Months before two South Carolina federal judges wrote historic decisions last year decreeing that South Carolina must recognize gay marriages and allow gays to get married, folks in the small Pee Dee town of Latta had already taken their own stand on gay rights and gay marriage.
Faced with a choice of whether to keep a powerful mayor who fired a police chief, apparently because she was involved in a romantic relationship with another woman, citizens flocked to the polls and stripped the mayor of his powers. Town Council then hired Chief Crystal Moore back.
Tonight, this unlikely saga of a gay S.C. police chief beloved by her conservative rural town will be highlighted in a documentary and panel discussion on gay rights at the Nickelodeon theater on Main Street in downtown Columbia.
“I didn’t know you could fire somebody because they are gay,” said Moore, 43, widely called Miss Crystal. “All I wanted was to be treated equally. I worked here 23 years and never had a problem until the mayor arrived.”
Featured in the movie is a reference to a 2014 tape recording secretly made of Mayor Earl Bullard, in which he explains to a town council member why he wants to fire Moore.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” the mayor says. “I’d much rather have somebody who drank, and drank too much, taking care of my child that I would to have somebody whose lifestyle is questionable around children. Because that ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. ... I’m not going to let two women stand up there and hold hands and let my child be aware of it.”
In an interview last week, Bullard, 62, told The State newspaper that tape doesn’t tell the full story. He is not prejudiced, he said, and has been “crucified” by the many media that have reported on the issue.
“Everything they said about me being against gay individuals – nothing could be further from the truth,” Bullard said. “As long as they do the job the way they’re supposed to, I don’t care what they do. I have homosexuals in my family. Do I hate them? No. Do I hate their lifestyle? Yes.”
He said he fired Moore because she didn’t communicate with him. “She forgot she had a boss – plain and simple,” he said. “She didn’t like me calling in the morning to find out what the day was like.”
A PERSONAL TOUCH
Latta is a sneeze-and-you-miss-it Dillon County town of 1,400, set amid flat soybean and peanut fields. Six miles from I-95, it has four stop lights and a railroad running through it.
Moore was born here, went to public schools here and was a catcher on the high school softball team. As a high school student, she helped out at the police department, answering the phone, doing dispatch and working with youth.
“I knew my passion was in law enforcement,” she said. “It was something where you could help others. ... I started watching police shows, and I loved Cagney and Lacey. ” Her father, an Army Vietnam veteran, had imbued her with ideals of honor and duty, and policing as a career embodied that.
After high school, the then-Latta police chief hired Moore as a dispatcher. She did that for three years, then got hired as a full-time officer and graduated from the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.
Moore worked nine years as a police school resource officer in Latta’s elementary, middle and high schools. It would turn out to be a crucial post.
“You go to sports events, graduations, you get to meet not just kids’ families, but their extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles. I got to meet so many wonderful people,” she said.
Over the years, Moore worked her way up to sergeant, lieutenant and assistant chief. Along the way, she became known for having a personal touch – checking on shut-ins, visiting the disabled and going out in storms to help people. Finally, in 2012 when the former chief retired, Moore was named to the job.
Latta has the same drug, petty theft and some gang issues that plague most every place. Moore said she and her nine officers, as well as two part-timers, keep a handle on things.
The town is on a major route to the beach, and the police catch their share of speeders taking a short cut. “Every patrol car has radar,” Moore said.
Her watchword for her officers: “If you go into a situation with a hot head and an attitude, you are going to get that back. My theory is, treat people you deal with like you would want one of your family to be treated.”
In January 2014, Bullard was sworn in as mayor. The trouble began.
He began calling her early in the morning, making demands, Moore said.
“He’d say, hey, what you got going on today? I’d say, ‘Mayor, I can’t tell you because different things happen at different times.’ If something was going on, we would tell him.”
The mayor got angry at what he called her interference with his hiring a new town recreation director, Vontray Sellers. The chief had learned that Sellers was driving without a driver’s license. It had been taken away because of a pending DUI charge.
Moore wondered whether Sellers should work there.
That made Bullard angry, Moore said. He hired Sellers anyway and began to criticize her. She called SLED, asking what she could do about harassment. SLED told her Bullard was a strong mayor. In the town’s strong mayor form of government, the mayor hires and fires all employees.
It became widely known that Bullard was trying to get rid of Moore.
Council members, all of whom supported Moore, were powerless because Bullard was effectively in charge of the town government, said council member Jarett Taylor in an interview.
Taylor, 35, said he and everybody knew Moore is a lesbian, but they also knew she was liked, respected and dedicated.
“She handles a lot of issues before they become issues,” Taylor said. “She’s been here longer than just about anybody and probably knows more about the town than the whole council together. I was raised as Christian. Who am I to judge?”
Taylor and the others began to secretly tape Bullard. In early April 2014, shortly before Bullard fired Moore, Taylor taped the mayor saying he didn’t like lesbians.
