Alabama Lesbian Arrested for Getting Attacked Outside a Straight Bar

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Act was signed into law in October of 2009; it was the first national hate crimes legislation to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, and is one of the most measurable things the Obama administration has done for the gay community. Hundreds of people worked for more than a decade to see it pass; as the name suggests, the hope was that it would mean the end of the cultural era where a young man could be killed by beating and exposure and then have his attacker’s claims of ‘gay panic’ taken at all seriously. Few would deny that its passage was a huge step forward for us as a country. There may be an unforeseen problem, though: what if people just don’t obey it?

Laura Gilbert, a 25-year-old openly gay woman in Alabama, was attacked by roughly a dozen people outside a straight bar in Opelika, AL.

Gilbert and her friend from high school, Sheila Siddall, say they went there to sing karoake. “As soon as we walked in the bar, I felt uncomfortable,” Gilbert said. “I felt everybody staring at us, but you know, it was her birthday, I didn’t want to ruin it for her.” Gilbert and Siddall say as they were about to leave, a woman confronted them and started to fight with them. The fight grew to include about a dozen people, including two men, and moved outside, according to the women.

When a police officer arrived on the scene, Gilbert was the only one arrested. Out of the dozen people at the scene, many were intoxicated and all of them were engaged in “disorderly conduct,” the offense with which she was charged, but Gilbert says that she wasn’t even interviewed by police. The only statement taken down was from her attackers. The police say this is because she was too intoxicated to give a statement, although they did proceed to take statements from other drunk people.

This action on the part of the police is puzzling. Although corrections from actual law enforcement officers are welcome, it seems like this behavior would only make sense if one lone lesbian went on a violent rampage against an unsuspecting group of people, which seems unlikely. Actually, even then this would be an irresponsible way to handle the incident. A fight by definition involves more than one person; why would the police report ever not include all accounts of what happened?

Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones says, however, “The arrest that took place was a result of a law enforcement officer actively and presently observing what he at that moment in time perceived to be a violation of the law.” Considering that witnesses agree that the fight was already over by the time any law enforcement arrived, this statement is less than clarifying.

If any of Gilbert’s story has even a grain of truth to it – which, given the law enforcement’s track record with marginalized groups like queers or people of color, seems very possible – then this is a blatant act of discrimination on behalf of the Lee County Sherriff’s Department. But is it just simple malice? Or is this about the fact that Sheriff Jones is insisting that while his deputies are trained to report hate bias in violent crimes, that this is definitively not what happened on Saturday night in Opelika? All state officials are required to comply with federal hate crimes legislation, even when it regards sexual orientation. But if the crime itself is documented in such a way that its hate bias is downplayed or ignored, or if it isn’t documented at all, then who’s to say whether the law is being obeyed or not?

Alabama’s state hate crimes legislation doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity as a protected class, and this wouldn’t be the first time creative police reporting had been employed to conveniently reshape the criminal history of a specific police department. (Granted, that example is in New York, not Alabama, but definitely well worth the read.)

Alabama doesn’t offer domestic partnerships. Alabama has a ban on same-sex civil unions and has both a constitutional amendment and law prohibiting same-sex marriage. The state’s Fair Housing Act doesn’t ban discrimination or gender identity/expression housing discrimination.

From Sweet Homo Alabama, the article from Out magazine declaring Alabama the worst place to be gay in America:

Anyplace else in 2004 America, gay people—and even some straight ones—would be shocked, outraged, and bellowing for justice if two gay men had been killed in less than two weeks. In Alabama we just numbly reassemble for another candlelight vigil on the marble steps of the bleached-white state capitol, right near the spot where Gov. George C. Wallace hollered, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

On particularly awful occasions, like this double-murder summer, as many as 65 of us will show up. The few, the brave, the homo-bamians. We stand here wondering how many more of us are going to get burned like witches, struggling to keep the candle wax from dripping onto our hands and pants, glancing nervously over our shoulders whenever a muffler-free pickup truck goes roaring by on its five-foot tires. You just know they’re going to holler something creative like “Faggots burn in hell!” You just hope they’re not hanging around waiting when you walk back to your car.

At Alabama-based, Alabama resident Zach writes: “I’m not surprised by this at all. Opelika is home to many an ignorant bigot. Gilbert is lucky she made it out alive.”

Generalizations like this are dangerous, of course — for example, Mobile is considered a bit of a gay and literary mecca, and these queers have a really cute farm — and certainly Alabama’s population are not all homophobes — perhaps many of you, even, are from Alabama and clearly love gay people! But when discussing law enforcement officials — that is, people employed by the state government itself — what’s on the books is a reflection of the institution’s homophobia, even if it doesn’t necessarily indict any of its citizens.

