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Facebook, Clint McCance and a teaching moment about hate

But was anything learned during Midland's opportunity? No.

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The way former Midland School Board vice president Clint McCance filled that intoxicating little window at the top of his Facebook page — the one that urges users to reveal What's On Your Mind? — is pretty much indefensible, except maybe by the flintiest of homophobes and religious zealots.

For those who never read what McCance wrote but despised him for what they heard he said, or never read it and defended him as a warrior of Christ anyway (and there were plenty of both), his comments appear below, taken from the screenshot captured in October by his Facebook friend and fellow Midland High School alum Anthony Turner. Turner eventually forwarded those screenshots to gay and lesbian advocacy groups and the media. They were later broadcast around the world.

McCance, apparently upset that some had suggested people wear purple to honor 11 gay kids from all across the nation who committed suicide in September of that year after being bullied at school, originally posted: "Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers committed suicide. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I cant believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin. REALLY PEOPLE."

Later, after a Facebook friend chided him for saying what he did, McCance came back with: "No because being a fag doesnt give you the right to ruin the rest of our lives. If you get easily offended by being called a fag then dont tell anyone you are a fag. Keep that shit to yourself. I dont care how people decide to live their lives. They dont bother me if they keep it to thereselves. It pisses me off though that we make a special purple fag day for them. I like that fags cant procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. If you arent against it, you might as well be for it."

Later still, after the same poster berated McCance, asking him what he would think if someone talked about one of his children that way, McCance posted this: "I would disown my kids if they were gay. They will not be welcome at my home or in my vicinity. I will absolutely run them off. Of course my kids will know better. My kids will have solid christian beliefs. See it infects everyone."

Given the circumstances — such a hateful statement, from a school official, said in response to an effort to honor young men who were literally bullied to death by peers spouting just that kind of speech — it's easy to see why the smelly breeze of Clint McCance's comments soon blew itself into a hurricane. Within a few days, a comment that might have been ignored only a few years before had focused the bright light of worldwide attention down on McCance and his town. This included an Oct. 26 story on the website of the gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate that drew so much traffic it reportedly shut their servers down, and a day-long picket in Pleasant Plains, where Midland School District is located. Though he remained frustratingly silent in the early days of the controversy, McCance eventually made an apology of sorts on CNN, and formally resigned on Halloween, with his resignation accepted by the school board the next day.

The scars of that kind of business tend to linger, though, both in the hearts of those who felt old wounds opened by McCance's venom, and those who feel like outsiders came to Pleasant Plains to force their un-Christian values on the town. While many of the protestors there that day see the whole incident as an enlightening moment, maybe even a kind of turning point, nearly everyone from Pleasant Plains we talked to — from school administrators to townsfolk to preachers to students — say that it has little to teach, little to say about the town, and is best forgotten.

It was fairly warm in Little Rock on the morning of Oct. 28, 2010; brisk, but comfortable. By the time the line of protestors' cars had snaked its way 80 miles north from the capital city to the town of Pleasant Plains, however, they had driven into the first breath of winter; a stiff wind that turned the bright, blue-sky morning into a deep freeze. Turned away by police from the front of Midland High School, where they said they had been told they could stand, the 35 to 40 protesters were instead directed to the edge of grassy ditch along Highway 167 at the rear of the school grounds, behind the ball fields and dugouts. There, with the big trucks growling past, the protesters stood in a long line, almost none of them dressed for the weather, and shivered in silence. Some held signs that bore the names of the 11 boys who had killed themselves. Others held signs that said All Kids Matter, or one word in bold black: RESIGN. Fifty feet away, a cluster of Arkansas state troopers and local law enforcement lingered in the sun beside their cruisers.

Edie Love was one of the protestors that day. A graduate of Midland, she was a student there from 1985 to 1990. She had brought her yearbook that day to prove it, showing a younger version of herself in a cheerleader's uniform and thick curls. Love came out of the closet a few years back. The morning of the protest, she had driven from Memphis, where she lives with her partner and four children, to be there.

