up or leave." I've heard about other incidents. But as far as me being around Billy Jack and anybody offending him--not to my knowledge. . . . He's told me they'd come up and say, "Are you a faggot?" And he'd say, "Yes, and I love it," and just walk off. He didn't stay for any more.

He really knew how to handle people.

He knew what he was, and he was comfortable with it, and it was your problem if you wouldn't.

There was a time that a lot of gays started coming to this bar. What happened then? How did you handle that?

I didn't. Billy Jack did. I was worried to death about it. They was actually offending my customers that was straight. And Billy Jack just went and said, "Do you want to go and kiss and hug and all that kind of stuff? You go to Tool Box. You come in here, you be straight. You're not ruining my bar." And that was his attitude, like this is your hometown bar. You want to be gay, you want to act gay, you go to Birmingham, you go to a gay bar. You come in here, you act like everybody else, or don't come. . .

Did you ever talk to him about what it was like to be gay in Sylacauga?

No. I never did.

That's not something he talked about a lot?

No. It wasn't an issue.

When Billy Jack helped you keep this bar the way that you wanted it to be, and not having people offend your straight customers. Were you surprised that he was willing to do that even though he was gay?

No. He knows everybody's got rights. He would not expect us to go up to a gay bar and tell everybody to act straight. But he didn't expect the gays to come in here and they'd tell everybody to act gay, either

Did you know Steve Mullins too?

I knew Mullins from coming in here.

How did he behave?

When he first started coming in here, he was like he wanted to be a Billy Bad Boy. But then he'd come around, and he was just like the rest of us, at the end.

What caused the change? Tell me about how he was at first, and then how it changed.

What changed was, one night he walked over to the bar and told this guy, "I think I'll just hit you." And the guy just laid him out. We picked Mullins up, and dusted him off. . . The next time he come in, he come in being a normal human. We'd had trouble a few weeks after that, and I turned around and said, "Everybody just needs to go back in," and Mullins was standing there saying, "Y'all heard the lady. Go on back in." And it was like, "Man, what happened to you?"

So he used to be a troublemaker?

He wanted to be, at first. If a black person walked in, he'd sit a table away from him and make racial comments at him all night--stuff like that, until somebody would finally tell us. . . Then we'd have to go say [to him], "They got the right to be in here just like you have." . . . I never really had no feelings towards him. It wasn't a hate, love, or like, or anything. He was just another customer. We watched him big-time when he used to come in a lot. And then we got to where we slacked off, after he changed his ways some. But I never got to know him or nothing.

Did you ever see him and Billy Jack in contact with each other?

Just talking. I've heard rumors about them being in the back of the bar and getting in cars together and leaving. But I never would have put my finger on it. If you'd asked me, "Had he ever left here with Billy Jack?" I could have told you, "No," because I never knew.

But you did see them talking?

Oh, yeah. I was the bartender, and they'd be at the end of the bar, talking. . . Didn't seem like there was no problem there. . .

What has the loss of Billy Jack done to the whole community of Sylacauga?

Well, I think the loss of Billy Jack has opened a lot of people's eyes. Any town you live in, there is a gay person here, there, and yonder. And they didn't realize it. It's like there was no gays nowhere but in the big cities. They're everywhere. They're all over this country. And until then, I don't think it was ever realized that they were in a small town.

And what did people think about that? How did they feel?

Well, any town you live in, it's not supposed to happen there. But it can happen anywhere. Just because you're in a small town don't mean that bad don't happen.

Was justice done?

If you knew Billy Jack, you'd say yeah, because the family didn't want the death penalty, and Billy Jack wouldn't want it either. I could understand why they done that. I respected them for doing that. It was a hard decision. . .

Did Billy Jack ever talk about his relationship with his parents?

Yes, he did. He told us before plenty of times, "They know I'm gay but they don't know I'm gay. So I don't take it home."

So he let them live in a kind of denial?

No. He respected their right to think of their son as what they wanted to. He knew they would not want to accept it, so he didn't take it home to them. He didn't put it in their face.

That's amazing. Because a lot of people would have said, "This is who I am. Accept me for who I am." But for him to not ask that of his parents is very, very--

Unselfish. He thought of them before he thought of himself. . . .

What did knowing Billy Jack do for you? How did it change you, Marian?

I have two sons. It's opened my eyes that one day they might have been gay. They're 20 and 18, so I don't believe they are. But if they was, I could live with it, when one day I might cried for three hours or more.

And that's because of Billy Jack?

Yes. He was the first gay male I ever met.

So what would you have thought before you knew him, or if you had never met him?

I remember thinking whenever they was so little, "Please, never be gay." But now it's like a part of nature. . . . He taught me that it just happens. It's nothing you do. It's nobody's fault. It's just the way you are.

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