Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a journalist and photographer based in Port Jervis, NY and Alexandria, Va.

No surprises when small town school rejects anti-hate banner

Three truck stops up Interstate 25 from fair Fort Collins — here in the West, that's two hours up the road — is the little town of Wheatland, Wyo., home to the Platte County School District.

The Platte County School District made the news recently because its school board decided it didn't like a banner placed in one of its schools saying, "No Place for Hate." The banner was part of an Anti-Defamation League program, which, in addition to Qwest Communications and a philanthropic foundation, is sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado.

And that means its message supports gay marriage and sinfulness and going-to-hellfullness or something. After all, said one school board member, Wheatland is an "ultra-conservative" town, and anti-hate messages sponsored by a band of fags have no place in these here parts. I guess they'd better shut off their landlines, too, because Qwest apparently supports not hating gay people.

So often, it seems, the good elected officials of small towns in the West are not given to appreciating irony.

I'm sure this news will surprise plenty of city folks, maybe even in Wyoming, where, not too far away, Matthew Shepard was beaten to death more than a decade ago. It doesn't surprise me.

While working at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, I covered a tiff at the local library, which had a policy allowing just about anyone to display just about anything in the library's stairwell as a community service and a local shrine to free speech. In 2006, a group erected a display showing images of smiling diverse families of all kinds, including some single-parent families, multi-racial families, traditional husband-wife-and-2.3-children families and some same-sex families. Of course, there was controversy, and some people from the fringes of town went apoplectic. The library was buying into the "homosexual agenda," they said, and it must be stopped.

In response, the library held hearings on what displays are appropriate for a public place, and drew up new rules for display approval. The few angry people who opposed the diversity display soon got approval for their own public library display, which directed homosexuals and adulterers to find their way to Jesus and be redeemed lest they burn in the fiery pit of hell for eternity. No kidding. The woman who was in charge of that display ranted to me several times that these evil liberal groups brainwashed by the power-wielding homosexuals were going to indoctrinate Grand Junction's innocent youth and — who knows? — corrupt them so they may suffer an insufferable fate.

Again, not a surprise.

Narrow world views aren't necessarily typical of small towns, but small towns all over the place certainly seem to harbor more than their fair share them. Of course, corruption, hate and fear permeate the entire country in places both rural and urban. But my small town experiences in the West have produced quite a cast of questionable and reactionary characters.

In the early 2000s, I worked for a newspaper in southern New Mexico which ran a regular column by Luther Broaddus III, the West's self-described "editor emeritus" from Magdalena, New Mexico, a pretty little berg near where parts of the movie "Contact" were filmed back in the mid-1990s.

For reasons I wish not to explore too deeply here, the gay issue, a little more than even the "big government" issue, sets some people off somethin' fierce. Broaddus wrote a column once decrying the evil gay agenda, and wrote, after warning his readers hordes of homosexuals are out to steal their kids, "I'm not going to tell you to find the nearest homosexual and beat him with a rubber hose, but I might someday."

Those words made it to print in a newspaper that once supplied me with my paycheck. In 2003. Wow.

There's more:

I covered the Questa, New Mexico, school board for the Taos News a while back. Almost immediately after I started going to their meetings, some school board members launched an effort to ban books. Unsuccessfully.

In Taos, by far the most interesting and culturally complex place I've ever lived, I'd get calls at the newspaper from many, many people terrified that the 737s flying overhead were really military jets spraying "chemtrails" across the sky as part of an evil Bush administration plot to poison all the Taoseños. Of course, those jets were really jetliners or other airplanes spewing exhaust into the atmosphere — no more a conspiracy or an evil plot than United Airlines shuttling passengers between cities for transport and profit. Of course, we at the Taos News incurred the wrath of the paranoid when we refused to take their chemtrail claims seriously.

In 2003, in Catron County, New Mexico, one of the Sagebrush Rebellion counties from the era of Wyoming's own James Watt, a county commissioner threatened to remove me from the county, um, permanently. The Catron County reporter for the Mountain Mail newspaper in Socorro, I was writing a story about a biomass powerplant the county wanted to build with the cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service near the remote town of Reserve.

The commissioner, who is apparently still in office, didn't like me poking around asking questions, so he strongly suggested I not return to the county lest there be serious consequences. This is the same county where there was — not sure of its existence today — a private school buried in the woods off of U.S. 60 specializing in giving kids a Scientology education. The same county where wolves are hated as much as the federal government, and where a former county commissioner died of unrelated causes soon after throwing bricks and barstools at one of his constituents at his bar. The same county where the "Dead Trespasser Ranch" welcomes visitors with a warning you'll be shot if you get any closer.

There are many other similar stories I can tell about these places.

So, when a small-town Wyoming school board rejects a "No place for hate" banner because it's co-sponsored by a gay rights group, it's really no surprise.

Those same  kinds attitudes exist everywhere — particularly where broad life experience and empathy for those who are different come in painfully short supply.