Lesbian murderer indicative of a hateful culture?

Commentary by Rev. Mel White

On December 4, in Medford, Oregon, two of our lesbian friends and co-workers were brutally murdered. The news saddened and enraged our community. This year, again, it was reported that gay and lesbian Americans are among the primary victims of hate crimes across America.

Roxanne Ellis, 54, and Michelle Abdill, 42, had been loving partners for 12 years. Both women were committed Christian activists, working to help end intolerance. They were found three days after their murder in the back of a pickup truck, bound, gagged, blindfolded and executed at point blank range.

On December 13, Robert Acremant was arrested for their murders. He told police he had only meant to rob the women. Because the law in Oregon requires that "hate" be the primary motive in a "hate crime," there is the possibility that our friends will not be listed as "hate crime" victims.

In fact, the killer's own confession shows how Roxanne and Michelle were victims, not of one man's hatred, but of a toxic cloud of ignorance and intolerance against homosexuals that pollutes the soul of America. Gays and lesbians need to be included in 'hate crime' laws, but it is even more important to see how ignorance and intolerance on a national scale contribute to the hostile climate which aids and abets these crimes I wish we could blame Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jesse Helms and the other primary sources of the false and inflammatory rhetoric that have helped confuse millions of well-meaning citizens about lesbians and gays. But these "leaders" and the followers they have mislead are not "haters" any more than Robert Acremant, 27, the women's killer was just a "hater" when he exploded bullets in their brains.

In March, Pat Robertson told me that he "abhors violence against homosexuals, and I believe him. These anti-gay crusaders may all be sincere when they talk of "loving the sinner and hating the sin," but they go on to blame gay and lesbian Americans (quite falsely) for every sin you can think of from child molestation to mass murder, from "undermining the traditional family" to "the destruction of American values."

These religious and political leaders are too committed to their current anti-homosexual course to deal honestly with the growing mountain of evidence that homosexual orientation, like heterosexual orientation, is not a choice or something to be changed, but a gift from God to be accepted, celebrated and lived with integrity. Threatened by this new truth, they misuse a handful of biblical verses outside their historic context to stir up the kind of fear that raises money and mobilizes volunteers. And worse, they can't seem to understand (or don't seem to care) that their fiery words against "the sin" give permission for terrible acts of discrimination and violence against "the sinners."

We don't know that Robert Acremant ever heard the anti-gay rhetoric on Pat Robertson's 700 Club. Perhaps the 27 year old MBA graduate killed the women for their money or just for the thrill of it, but when we listen to his confession carefully, we have to wonder. After telling how he bound and gagged Roxanne and Michelle side-by-side in the back of their own pickup truck, he said this: "All of a sudden I just looked down [at the women] and had that feeling."

What feeling? We know what he was thinking about at the time of the murders. He confessed it: "I don't care for lesbians," he told a reporter.* "I couldn't help but think that she's 54 years old and had been dating that woman for 12 years; isn't that sick? That's someone's grandma, for God's sake. Could you imagine my grandma a lesbian with another woman? I couldn't believe that. It crossed my mind a couple of times-lesbo grandma, what a thing, huh?"

Feeling disgust for all lesbians, Acremant pulled the trigger. What made these two Christian women, committed to each other in a loving, life-partnership, so despicable to their abductor that it helped justify their murders? From where did those feelings of revulsion come? Who is responsible for the cloud of misinformation that helped this killer feel good about his deed? How did "hate the sin" become "kill the sinner" in the mind of R. J. Acremant?

Acremant, though educated, is ignorant and intolerant about homosexual orientation. Worse, he seeks to justify his cruel act with that same ignorance and intolerance. To call Acremant a "hater" might only separate him from the rest of us. Labeling his crime a "hate crime" might only distance his terrible deed from what millions of Americans think and do daily.

How different from Robert Acremant are the pastors and priests who condemn gay and lesbian Christians from the pulpits of their churches or refuse to ordain even the most qualified to ministry?

How different from Robert Acremant are the parents who condemn, reject, or discard their gay and lesbian children, or the employers who fire them, or the landlords who change their locks?

How different from Robert Acremant are school officials who break contracts with able gay and lesbian teachers, or close down gay and lesbian counseling offices, or end sexual-orientation and AIDS education programs?

How different from Robert Acremant is the President, or the Congress, or the Joint Chiefs who approve a policy that wastes millions of dollars hunting down and discharging gay and lesbian military personnel who serve their country with honor and courage?

How different from Robert Acremant is the judge or legislator who refuses to grant gays or lesbians in committed, loving relationships the equal rights and responsibilities of marriage?

How different from Robert Acremant are the parents, neighbors and "friends," who turn away in judgment or disgust from a gay man with AIDS?

How different from Robert Acremant is the person who whispers "fag" or "dyke" when a neighbor walks by, or tells a mean-spirited, anti-gay joke at the water cooler, or signs a petition for another anti-gay ballot measure?

Mourn with me the murder of our two friends in Oregon. But don't see Robert Acremant as an isolated "hater" whose ignorance and intolerance has nothing to do with the rest of us. When by our silence we allow such ignorance and intolerance to go unconfronted, we share in the blame for all the horror and the heartbreak that follows.

We are all Americans, gay and non-gay alike, with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness guaranteed us by our Creator and by the laws of this great land. It is time to overcome our fears, show some courage, and take our stand against ignorance and intolerance wherever we find it.

Robert Acremant could face the death penalty in Oregon if he is convicted of the murders of Roxanne and Michelle. But in our hurry to execute justice, let us not make Acremant another sacrificial lamb for a guilt the whole nation shares.

*Acremant in an interview with Steven A. Chin of the San Francisco Examiner Staff, December 17, 1995, pp. 1, 18.

Mel White is author of Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay And Christian In America. He is Justice Minister for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC), the only denomination in America with a primary outreach to lesbian and gay Christians. Dr. White spent 22 days fasting in a Virginia Beach City jail earlier this year protesting his former boss Pat Robertson's anti-gay rhetoric. Robertson eventually met with White in jail, and days later, on his television show, the 700 Club, Robertson condemned violence against gay and lesbian people.
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