"This is my school," Love said. "I was one of these kids who he wants to see die ... You can't say things like that to children. He's in a position of influence. It's not right."

While Love didn't know she was gay when she was a student at Midland High, she said McCance's post would have been a crushing blow to any student who might be struggling with his or her sexuality.

"He has a right to his opinion," Love said. "But that right stops when it gets to the point of harming children. The things that he said, as a member of a school board, in a position of influence, are a danger to any child that could be struggling with their orientation."

Just down the line stood Rita Jernigan. A retired math teacher who served in the Little Rock School District for 25 years, Jernigan was there with her partner, Pam Hendrick. "It's hard enough growing up without people spewing hate and anger," Jernigan said. "I find it very ironic that he calls himself a Christian when Jesus' teachings were about compassion and love."

"When Mr. McCance put his comments on Facebook, he made it a worldwide matter," Hendrick said. "Maybe he isn't intelligent enough to know that what he did can influence many people."

Randi Romo is the director of the Center for Artistic Revolution, the Little Rock gay and lesbian advocacy group that organized the protest, which she called a "vigil." Short and solid, tough as a 16-penny nail — a Texas native who grew up gay in a small town a lot like Pleasant Plains — Romo is a veteran of protests for gay and lesbian rights in Arkansas. Asked what she thought about the reaction of the town, where some began claiming almost immediately that the protesters were trying to foist an un-Christian homosexual agenda on them, Romo said it was fairly predictable. "I've heard a lot of people saying we are trying to cram a gay agenda down their throats," Romo said. "Yes, I have a gay agenda: I don't want you to encourage our kids to kill themselves, and I don't want you to kill me. You think I'm trying to cram that down your throat? By all means: I'm cramming that down your throat."

A counter-protest of around 15 local residents assembled up the hill soon after the protesters arrived, one group showing up in a big four wheel drive pickup that flew the Christian and American flags from its bed. The television cameras in attendance soon drew themselves around Matt Martin, a 2007 Midland graduate who became the group's de facto media spokesperson solely because — as often happens — he was the loudest. Wearing a homemade "Pro Bible" T-shirt, Martin told the assembled reporters that the people of Pleasant Plains were "good ol' redneck country folks," and made it clear that he believed things had been blown out of proportion.

"Around here, we believe in what the Bible says, and the Bible says that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that's what we believe and that's the way it's going to stay, and that's the end of the story," Martin told reporters. "Right now it would be nice if they'd just go on back to the city and leave us alone, and if everything would be deleted off of Facebook and Google or whatever it's on. Just wipe it out and drop it. It's that simple."

Martin said that all the coverage might have given people the impression that the town is "full of homosexuals." "No, it's not," he said. "It's not at all. We don't need the gay rights people to come in and support our homosexuals, because there is none. If there is, they're in the closet."

Lajeana Franklin was one of those standing with the counter-protest, and is the parent of children who attend Midland Schools. She said she was there because the protest had disrupted the school and the community. "They have a list of demands that they want," Franklin said. "How's that different from bullying? I have the God-given right as a Christian to teach my kids the way I want them to be raised at home. I can protect them from the Internet, but I cannot protect them from protesters outside their school ... Their kids don't go to school here. They don't live in this community and they don't know us."

Because she said she didn't want to "put myself out there to be slandered," Franklin wouldn't comment directly on what McCance said on Facebook, but did say that everyone makes mistakes. "I think it's his God-given right in a private forum to speak his mind. Maybe he said way too much, and maybe he didn't literally mean what he said. But he was trying to be forced to do something he didn't agree with and we would all be defensive," Franklin said.

Standing nearby, Katie Pate called herself a "concerned, aggravated parent." The mother of children who attend the school, Pate said she was there for the kids. While Pate called what McCance said "extreme," she added that the situation wasn't handled right. If someone had a problem with the things McCance posted on Facebook, Pate said, they should have taken it up with McCance, or the school board — not spread it all over the Internet.

