jerry dustinBy now, readers are probably familiar with the basic bones of this story. Two Wednesdays ago, Jerry Pittman, Jr., and his boyfriend Dustin Lee were on their way into a church service in Fruitland, Tennessee, when Jerry’s father, the church’s pastor, yelled, “Sic ’em!,” at which point two deacons and Jerry’s uncle began to shout homophobic slurs and attack them physically, in order to prevent them from coming in. The story has shocked people across the country and around the world, as it has gone viral this week, causing millions of people who had never heard of Fruitland to shake their heads, appalled that something like that could happen in the year 2011 in the United States.

Quite frankly, Jerry is surprised to be in this situation at all. Speaking to him by phone this morning, I learned that the couple had commonly attended church there, and had felt as welcome as was possible in this extremely conservative pocket of West Tennessee. The week before the assault, Jerry’s boyfriend even attended a service alone and was invited onto the stage by Jerry’s dad, Jerry Pittman, Sr., to sing. How did this happen?

Grace Fellowship Church isn’t pro-gay, by any means, but Jerry described a status quo where people simply agreed not to discuss matters like homosexuality. As long as it wasn’t “in anyone’s face,” a live and let live arrangement was in place. The senior Pittman preached against homosexuality from the pulpit, but mostly when his son wasn’t there. Jerry’s stepmother, however, is completely supportive of him, and of his boyfriend, and he believes that this is the primary reason they hadn’t faced much vocal opposition in the church. However, when his father and stepmother started divorce proceedings, the floodgates opened and the church no longer felt the need to stay silent about Jerry, Jr. and his boyfriend.

Even then, why the violence?

“The church acted as four people, instead of as a congregation,” Jerry said to me, describing the day of the attack. His father had actually been arrested earlier that day, for theft over $10,000, related to the divorce, but had somehow, perhaps as a gesture of good old boy justice, made it back to the church in time to order an attack on his son. Though Jerry called 911, when the police arrived, they refused to take a report from the boys, and even allowed the men to continue shouting anti-gay slurs at them. The police report filed starts with the words, “I called Jerry Pittman…” [speaking of the father and pastor, of course]. Jerry, Jr. and his boyfriend filed charges against the four men the next morning.

Then the fun really began. One of the men involved in the attack, Eugene McCoy, filed charges several days after the fact, claiming that it was Jerry, Jr. who had started it. Then, last Thursday, one of the other attackers, Jerry’s uncle Patrick Flatt, was allegedly stabbed in his garage by two men in masks. He somehow survived. A couple of days later, according to Jerry, Eugene McCoy packed up some of his possessions and moved, only to have his house burn down the next morning. Draw your own conclusions on these incidents, but the investigations are pending.

Everyone is due in court on November 22, and Jerry is unsettled. He mentioned that he and Dustin are having a hard time finding a lawyer to represent them in their case, because in Gibson County, Tennessee, and surrounding areas, “no one wants to take the ‘gay’ case.” Apparently representing assault victims is just a bridge too far for certain members of the Tennessee Bar when the victims are gay. [Because of the counter-charges filed, it’s a bit difficult for the District Attorney to represent both sides.] Jerry, Jr. lost his job because he’s missed too much work in the days after the attack, and he and Dustin don’t really feel safe at home.

Of course, it’s hard for a young gay couple to feel completely safe in rural West Tennessee in the first place. A news reporter from Jackson, Tennessee, in a “man on the street”-style report, asked someone what he would do if his son brought his boyfriend to church. The man’s answer wasn’t aired, because he said unequivocally that he would shoot them. Jerry did say, however, that they are receiving a lot of messages of support from people in the area, proving that not everyone in the South is hellbent on hating gay people.

For now, Jerry and his boyfriend will watch, wait and do what they have to do to get past this incident. As we have reached the tipping point in American public acceptance of gay people, we have had many hopeful moments for a future where all truly are treated equally in this society. Stories like these are stark reminders of the fact that, at least in some pockets, we still have a very, very long way to go.