Some fear anti-gay words will lead to anti-gay sticks and stones

Civil rights » National hate-watch group keeping its eye on Utah after Buttars and newspaper ads went "too far."
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Sen. Chris Buttars called gay activists "the meanest buggers" and alleged they have no morals. America Forever, in full-page newspaper ads, compared gay men and lesbians to "druggies" and "hookers."

Just words. No sticks. No stones. But such talk does hurt. It can leave emotional scars and, some observers warn, inspire others to inflict physical ones.

Utah hit a national "hate watch" list twice in recent weeks for headline-grabbing onslaughts of anti-gay rhetoric.

"It's not the kind of America we want," said Heidi Beirich, spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "You can have a difference of opinion over somebody's lifestyle but to put them in a position of threat -- that's going too far."

The national civil rights organization monitors hate groups, such as white supremacists, and publishes "Hatewatch," a newsletter and blog that spotlighted the comments from Buttars, R-West Jordan, and America Forever.

"The kinds of things they're saying," Beirich said, "can give credence to others who would like to take their actions further than speech, into the realm of violence."

The FBI reports that in 2007, the most recent year of available data, Utah had nine hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation bias.

Not that those who oppose gay rights mean to incite violence.

"We are anything but hateful," America Forever's Sandra Rodrigues said last month in a legislative hearing.

Buttars did not respond to interview requests for this story. But Gayle Ruzicka, who heads the Constitutional Defense of Marriage Alliance with the conservative lawmaker, said his statements should not be construed as condoning violence or bullying against anyone.

"I don't think that's a valid concern in connection with anything that Sen. Buttars said," she concluded. "The discussion is about lifestyle -- not about individuals. … I might disagree with the lifestyles of many of my friends, but I love them just the same and would never want anything bad to happen to them."

Members and allies of Utah's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community brushed off Buttars' remarks last weekend with a jubilant festival dubbed "Buttarspalooza" that drew hundreds to Capitol Hill.

"We are lucky to be in Utah and to be in Salt Lake because we have a unique environment that's shaped by hostility," said 22-year-old Bonnie Owens, who offered a toast to Buttars. "While it's volatile and hard to live in sometimes, it also forces the community to join together and … have a very tight, very powerful community."

But it's those outside of Salt Lake City's tight-knit group that Utah Pride Center Director Valerie Larabee worries about: a teenager struggling to tell his family he's gay, a lesbian in a small town who keeps her sexuality in the closet.

"For some, the journey of coming out is a new journey," she said, "and it can look pretty daunting to have these terrible messages coming from someone in our state Legislature."

Mike Thompson, director of Equality Utah, criticized the example that Buttars has set for Utah children. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that directed public schools to establish policies against bullying and hazing.

"How can that be enforceable in schools … when [bully behavior is] being modeled in the people's House?" Thompson asked at a recent University of Utah forum. "You, state senator, who should be representing to these kids what is appropriate behavior … if you say that from your position, then isn't it OK that I call the kids on the playground 'faggot'? "

Karen McCreary, executive director of the ACLU of Utah, which has endorsed Equality Utah's Common Ground Initiative, a legislative push for gay rights, nevertheless defends the right to free, even hateful, speech.

McCreary hopes, in general, that such freedom of expression can serve as a "safety valve," releasing pent-up aggression through verbiage, not violence.

"Certainly, people see a lot more of the character of Senator Buttars," she said. "There's some hope that people act in their own constitutionally protected ways to do what they think is appropriate in response to an elected official."

Utah hate-crime incidents in 2007, by bias:

Race » 19

Religion » 15

Sexual orientation » 9

Ethnicity » 12

Disability » 0

Source: FBI, "Hate Crime Statistics, 2007"