"I was friends with Clint on Facebook," Pate said. "I saw what he wrote. Had I had a gay kid, I would not have taken it to the media. I would have confronted Clint. If Clint kept backing up what he said, then I would have gone to the school board and I would have said, 'You might want to look into this member. This isn't right what he said' ... They should have dealt with it between the school board and him, not the whole nation."

As I was talking to another protestor, Donna Puentez drove up, got out with her Bible, and literally yelled her opinions at my back until I turned and acknowledged her. Raised just outside of Chicago, Puentez moved to Pleasant Plains a few years back with her husband and adopted children, and said it's a wonderful place to live, where kids routinely pray after basketball games. Her daughter is the only black child enrolled at the school, she said, and has never been bullied or picked on.

"Not one child has ever — or parent, or anyone — has ever looked bad at my daughter," she said. "And she's not mixed. She is completely black. She's black! And I adore her. They take good care of my daughter."

Puentez said she hadn't read McCance's comments, but understands from what she's heard that he made them in the midst of a heated discussion. She said she was there because, "I don't want the homosexual agenda pushed down the throats of my children." Political correctness, Puentez said, is killing our nation.

After the reporter told her some of the things McCance said in his Facebook post, Puentez said he was "wrong," but added that she stands with him against homosexuality as an affront to God. She said the people in the counter protest weren't there because they want to see gays hurt. "I know there's not a one of them here because they want all homosexuals to be beat up and killed, I know that. It's that they're standing against what's coming. No one is here because they're 100 percent for what (McCance) said." She then held up her Bible. "They're here because they're for what He said."

Meanwhile, in his office at the school, Superintendent Dean Stanley looked like he hadn't slept in a week. He sipped from a glass, periodically crunching ice, and spoke in a soft, drowsy monotone. Stanley had been out of state on school business when the story broke, but had been dealing with it for several days by then. His e-mail inbox was crammed with over 15,000 angry notes from all over the world. The phone in the front office, he said, had rung non-stop for three days. The protestors by the highway had vowed to come back to the school every day until McCance resigned.

"I was surprised how quickly it snowballed to what it did," Stanley said. "But because of the organizations — the strong political base — that got hold of (the story), probably not so much." Stanley said he had talked to McCance several times by then, and was concerned about his well-being. He said McCance had expressed remorse, but wouldn't elaborate.

While the law didn't give the school board the option to fire an elected official, Stanley said most of the e-mails he had received called just for that. McCance was his own man and would have to decide for himself what to do, Stanley said, but added that he didn't see a way out of the controversy without McCance bowing out. "I would have a hard way to see it," Stanley said. "I don't see an easy way out. I think that would be the easiest way out. I don't think it's going to go away without resignation, but I don't know that's the case."

Down the street from the school at the Pleasant Plains Flea Market, town resident Shaney Pankey said McCance needed to resign. The mother of a son who is a senior at the high school, Pankey said that while she likes McCance personally, he took a "wrong turn" with his comments. "I think everyone is entitled to their opinion," Pankey said, "but I think that with him being on the school board, he ought to know better. That was very ugly the way he said it, and I think he should have thought about what he was doing, especially since he was on the school board." Seated nearby among the knick-knacks, Pankey's neighbor Leona Siler said: "Some people say that the Bible says (homosexuality) is an abomination, but still yet it also says that we're not to judge."

"It's just a mess," Pankey said.

The night after the protesters packed up their signs for the day and left Pleasant Plains, McCance found the way out on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 program. By then, no less than U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had weighed in on the controversy, telling CNN that McCance had "no business being an education leader," before adding: "To have an elected educational official spouting off that kind of hatred is absolutely unimaginable to me."

