Killer Crackers of Flyover Country
Another hate crime hoax in the making?
Bedford County is a pastoral county near the exact center of the state of Tennessee. All hills, valleys, woods, rivers, and lakes, Bedford County is almost equidistant between Nashville an hour north and Chattanooga a little over an hour south. On its southern border is Moore County, where Jack Daniels is distilled using spring water from a cave and charcoal made from local trees; on its eastern border is Coffee County, where the less well known George Dickel whisky is produced in much the same way.
Bedford County does not have a whisky (though one can actually buy whisky there - Moore County, where Jack Daniels is distilled, is a dry county). What Bedford County has been famous for over decades is the Celebration, the international contest for Tennessee Walking Horses. The county seat, Shelbyville, where I was born and grew up, has always had a stadium, and for a couple of weeks in August horse breeders and trainers from all over Tennessee, the South, the U.S., North America, and even middle eastern petro-states or Japan or Europe, invade the county for equestrienne competition. If you own a home nearby you might rent it out and go on vacation. If you have a yard or driveway within walking distance you likely rent it out for parking. If you are an aspiring small businessperson or one of the rare wealthy people in this county of 49,000 souls, you might have your own box at the stadium.
Bedford County has some other distinctive features. It was a Union County during the Civil War, refusing to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. It’s the hometown of Clint Eastwood’s early girlfriend, the late actress Sondra Locke. It’s the location of The Webb School, the oldest continuously operated boarding school in the South, founded in 1870 by educator Sawney Webb, who believed a classical education would be necessary to rebuild a new south.
It’s also near the many domestic content auto plants located in Tennessee where Japanese companies have for decades availed themselves of low priced hydroelectric power, low taxes, low crime, and a lower wage and price level, to add the minimum amount of domestic content to what would otherwise be imported Japanese cars. The Japanese at some point became major sponsors of the Celebration. I was born and grew up in Shelbyville, and attended both local public schools and Webb. I left at 18 and never went back for more than a few weeks a year (though once cable TV and then wifi made the world one, the low cost of living and lack of noise and crime made it tempting to move back). I was almost never there during August after I left, so though my family had actually for years had a box at the Celebration, I didn’t go near the stadium, now referred to by locals as the “Kawasonic stadium.” One year I finally drove by to see that it was the Calasonic Stadium. The southerners were pronouncing the “L“ as a “W” as the Japanese donors did. Perhaps this was a case of stereotypical Southern politesse.
Last month another story came out of Bedford County, a much less polite story. A 12 year old boy, Eli Fitchley, committed suicide in Bedford County, allegedly because he was openly gay and he was being “bullied by Evangelicals.”
Those are completely credible charges. The Fitchley family had immigrated to Tennessee from England and his mom and dad report that there were students verbally harassing him, though in interviews they seem to think it wasn’t bothering him and did not expect him to do what he did. There isn’t any reported suicide note - or poem, or short story, or drawing - that sheds light on what Eli’s feelings or motivations were. His mother actually gives two reasons for why other students were giving him grief: “He was told because he didn't necessarily have a religion and that he said he was gay that he was going to go to Hell. They told him that quite often.” So from what little evidence his family provides he was being bullied for two reasons, being gay and being a non-believer.
This could be true, but it strikes me as odd. I was gay, though not “openly” gay in the same county decades earlier, and I was also from around age 11 an atheist, though not openly so. In the 7th grade I bought - and wore - two pairs of platform shoes, and I wore them to school everyday, though neither I nor anyone else understood that as gender fluidity at the time, instead of a love of Don Cornelius and SOOOUUUULLL Train! In the 8th grade I ran around with a copy of The Communist Manifesto and in the 10th with assorted Ayn Rand books. I’d had various relatives who had pegged me as gay from the age of 3 or 4. I had a stepfather who would voice his hostility to me for being insufficiently masculine and uninterested in sports (until I won a regional algebra contest, which he decided to take pride in as an unexpected substitute). But I never thought back then about killing myself. If anything I was probably more likely to have a fantasy about grabbing a shotgun and taking out my stepfather. About the only conversation I can remember about gay people from those years was in the summer of the 10th grade after I had started attending Webb, the private school. An extremely handsome guy a few months older than me who worked at the same supermarket where I had a summer job asked me if there were a lot of gays at Webb (the private school). At the time I didn’t think about why he was asking, other than that it was a common belief about Webb and fancy private academies generally. This extremely good-looking teen died a few years later from AIDS. But I don’t remember anyone committing suicide, including kids like me who were on occasion physically beaten up (not “bullied”) and who did not have woke liberal parents like little Eli did. If we don’t want there to be more Elis we need to know why more kids commit suicide now than did previously.
The danger for suicidal teens is that a story like this will be spun to serve a political narrative in a way that occludes whatever we might learn about how to prevent teen suicide.
