By Michael Walker Thorsvedtt
The mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, Emory Folmar, used the word "queer" to describe gays in a comment made on the local television program "Good Morning, Montgomery" on December 18, 1997. Folmar, the chair of the current Alabama governor's (Fob James, -R) re-election campaign and a long-time fixture in Alabama Republican politics not only used this derogatory term in a public setting but also has refused to apologize for his choice of words, stating that "I'll use it again. I'm not going to call them gay; I don't approve of their lifestyle one bit".
While Mayor Folmar's choice of wording is certainly bad enough, the real issue here is his steadfast refusal to apologize for using a term that is -- in the context that he used it -- considered offensive. Folmar may not "approve of their lifestyle one bit" but his personal opinions should not be the basis for his approach to governing an entire city when those opinions hold an entire group of that city's populace in a negative light. Folmar is in a position of power, and like anyone in such a position, he must be held accountable for how he wields that power. An incident of gay-bashing was the catalyst for Folmar's comments on the television show to begin with, and his stance on this issue -- aired so with such arrogance and insensitivity -- could well foster an atmosphere of increased hostility towards gays in Montgomery. Obviously, such an atmosphere of hatred would not be unappealing to the mayor, if he does not approve of gays at the most fundamental level and is willing to offend the city's gay population with his unabashed disregard for standards of acceptable speech.
Recently, in Gainesville, Florida, the president of the University of Florida became entangled in a controversy resulting from a racist comment he made at a private cocktail party, which was later leaked to the press. President John Lombardi has, however, apologized for his insensitive comment and has made resoundingly clear his immense regret for saying such a thing in the first place. Still, his position as the university's president is in jeopardy due to this incident and despite his otherwise impressive track record of encouraging better racial relations at the University of Florida. Contrast this example with the case in Montgomery, and several things become apparent. First, in Gainesville, a strong effort has been made to seek out some form of justice and closure. African-American leaders at the university, city (Gainesville), and state levels have voiced their opinions on the matter (with many supporting Lombardi and accepting his apology) making the circumstances very clear: racist or otherwise untoward remarks from a civic leader will not be tolerated by this community. In Montgomery on the other hand, a civil servant can apparently get away with voicing no small amount of ignorance and hatred without fearing the retribution of the citizenry. One can assume that Folmar will continue making such offensive comments as long as he is allowed to do so, in fact, he said in so many words that this is exactly what will happen!
Alabama is a state where prejudice, bias, and ignorance have long been allowed to thrive and flourish, often with the express consent of governmental leaders. The cities of Birmingham and Selma were epicenters for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with the levels of resentment between blacks and whites climaxing to violence in Birmingham in 1963. A nation should learn from its past mistakes, and should be able to recognize when history begins to repeat itself. Folmar's actions are not simply an affront to the gay community of Montgomery, but are also a pronounced insult to the gay community world-wide and to a person of any minority group, because if Folmar can get away with making comments such as those he aired in December about gays, he can probably get away with voicing his prejudice, period, however that prejudice may manifest itself.
Personally, I feel that a move to recall or impeach Mayor Folmar may be the only viable solution to the dilemma he has presented. Clearly, this is a man who is not representing all of the citizens of his municipality equally and fairly within the city government. Clearly, this is a man who is unapologetic for his coarse actions in the light of a politically sensitive situation. Clearly, Montgomery can do a lot better for a mayor than Folmar, and if gays in this city value the freedoms that American democracy reserves for all of its citizens, they will act to remove Folmar from his current office, and make certain that he never succeeds in achieving another position of equivalent or greater power.