(This story, originally published on Sunday, June 9, was updated Thursday, June 13, to show Girten is licensed as a lawyer in two states.)
A Jasper native who is an LGBTQ advocate said organizers are advocating for Carbon Hill Mayor Mark Chambers to resign and for local leaders to push for gay rights protections, arguing the mayor's controversial remarks on Facebook reinforces a culture of fear in the local LGBTQ community.
Champagne E. Girten of Warrior noted she is a board member of Hometown Action, a Montevallo-based statewide grassroots organization that pursues issues of racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice.
Since the controversy with Chambers erupted last week, she has spoken to publications in London and New York City about it. She approached the Daily Mountain Eagle last week to talk about the situation.
Chambers made comments on Facebook May 31 that have been taken to mean that LGBTQ people, pro-choice supporters and others should be killed. Chambers says his comments were taken out of context and that he was referring to a revolution that would take place in this country.
The comments have caused news coverage around the world, although Chambers has said he will not resign, despite calls from four of the city's six city council members to do so. A fifth councilman criticized the statements. A sixth councilman, Chambers' brother, was not approached by other council members about the call for Chambers' resignation.
Girten, who trained to be an attorney and is licensed in Florida and Washington State, pointed out that Hometown Action and Equality Alabama are sponsoring an online petition on actionnetwork.org, which has been signed by 339 people by late afternoon Friday, near a goal of 400. The page also notes Chambers' quote from Facebook, "The only way to change it would be to kill the problem out. I know it’s bad to say but without killing them out there’s no way to fix it.”
"I am deeply concerned by your discriminatory, threatening, offensive public remarks against the LGBTQ community," the petition states. "As the mayor of Carbon Hill, you have an obligation to represent your whole community. Your comments exclude and put at risk the many LGBTQ people living in Alabama and in Carbon Hill. Your actions are not only irresponsible for failing to represent your whole community, they are dangerous because they promote discrimination and violence towards a group of people who receive no protections in your city or in the majority of the state of Alabama. Your proposal of '[killing] the problem out' is egregious, violent, and morally reprehensible. They are a threat to the safety of LGBTQ people in this state and in Carbon Hill; there is no other context in which to read them.
"As an elected official, you owe it to your constituents to take responsibility for your words and for the harm they have inflicted. These shameful comments, made in your capacity as the mayor, reflect dismally upon the community of Carbon Hill. Given the outrageous and violent nature of your remarks, I do not believe it is possible for Carbon Hill or Alabama to move toward reconciliation and healing with the LGBTQ community until you resign. Only then can the city effectively take steps to ensure the protection of its LGBTQ residents."
Girten said the mayor apologized "essentially for humiliating Carbon Hill, but he never apologized to the people he targeted, to the gay and lesbian people of Carbon Hill" and elsewhere.
"What we would really like to see is Chambers making an actual apology to the people he frankly threatened to kill," she said, saying it seemed more like he was "sorry that he got caught, not that he was sorry he did it."
As for Chambers saying he was taken out of context, and that he was actually talking about revolution in the nation, Girten said neither she nor others she knows accepts that. She noted his initial post was a meme saying, "We live in a society where homosexuals lecture us on morals, transvestites lecture us on human biology, baby killers lecture us on human rights and socialists lecture us on economics."
She said in addition to wanting Chambers to resign, Hometown Action wants "Carbon Hill to do something to show they care about the people in their population who are gay and lesbian."
Most of Alabama is without laws that protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from being fired from their jobs and and evicted from housing, due to sexual orientation or gender identity, Girten said, noting Birmingham and Montevallo have passed those protections — but much of the state has not.
She has been out as LGBTQ for 20 years and works for herself, but fear of losing jobs or housing, as well as losing their children, keeps many other LGBTQ people from speaking out, she said.
"The reason I speak out is I can, and I speak for those who can't," Girten said.
The group is also seeking for Carbon Hill community leaders to receive "cultural competency education, to help them understand what needs to be done to protect and represent their entire community," according to talking points she sent to the Eagle.
"We think Carbon Hill could use this as an opportunity to be a leader in the area on this issue," she said, noting LGBTQ protection laws are not on the books anywhere in Walker County.
At the same time, having grown up in the area in a rural setting, she said the transition would be difficult.
"I still have a lot of gay friends who live throughout Walker County, including in Carbon Hill, and I reached out to them on this. None of them wanted to speak publicly. They are all afraid," Girten said.
Coupling a lack of protection with "someone in power saying these things publicly, and it makes for a hostile living environment," she said. "You grow up with this culture of fear and hatred and intolerance. It is not an easy way to grow up. It's not a healthy way to grow up. Our community leaders should be willing to lead their entire community, including gay and lesbian people."
Girten said according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law in 2016, the Southeast is home to the largest percentage of gays and lesbians in the United States, at 35 percent. That compared to 20 percent in the Midwest, 19 percent in the Northeast, 8 percent in the Mountain region and 17 percent along the West Coast areas, and Alaska and Hawaii.
According to the same study, Alabama has 104,000 LGBTQ adults, 31 percent of which are African American. A total of 6,600 same-sex couples are in the state, 18 percent of which were raising children.
A map of Alabama counties shows a higher concentration of same-sex couples in parts of Walker County, especially in the southwestern and southeastern areas of the county, reflecting anywhere from five to 53 people per 1,000 households.
"They grew up here. This was there home, too," she said. "For financial reasons and stuff, they stay in Alabama. They stay because we want to change Alabama." She said if Alabamians take anything from the Carbon Hill incident is that "we really are in your communities and we always have been, and that's not going to change.
What the LGBTQ community needs to do is make sure it is not being punished for being gay in the small communities, Girten said.
"I feel we are at a watershed moment culturally the way we were in the 1960s," she said.
She said that because of the event, a support group will likely be formed in the area for LGBTQ residents.