The story here is, firstly, the unconscionable violence against an unarmed woman for no apparent reason other than her trying to inhabit public space and also being a gay person. The story is also the unforgivable and seemingly intentional failure of law enforcement to do their jobs in protecting her or investigating her case.

But the story is also larger; it’s about how we try to make progress as a community and as individuals, and about how we look to things bigger than ourselves for change, and ultimately end up coming back to what’s right in front of us. The passage of national hate crimes legislation that includes gay, lesbian, bi, queer and trans people is huge. But that’s just the means towards a larger end.

On the ground, it’s still people out there talking to people, people with their own stories and beliefs and backgrounds. When everyone is drunk and punches are thrown, things can get a bit chaotic. No legislation can change the fact that Laura Gilbert felt uncomfortable the minute she entered the bar, or reassure anyone that the officers at the scene did the right thing.

What we achieve in Washington may eventually help to change our schools and towns and city councils and workplaces, but that day is not today. But we also need to be working from the bottom up in our own neighborhoods and families and local police departments.

Because the Matthew Shepard Act and a hundred more acts just like it won’t make any difference at all if no one makes sure they’re also put into practice. Just ask Laura Gilbert.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. Well written article – thanks, Rachel! And thanks for taking a more balanced approach to states/places that all-too frequently come in for across the board condemnation for being “backward” or “hick,” etc.

    There are certainly parts of the country with a bigger number of violently bigoted cultures and people, but even in the worst of it there are always good people living good lives, fighting the good fight.

    It’s important never to write off these people or places, though, since they’re all part of the greater equation that will someday result in a more open-minded and accepting country. They’re all our neighbors.

  2. You did a great job on this story Rachel. It’s just so damn disheartening to read/think about. Between this story and one I read yesterday concerning Indiana state reps views on gay marriage and civil unions it’s hard to stay positive right now.

  3. Fifty years from now my very good-looking and intelligent progeny will look back at this sort of discrimination, and the fact that we didn’t allow gay people to marry, and that our pay gap is so huge, and will marvel at how absurd it seems, and how far we’ve come, in the same way that my friends and I look back at the segregation of the 60’s and wince/be thankful. This is what I hope for.

  4. “Laura Gilbert, a 25-year-old openly gay woman in Alabama, was attacked by roughly a dozen people outside a straight bar in Opelika, GA.”

    Umm, perhaps correct that to say Opelika, AL? I was very confused the first time I read this. Haha.

    • And I think it’s important to note that police discrimination against queers/nongenderconforming people isn’t exclusive to Alabama, it’s everywhere :(

  5. great balanced article, good points too! im so glad i dont live in a place like that!! thats not to say bigotry isnt alive and well everywhere but ya know, things arent quite as extreme here in PA, at least the big cities.

  6. i have a similar story. i had gotten jumped by 6+ people outside a bar and been beaten up pretty badly. i of course was unsuccessful in laying charges because i didn’t have any “viable” witnesses and the attackers all had the same story. in the end i somehow was going to be charged, but the cop said he’d be a “nice” guy and drop the charges. fucking ridiculous really.

    oh, i also got banned from the bar. normal? i don’t think so.

  7. I thought the point of the Federal hate crime law was to make it possible for the feds to step in when the local law enforcement is part of the problem. I mean, the reason it was started was because sometimes the Sheriff was also the Grand Wizard of the local KKK and they wouldn’t bother investigating murders of black people. Prior to the hate crimes law, the feds would try to prosecute those kinds of cases based on the victim’s civil rights being violated under the Civil Rights Act which required some broad interpretation.

  8. First off, I love my state and it has gotten better with LGBT issues (in most countie). So please, dont judge Bama too badly (just wanted to say that, because it happens alot).

    Despite that, I hate to see that this incident occurred and I hope that there is a further investigation where actual individuals who started this get what they deserve. It is hard to see that there are still counties where this kind of behavior can go on without much resistance from the town/city.

  9. Sadly, I’m only surprised that this was made public, as opposed to the never-ending stories I hear. I attend what I see as one of the most accepting high schools in Alabama, and even here kids have no problem at all throwing around terms like faggot, f**king homo, etc. Our GSA has been pretty powerless, but we’ve recently made a push to publicize various hate crimes (such as this one, which I’m sure we’ll be talking about soon). Luckily, none of us have ever been attacked, but who knows when it’ll happen?