Wearing a sweater and the slightly shell-shocked expression of a late-round boxer, McCance told Cooper that he had received hate mail and death threats from around the world — so many that he had decided to send his wife and two children out of state for their own safety. Eventually, McCance announced his intention to resign from the school board. He had made "ignorant comments," and used "strong language," he said, but didn't mean for his words to advocate bullying or teen suicide.

When Cooper pressed him on whether his mind had been changed about the issue of homosexuality, McCance said: "My core beliefs don't change as far as what I read in the Bible." As to whether he'd use words like "fag" and "queer" in the future, McCance said: "That's in the future. I would hope not." When Cooper asked if he would, in fact, run his children off if they turned out to be gay, McCance said: "I don't know what I'd do yet. Time will tell."

Even as he announced his resignation, McCance left the door open for a return to the Midland School Board. "I don't want [the town] to receive bad press or have a distraction because of some ignorant comments that I made. If they decide later, a year, five years, 10 years from now to vote me back in, if my constituents want that, then I'll run again."

Though he initially seemed receptive to the idea, Clint McCance eventually turned down our request for an interview for this story, after we had submitted questions to him in writing and agreed to print his answers in a question-and-answer format to prevent them from being taken out of context.

In a series of phone calls while discussing the possibility of an interview, McCance said that his words had often been taken out of context by reporters, and he didn't want to get things started again. "You've got to understand where I'm coming from," McCance told Arkansas Times. "Sure, I'd love to get my statement out there, but I don't want to flare this all up again if I don't have to. From the looks of things, I looked at you guys online, and it looked like there was a lot of, kind of, pro-homosexual stuff on there." McCance said the experience made him "pretty worldly in just a few days."

"I made some outlandish, heated statements. You'll never hear me say I agree with what I said 100 percent. I just won't. I was mad, and I popped off, and there you go," he said. "I apparently didn't understand the privacy laws on Facebook well enough, but it doesn't matter. I shouldn't have said it that way. It happened. I dealt with it."

The funny thing about time is that it can turn love or anger or fear or even hate into a lens, one that allows us all to see better through it.

Four months since the Midland School board officially accepted McCance's resignation, the district has largely gone back to normal, said Superintendent Dean Stanley. "We've gone on with life and we're clicking along here," Stanley said. Asked if there had been any change in the student body over the controversy, Stanley said he didn't think so. "It turned into a media circus, and unfortunately it had an effect on our educational process," he said. We asked Stanley if he would ask members of the Midland High School student body if they'd be willing to chat with Arkansas Times about the controversy, but he refused to even mention it to students, saying, "as far as we're concerned, it's a dead issue" and there was no benefit in rehashing the story.

Reached through Facebook, "T" is a student at Midland High School who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity. T said that during the media attention and protests, school went on as normal — though students did talk about it, with some signing out to join the counter-protest, and others hearing that the annual Fall Festival had been cancelled at the elementary school because protesters went to that campus (which doesn't seem to be the case as far as we've been able to ascertain).

T said there are gay students at Midland High School, but they are not treated differently by their classmates "They have their group and we have ours," T said. "It's not our way of lifestyle, but we don't really care what they choose to do."

While classes went on mostly as normal, T said that having protestors outside made it "kind of scary, because we had no idea what they were fixing to do." Some students at the school worried that the media attention might cause the gay students there to disrupt classes, or tell the visiting media they had been discriminated against. "People thought that the ones that were that way [gay or lesbian] would just start acting like they could do whatever they wanted to just because we had the news people and everybody else coming up there, and they'd say that any little thing that would happen was discrimination or whatever." As for McCance's resignation, T doesn't agree with what he said, but adds that he shouldn't have been forced to leave the board. "That really is what ended it all, so I guess it was the best thing to do. But I don't think he should have had to."

While the controversy was a big topic of conversation among students back during the fall, they don't talk much about it anymore, and administrators and teachers never bring the subject up ("We made gay jokes before, and we still make them," T said). If McCance runs for school board again in a few years, he has T's vote. "He was a good school board member," T said, and added that it doesn't matter whether his re-election brings protesters back to Pleasant Plains. "They can just shove it. I don't care."