Taylor told Moore, and they decided to keep the tape quiet for the time being. Moore said she had never flaunted her sexual orientation but didn’t hide it either. She had “come out” in college, married her partner in a commitment ceremony in 2011, and everyone in town knew, she said. But “My family life is my family life. I don’t bring it to work with me. Nobody treated me any different until Mayor Bullard came to town.”
On April 15, 2014, the mayor called Moore into his office and handed her papers saying she was being reprimanded on seven disciplinary charges. In 23 years on the job, they were her first reprimands.
“I said, ‘I can’t believe this, mayor. This is bogus,’” Moore said. He told her to sign them. She asked for time to call her attorney. He said no. She refused to sign. “He said, ‘Well, you’re fired. Turn in your keys, your badge and your gun. You’re no longer needed.’”
She went back to the office and packed, weeping. Word spread through the town that Moore had been fired.
“When I walked out of the door, I stopped in amazement. There were people of all ages and races standing there, cheering for me. They were crying, telling me, ‘Chief, we’re with you, 100 percent.’ People who I had locked up were out there.”
It took hours for her to make her way though the crowd of hundreds.
In the days that followed, she found people were rallying to her.
They were people like Taylor or like Buffy Moore (no relation to the chief), 33, a local waitress, who said, “I can’t think of a person in town who doesn’t support Crystal.”
Reporters from across South Carolina and as far away as Boston and California came to interview her. Their stories appeared nationwide. Jon Stewart played the tape of the mayor on “The Daily Show.” Hundreds of people were moved. They sent thousands of dollars to help her and her spouse.
The money came in handy. Bullard had not given her severance pay and he would not approve unemployment compensation, she said. Moore hired an employment rights lawyer, Malissa Burnette of Columbia, and the legal bills were over $20,000.
TELLING HER STORY
In a grievance hearing at City Hall that was open to the public, Burnette fought the reprimand charges and argued the mayor had no evidence to support his reprimands.
It was the first time Moore had told her complete story in public.
But the mayor wouldn’t hire her back.
Moore, town council members and her supporters realized the only way for her to get her job back was to change the town’s form of government from strong mayor to strong council. They set a referendum for June 24, 2014.
In the 10 weeks between her firing and the referendum, Moore and others went from house to house in Latta, explaining the referendum. “When people weren’t home, I left notes. ‘Please help me get back in my office. I’ve done nothing wrong.’”
Throngs turned out on election day.
“People came on walkers, lugging oxygen tanks, in wheelchairs – one woman came who had never voted before. They were young and old, white, African-Americans, Hispanic,” Moore said.
Residents voted 328-147 for change. Several days later, as soon as the votes were certified, Town Council voted 6-0 to rehire Moore. Bullard didn’t attend the meeting. She was sworn in before a standing-room-only crowd.
Moore’s case underscores the lack of protection against unjust firings of gay people, Burnette said. “The mayor was completely within his legal rights to fire her. It’s just that the townspeople rose up.”
Earlier this year, state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, introduced a bill that would ban workplace discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The bill reflects the values most South Carolinians already hold,” Smith said. “What happened in Latta shows that.”
Latta Town Council has adopted a policy banning discrimination for sexual orientation. It is among a handful of towns and counties in South Carolina that have such ordinances.
Some people have put Mayor Bullard’s tape on their cellphones and made ring tones out of it. They played it last week for a reporter at City Hall, then howled with laughter.
Bullard said he has been treated unfairly and complained that the council even voted to take away his office. With 21/2 years left in his term, he no longer has an official place to work.
“Last time I looked, the American flag was still flying and I still had the right to say my personal opinion,” he said. “In the media today, if you say something against someone who’s homosexual, they’ll nail your butt to the barn door.”
Bullard said if he would do anything differently, he would have written up Moore’s seven reprimands one day at a time. “Then, at the end of seven days, I would have fired her.”
Moore has found comfort not just in the support of Latta citizens, but from people all over the nation who sent her money for her legal bills. She still owes Burnette about $4,000, she said.
“God has had a plan,” Moore said. “And it’s got to be for me to help people understand I was human. This is not a lifestyle. It’s just who I am.
“I’m just a true Southern girl, trying to make a living, and who I love shouldn’t matter.”
IF YOU GO
A documentary that features Latta Police Chief Crystal Moore’s struggle will air Monday night in Columbia as part of a Southern movie tour. Her story is featured along with those of others who have faced adversity because of their sexual identification or orientation.
Where: At the Nickelodeon theater, 1607 Main St.
When: 5:30 p.m.
What: Open to the public, but the theater is small, with 120 seats, and a capacity crowd is expected.
Sponsors: S.C. Equality and GLAAD, a top national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) media advocacy organization
Note: A panel discussion will follow with GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis; cast members Blair Durkee, Anthony Beckett, Jim Prater and Malissa Burnette; and country music artist Ty Herndon, who is scheduled to perform afterward.