  10. This is so terrifying to me. Coming from a liberal, accepting background I could never really understand why my friend from AL found it so impossible to come out to her closest friends and even to herself. I figured it must be the result of 20 years of internalized homophobia from growing up in such an intolerant background, but never realized… Fuck, I never had any comprehension of the very tangible, very real threat that she’d be putting herself in danger of by simply existing.

  11. The sad thing is nothing from Alabama surprises me anymore and I have lost faith in police officers ever doing the right thing in this state. A few weeks ago in Birmingham, a jury acquitted 2 police officers for beating an unconscious man after a high speed chase. They even had video evidence.

    As for this story, 9 reported hate crimes in 2009 is ridiculously low. The police officers could very well be homophobic but it could also be the idea of taking the path of least resistance in not reporting the incident, and similar incidences, as a hate crime. Whatever the reason (homophobia, malice, apathy, etc.), it’s still unjust. And the silent majority that idly stands by, witnessing injustices like this happen is equally guilty.

    As a sidenote: I personally hate Lee County. I’ve been there twice, last time in 2007, and I have vowed never to return again.

  12. “It’s important never to write off these people or places, though, since they’re all part of the greater equation that will someday result in a more open-minded and accepting country. They’re all our neighbors.”
    -this, very much.
    also, i’m a queer and trans person of color, and would just never call the cops ever for anything/avoid them at all costs except i am from and live in new york city. they are like the presidents of every block. SO IT’S HARD

  13. I have so much respect for the brave LGBT folks that live places like that.

    I hope someday that everywhere will be “safe” for us.

  14. I have no words to describe how reading this makes me feel. I did want to comment on this though;

    “Alabama doesn’t offer domestic partnerships. Alabama has a ban on same-sex civil unions and has both a constitutional amendment and law prohibiting same-sex marriage. The state’s Fair Housing Act doesn’t ban discrimination or gender identity/expression housing discrimination.”

    People try to talk their way out of queer rights by saying “the law reflects what the majority want” But how can you expect people to respect LGBTQ folk when the law itself is sending the message that queers are inferior? If the laws change, so will societal attitudes. I’m pretty certain (Americans correct me if I’m wrong here) but when African Americans first won the right to vote, the general (white American) public was against it. Human rights > opinion.

  15. I’m embarassed to say i’m from Alabama after reading this article. Being openly gay, I’ve never felt personal discrimination in Birmingham, but I couldn’t imagine living in the extremely conservative/ red-neck cities here.

  16. I heard about this on Sunday and read it here yesterday but have been waiting to reply. I live 15 minutes from where this happened. I live in Lee County. A couple of years ago I pulled up in the parking lot of that bar with some friends and we didn’t even get out of the car. That’s the thing about Alabama, I go to Auburn and there are a lot of really wonderful people here and I feel accepted and at home, but ten or fifteen minutes down the road still thrives that aggressive, intolerant culture that gives Alabama such a bad name. That’s Lee county, the home of a major university and a place where hate crimes take place and no different from most communities in this state.

    You’re absolutely right when you talk about how the work isn’t done when the law gets passed. It’s poetic when Out magazine talks about Montgomery being a place of reluctant social change just decades ago, but its tough to swallow when you remember that even racism is still rampant. It’s been 45 years since Martin Luther King marched on Montgomery facing angry crowds and police violence, and even his work hasn’t been completed. It’s strange to face that in my lifetime I may not see tolerance in Alabama. I think the hardest part is that while violent hate crimes are happening and the police ignoring them, just standing up to that injustice makes you a target for even more violence. Things change, but it’s slow and usually bloody. How do you fight violence? Even the question seems to intimate an oxymoron.

  17. When I read this, my heart dropped. I am originally from the next county over. Sadly, I am not surprised by this. I have been in Birmingham since my freshman year of College, Had I stayed in that area, I probably would have gone insane by now.

  18. I also attended Auburn, which is in Lee County and I am very sad to admit that I am not really suprised. That type of hostility toward anything different or new is pretty prominate in many small towns and communities in the south. However, when people like via are brave enough to be open about who they are and are comfortable and confident enough to tell people the truth, they are changing hearts and minds. Maybe not everyone’s heart and mind, but the impact is still great.

    • woah.

      You know though, that’s the kind of thing that makes me glad to have autostraddle. That backwards, misinformed thinking would usually make me want a one way ticket out of this hell hole. But I have this site where I can hear thoughts and opinions of ladies everywhere and suddenly all of the angry, ill-reasoned words just roll off my back.

  19. I live in Auburn (10 miles from Opelika) Alabama. I’m lucky to have never met with this kind of behavior. I have many many straight friends and so far never had any problems in the communtiy. I hate they didn’t name the bar where this happened so I make SURE my friends, straight and gay NEVER spend a dime there…

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