By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Norman City Council member Chad Williams expected backlash when he agreed to participate in a documentary about a gay teen’s suicide and the impact on the community. What he didn’t expect was the level of hate in those responses.
Threats — including those he perceives as potential death threats — has made Williams think twice about participating in future dialogue on gay issues.
“I fully expected some (backlash) — I didn’t think it would be to this degree,” Williams said. “For my family to watch me die or for a bullet to go through my head …”
Williams took the threats seriously enough to report them to the police.
“That’s what gets people in trouble — not thinking there’s anything to (threats),” he said.
The documentary “Broken Heart Land” was previewed June 17 in Norman. Williams participated in a question-and-answer session that evening and received positive emails for being part of the dialogue.
“I don’t think I would have gotten those emails if I hadn’t done the Q&A,” Williams said.
Niki Harrington, sister of Zack Harrington whose death is the focus of the film, thanked Williams for being willing to participate in the panel that evening. Others conversed with Williams and his wife after the screening.
The problem started a week later.
“why don’t u do us all a favor and swallow a Bullitt,” was posted on William’s Facebook page on June 25, the morning after the film was released nationally.
“You evil, repulsive bastard! You are the Devil himself and even look like an evil and wretched monster ... ” was a small portion of another, vitriolic Facebook post.
Williams said the phone calls were the worst.
“Only one of the phone calls would make me feel threatened, but most of them were, ‘People like you should rot in hell.’ Most of them made no sense,” he said. “In hindsight, I probably should not have answered any of them so that the police would have had the messages.”
The calls came on the number posted on the city website to allow people in Ward 8 to contact Williams who serves as their council member.
“I’m having that number changed, and it will be off the website for a while,” he said.
He is grateful the city no longer posts home addresses.
While Williams’ believes being gay is a lifestyle choice and, therefore, does not deserve special protections under the law, he is open to dialogue to find ways to live peacefully in the same society.
“Where we can come together and work for the good of the other is where the dialogue needs to be,” Williams said.
He said there is no fence between himself and fellow Council member Tom Kovach, who is openly gay. Williams said he and Kovach are able to see past that point of disagreement.
“He’s the prime example of, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of world politics that we disagree on, but let’s make Norman better,’” Williams said.
Kovach said the hateful messages and calls do not represent the majority of those who support equal rights for gay citizens.
“I condemn the inappropriate actions against Chad (Williams),” Kovach said, “but I do not think that a group can be measured by the actions of a few miscreants.”
Kovach hopes people on both sides will show more tolerance in the future.
“Chad has the right to his views and beliefs without fear of being persecuted for them — he showed in his appearance on that panel that he was both brave to sit next to people who most likely wanted to confront him, and he showed compassion for them,” Kovach said.
Williams said he would not use threats or bullying against homosexuals and never has, even as a teen.
“The only time I would be mean to somebody is if they threatened my family,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me that people disagree with me — I don’t think they have to voice it through hate or threats.”
Williams is extremely grateful his family has not been a target. He is also grateful that the filmmakers kept his wife — who was pregnant at the time — out of the film and allowed her some privacy.
The primary focus of the film was 19-year-old Zack Harrington’s pain and alienation, and the fallout to his family after his suicide.
One week before his death, Zack had attended a local city council meeting in support of a proposal for LGBT History Month in Norman, but public comments led to controversial statements made by some members of the public.
Williams spoke against the LGBT proclamation.
That divisive city council meeting and later campaigns of Ward 8 council candidates Williams and Jackie Farley also came into play in the film.
Farley is an openly gay woman. Late in the campaign, a hateful letter about her was mailed to prospective voters. Williams denies having any connection to or knowledge of the letter and condemned its contents.
While the film shows several angles on the gay issue, Williams felt it was never made clear that he was not responsible for the hateful letter during the campaign. He thinks that may be fueling the threats.
“When it (the film) was proposed to me, it was, ‘We’re going to make a documentary about Norman and how that meeting was perceived as a divide in that community and we’re going to show both sides,” he said.
At that time, he was running for the Ward 8 city council seat. He decided to be open and show who he is, believing it was important to represent all viewpoints. Now, he’s having second thoughts about continuing to participate in the dialogue surrounding gay issues.
“I’ll have to weigh whether it’s worth it for me and my family,” he said.
Williams reported the threats to Norman police as a safety precaution.
“Am I worried? No. I can take care of myself,” he said. “I don’t walk around in fear. My wife and kids when I’m not around is what I think about.”
Much of Williams’ concern centers on his church and the safety of anyone who might be in the building if someone wanted to target him through the church facility, which was shown in the movie.
“The police department has been great,” he said. “They have come by and checked and tried to make us more at ease.”
Kovach said it’s important not to let hate do the talking.
“We cannot move forward without knowing and acting upon the axiom that we all deserve respectful communication,” Kovach said. “Attacking others for who they are is just as wrong as being attacked for who we are.
“It boils down to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s not new, but it is fundamental to a civilized society respecting diverse individuals. We must live together in respect and compassion for one another.”
The documentary was meant to open doors of dialogue, not diatribe. After stumbling upon the story of the Harrington family’s tragic loss, brother and sister duo Jeremy and Randy Stulberg teamed up to tell the story of a community divided on the opinions of homosexuality.
“It’s something that needs to be talked about,” Jeremy Stulberg said of the issues raised by “Broken Heart Land.”
Pent-up anger targeted toward Willliams is not a dialogue starter, at least not in the case of at least eight anonymous phone calls from different area codes he received after the film was released nationally.
“Most of the time, they won’t even let you talk — they’re mad,” Williams said. “To defuse that anger when they won’t even let you talk is nearly impossible. I just usually hang up when I realize they’re not going to listen.”
One woman engaged in a dialogue with him, but toward the end of the conversation, she screamed, “But I still hate you and hung up,” he said.
“I understood when I signed up for this that people might not like me or agree with me or might even hate me,” Williams said. “I’m not going to treat anyone else any different because of this, but it does hurt the dialogue.”