Tenn. Lesbian Couple Burned Out of Home

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 13, 2010

A lesbian couple in a tiny town in eastern Tennessee say that the fire that burned their house to the ground was an act of anti-gay hatred. They also say that they received numerous threats from a neighbor--including a threat to "kill them and burn down their house"--over the span of the five years they lived in the town, reported Knoxville, Tenn. news station WATE on Sept. 10.

Carol and Laura Stutte, long-time life partners who have been together for a decade and a half, were away when the house burned. They regard the fire as suspicious both because of the threats they received and because a spray-painted message was left on their garage, consisting of one word in large letters: "Queers."

The couple moved to Tennessee from Oklahoma five years ago. But the state they left is not friendlier toward gay and lesbian families than the one they moved to, at least not by law; two years ago, a male couple in Tulsa suffered similar property destruction when their home was damaged and a friend's pickup was torched in their driveway, reported northeastern Oklahoma newspaper Tulsa World on July 18, 2008.

Vandals spray-painted "Gays Must Go" on the garage door of Robert Stotler, a Marine Corps veteran, and his male life partner. The torched truck was also spray painted with the warning, "I'll Be Back."

That was not, as it turned out, an idle threat: a week later, the couple's house was damaged when vandals spray painted "Gay Go Away" on their house and knocked holes in their front door. Because Oklahoma has no state-level hate crimes protections for GLBTs, anti-gay attacks such the ones endured by Stotler and his partner are regarded as "malicious mischief" by local authorities, the paper said. The attacks took before federal legislation was passed that extended hate crime protections to LGBT Americans.

But even after federal legislation was put into place to protect gays from bias-motivated attacks, Oklahoma legislators sought to derail those protections: Oklahoma State Senator Steve Russell sponsored an amendment to a bill that empowers the state to destroy information relevant to hate crimes investigations, rather than sharing that information with federal authorities. Russell's justification for this was that he wanted to avoid a situation in which federal officials took a case out of the jurisdiction of local law enforcement.

However, with its first attempt to strip local gays of those protections, the legislature blundered; state lawmakers ended up voting to strip away hate crimes protections relevant to race and religion, not sexual orientation or sexual identity, when the bill they voted on referenced the wrong section of the penal code.

Anti-gay attacks that initially target property can escalate into attacks against people; gays, lesbians, and transgendered people can also be targeted from the start. Another Oklahoma man, Steven Dormer, was kidnapped and murdered in October of 2007; a white supremacist was arrested and charged.

In Columbia County, Georgia, similar attacks targeted the home of two men in early 2009. John Aiu and William Pendleton woke one morning to see that their car had been vandalized and obscenities spray-painted on their house, local new channel WJBF reported on Feb. 20, 2009.

Similar damage was wrought to the automobiles and the front door of a lesbian couple in Cape Coral, Florida, earlier this year. Hate-filled messages including "dykes go to hell," "lesbians equal hell," and "gays don't belong here" were spray painted on one of the vandalized vehicles, reported local news station WINK on April 12. One of the damaged cars had been intended as a birthday gift for the women's 16-year-old daughter.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.