Monday, April 26, 2010

Bad Fences Make Bad Neighbors

Fences.

Poet Robert Frost, playwright August Wilson and novelist Mark Twain got literary mileage out of fences. Now instead of writing about a fence, Chris Trumbull has written ON a fence. He didn't create literature; he created graffiti.

Or it would be graffiti if he'd written on someone else's fence. Trumbull wrote on his own fence, so it's protected speech. Ugly, but protected.

On the outside of his fence, Trumbull, of Casper, Wyo., spray-painted "Leviticus 20:13, To be gay = death." I support free speech. But as a home beautification project, his sign bites.

"I put it up because society is not looking at the truth," Trumbull told the Casper Star-Tribune. "They're not my words, they're the Lord's."

Actually, that Leviticus passage reads, "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."

Trumbull shorthanded the passage. He edited God.

The Wyomingite said he's generally disappointed in society, and no specific event induced him to paint his sign.

"I'm not doing it to be spiteful. Gay people are bashing themselves," said Trumbull. "My fence seems like the proper setting [to express an opinion]."

Why stop with the fence? He could paint a message on his roof, warning planes and ducks not to be gay.

Trumbull's property sits on the route between Roosevelt High School and the Boys & Girls Club. Over 100 students walk by it every day, getting an education of sorts.

The city asked Trumbull to remove the sign, but he refused. More than that Casper cannot do, said the city code enforcement supervisor. Freedom of speech means Trumbull is free to be rude, obnoxious, holier-than-thou, incendiary and a thorn in the side of the Wyoming tourism department.

While Trumbull's fence raises questions about protected speech, a different issue stands out to me: What is it with Wyoming and fences?

The stories I read about the Trumbull case didn't mention Matthew Shepard, but he leaped to my mind anyway. Wyoming. A fence. Loathing of gays. If I hadn't made that connection, I'd worry that my synapses have walked off the job.

They have, Wyomingites might reply. Trumbull didn't kill anybody. He just made his fence into Martha Stewart's worst nightmare.

True. But Trumbull has undeniably contributed to a poisonous atmosphere for gays. In Wyoming. Using a fence.

Who can forget that ranch fence Shepard was tied to after being savagely beaten and left to die in 1998 on the outskirts of Laramie? It's no longer there, by the way.

Many wish Trumbull's sign was no longer there, perhaps hoping a modern-day Tom Sawyer would find a way to give it a good whitewashing.

According to Towleroad, something similar happened. A person or persons changed the words to "Religion = War." The message was then changed back, presumably by Trumbull. It's the Great Graffiti War.

Trumbull is obstinate and Casper's city officials say their hands are tied. So unless Trumbull's opposition plans to perform a drive-by editing every night, it's up to the community to handle this in a positive manner.

Marty Wood, safe schools coordinator for the Natrona County School District, said teachers could make something out of Trumbull's creation. "I'd use it as a big learning piece about free speech and constitutional rights," he said. "We live in a free country, so how do you handle disputes and differences of opinion?"

If the students learn that lesson, maybe a future Matthew Shepard will be avoided. Chris Trumbull will have accidentally paved the way to understanding. I hope he can live with the shame.