This seems to happen even more with stories involving gay people. My ex and I, in a different cultural climate, had a joke about how news stories were too often about “another tragic homosexually-connected death.” Now news stories are too often about how someone is the victim of homophobia. Matthew Shepherd is etched into many Americans’ minds as such a hate crime victim, even though it has become clear one of his killers was a former lover and he died because of a drug deal gone bad. For some months many people - including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - thought or pretended to think that Jussie Smollett was the victim of a hate crime, even though in his case as well one of his “attackers” was a former lover. (Indeed something no one has mentioned to my knowledge is that Smollett’s hoax has the color of “raceplay” that one can find on gay and straight hookup sites, where black or white libertines seek interracial sex in which the participants will take on racially inflected master and slave roles.)
Eli killed himself during the same month where end of year news stories reported on the growing flight from locked down, high tax states like New York and California for free states like Florida, Texas, and…Tennessee. (Nashville is about to get a Ritz Carlton hotel.) The same month where Bette Midler was attacking the dumb hicks of West Virginia for electing Senator Manchin, only to be embarrassed at her own display of ignorance when memes were created citing the fact that California and New York have literacy rates in the 70s, while West Virginia has a literacy rate of 86.6% (Tennessee is at 86.8%.)
As if on cue, a gay writer who only covers tales of homophobia, James Finn, has produced a piece asserting that we must get rid of Evangelicals to protect gay children. I’m waiting for it to be regurgitated throughout the gay press. The article is short on evidence or argument. It doesn’t for instance address the fact that the states with the highest suicide rates (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - basically the mountain and desert west from Idaho and Wyoming down to Arizona and New Mexico - heavily overlap with the states with the highest percentages of people who have no religion. Nor does he tell us why Bedford County’s non-religious population grew (from 2000 to 2010) from about 15,000 to 25,000. But from 2005 to 2015, the annual number of suicides among Tennesseans ages 10-19 grew, erratically, from 30 to 50. What’s mainly interesting about his article though is the voluminous reader reply section, where many big city and coastal readers make Midlerian comments about how they would never live in these states, the ones to which everyone else is moving. (I doubt any of these people are aware of how gays are bashed and transgender people murdered often in cities like D.C. or Baltimore because criminals know they are disarmed by gun control.)
Epidemiologists do tell us that gay, transgender and non-binary kids (and adults) commit suicide more often than other kids. And transgender and non-binary kids do this more than “CIS gender” gay kids whose “gender identity” aligns with their biological sex. From the few photos we have of and statements about Eli, he does seem gender non-binary - long hair, painted fingernails, his mom says he liked to wear pink. Polemicists like Finn would stand on more solid ground if they blamed Republicans, not Christians, for the rise in gay teen suicide. Teen suicide went up in Tennessee while its population was becoming less religious, but it did flip from Democrat in 1990 to solid Republican ever after. Perhaps the gay activists should just target Republicans directly, without the proxy of the Evangelical boogeymen, who aren’t growing in number.
The problem though is that even as Tennessee became Republican, and less religious, gay marriage was legalized in Tennessee as in every other state, and any gay kid who wants to escape can still leave as I did, and now can even join the military (as well as the CIA or the FBI) if they have no other option, something they could not do back when fewer of them were committing suicide. Tennessee now has gay rights lawyers, like Pee Wee Herman’s sister, Abby Rubenfeld, which it didn’t have back when suicide was less prevalent.
Perhaps the reason kids commit suicide now has more to do with their being led into confusion by being told there is no such thing as gender. (And then forced into association with others who strongly disagree in state monopoly schools, absent school choice.) That would be worth studying and studying it might lead to fewer suicides. But like so much other medical and scientific research today, any attempt to do so will be censored and suppressed for political ends.
One suspects there are lots of things we aren’t doing, including asking people who seem suicidal if they are in fact in need of help, because we feel helpless and embarrassed. One suspects too that lots of schools that talk a good game of policing bullying at schools do not. (Last year, while teaching, I, along with every other teacher in the wealthy liberal county of Arlington, Virginia, even substitutes, had a mandatory diversity training, on Columbus Day, about “equity.” Equity consists of not applying the rules equally, according to the trainer. In one example it was said to be wrong to punish a gay kid for being late to class, because he was late because he had to hide in an empty room until after the bell rang. There was an unmonitored patch of hallway where he’d be beaten up by kids changing classes if he tried to get to class on time. To the diversity huckster this demonstrated that we can’t make black kids and gay kids and immigrant kids follow rules, because it would be unfair. To me it meant that government schools are failing to provide a level of safety that any private business would be sued for not providing.) One suspects most of these things won’t be imagined, tried, altered, or discarded, until we have a free and competitive market of schools with family education choice.
A slightly shorter version of this piece appeared at SpliceToday earlier this week.