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Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence called off due to COVID pandemic

This years vigil would have been the twenty-second held, following the 1999 murder of Billy Jack Gaither in Sylacauga.

Billy Joe Gaither

The Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence, which has been held annually since Billy Jack Gaither was killed in Sylacauga in 1999, by men who said they did so because Gaither was gay, won’t be held in person this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gaither was stabbed, beaten and burned, and the two men who were arrested for the murder — Steven Eric Mullins and Charles Monroe Butler — told an investigator they did so because Gaither made a pass at one of the men a week before, according to news accounts. Both men later denied the murder was preplanned, and that Gaither was killed because he made an advance on them the night he was killed. Both were convicted of capital murder. 

Despite admissions that Gaither was killed because of his sexuality, Gaither’s death is not classified as a hate crime under Alabama law, which does not include sexual orientation in the state’s 1994 hate crime law definitions. 

Paul F. Hard with the Hate Crimes Vigil and a professor at Auburn University Montgomery College of Education, in a press release Wednesday, said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the vigil will not present its annual awards: the Billy Jack Gaither Humanitarian Award and the Stephen Light Youth Activist Award. 

“The Vigil members urge the LGBTQ community and its allies to reach out to our lawmakers for yet another year to correct this egregious failure in our state laws,” the statement reads. “The vigil has been held annually to draw attention to such hate crimes and to call for our lawmakers to recognize them as such under state law.”

“Alabama’s LGBTQ community, citizens who are no less the children of our state, along with their allies hold vigil again calling for justice in hopes of not observing yet another anniversary without the legal recognition and protection of inclusion in our state’s hate crimes law,” Hard wrote.

Hard told The Anniston Star in 2019 that efforts to change Alabama’s hate crime statute have been brought up several times by Alabama lawmakers. None of those bills have successfully cleared the Legislature, however. 

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“Billy Jack Gaither’s murder was because he was gay, yet, the law doesn’t (account) for that,” Hard told The Star. “We don’t know how many crimes have occurred that are because of sexual orientation or gender identity in Alabama. There is no way to report it.”

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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