"The next time we hear somebody say, you're not fit to serve [in the military] because you're gay or lesbian, what are we going to do?" shouted Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC) director Will Batts to the crowd gathered in the worship hall at First Congregational Church for Sunday's equality rally.
"Raise our voice!" yelled the crowd of about 250 gay rights advocates. They gathered in response to last week's destruction of a pro-gay billboard on Poplar Avenue at High Street. The billboard, one of five National Coming Out Day billboards paid for by donations to MGLCC, featured local gay former Marine Tim Smith and the words "I'm gay and I protected your freedom." The billboard was replaced last week.
Despite Sunday's heavy rain, nearly every chair inside the worship hall was filled. The rally was originally planned to be held outside the church.
"The act of tearing down [Smith]'s billboard was an act of hate," speaker Jennifer Warren told the crowd. Warren appeared on another Coming Out Day billboard featuring straight supporters of the gay community.
Smith was greeted with a standing ovation upon approaching the podium after Warren's speech. The son of conservative parents in a small Mississippi town, Smith joined the Marines in 2001. He said it was the Marine code of "honor, courage, and commitment" that helped him find his voice and become honest with himself and others about his sexuality.
Smith came out to his friends and his church. When a military chaplain found out, Smith told the man he believed God loved him despite his sexuality.
"The chaplain had nothing else left to do but follow the rules," Smith said. He was discharged from the military under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.
Regarding the destruction of the billboard bearing his image, Smith says the vandals actually galvinized his commitment.
"They will not rob me of my honor by making me run and hide," Smith said. "If anything, they've galvinized my commitment to this community."
After the rally, county commissioner Steve Mulroy agreed: "My message to the billboard vandals is thank you for galvinizing the community and symbolizing what we're up against in Memphis."