Midland School Board president Bryson Wood said that he has talked with McCance a few times since he resigned, and still considers him a friend. Though some questioned the apology on CNN, Wood said McCance is truly remorseful. That doesn't mean that McCance's beliefs on homosexuality have changed, but Wood insists McCance isn't the hatemonger many tried to paint him as. "I think Clint is vehemently opposed to homosexuality, as many of us are — myself included," Wood said. "He believes it's not something that's morally or should be socially acceptable."

The primary thing McCance and people in Pleasant Plains learned from the controversy, Wood said, was that you have to choose your words carefully when using social media like Facebook. "That's not necessarily the place to be putting some of your personal feelings out there," Wood said. "I think Mr. McCance learned that for sure and everybody else who has observed that has as well."

Pleasant Plains, Wood said, is not a hotspot for "gay haters," but it is like a lot of small, Southern communities when it comes to the question of homosexuality, in that the vast majority of people in the community call it sin. "The homosexual agenda has been to try to slowly evolve into creating homosexuality as a choice and a lifestyle," Wood said. "And nobody wants to call it what it truly is, which is a sin against God."

When asked what he would say to his friend if McCance decides to run for school board again in a few years, Wood said that decision would be up to the voters, but added that he would encourage McCance to "really consider the consequences" and his motivations for running. "If he decided in his own mind and heart that his reason was to contribute his knowledge and experience to making the school district a better place to get an education, that would be his decision," Wood said. "I would just want him to make sure his intentions are in the right place."

Down the street from the high school, inside the dim, one-room feed store he runs near the four-way stop in the middle of town, Mike Vaughn lit a thin cigar and said that outsiders can't change a town like Pleasant Plains. Vaughn said his father was the chief of police in a small town down in Louisiana "during the '60s when we had all the integration shit," so he's used to protesters and reporters asking questions. While he's not for homosexuality, he said everyone has their own opinion and their own rights. That includes the right of the residents of Pleasant Plains to make their own decisions.

"If you'll notice, you don't see nobody from Pleasant Plains going down to Little Rock telling them damn folks how to live," he said. "I'm afraid that you will find that most everybody around here has my opinion: that ya'll need to go back to Little Rock and let this thing die a natural death."

Just outside of town at Flippo Chapel Baptist Church, we caught fifth-generation pastor Joe Helms, who happened to be there on a Friday because he was moving so the parsonage could be remodeled. Helms said that some members of the school administration attend church there, and were "heartbroken" by the controversy.

"We're not a bunch of hatemongers," Helms said. "We love people, even those who don't believe the things we believe and stand for. We realize that all people commit sin." He said he didn't believe the town had been changed by the protests, or that the belief that homosexuality is sin can be changed by outside influence. Helms said that he had heard that the threats directed at McCance were "a whole lot worse" than what the school board member originally said on Facebook. "With the people who were protesting against Clint, there was hate," Helms said. "Everybody is saying, be tolerant, but it's a one-sided tolerance," Helms added. "Everybody wants to pick and choose the subjects, and if you don't agree, you're intolerant."

Though Anthony Turner originally didn't want to comment for this story due to concern for family members who still live in Arkansas, he eventually provided Arkansas Times with a written statement. The Clint McCance situation helped by raising awareness, Turner said, and by letting gay kids all over the country know that there are those willing to stand up for their rights. "Beyond that," Turner wrote, "this was a single step on the long, hard path to equality and acceptance for all human beings. The people of my home town, our state, and our country are fundamentally good at heart ... We are all human beings. We all have the same dreams, the same joys, and the same fears. We all deserve to live free from hate and prejudice."

For her part, Randi Romo doesn't buy McCance's apology. "I just don't think he really ever addressed the hate and the ugliness of what he said. He was calling for people to die. I felt like he skirted the issue and was trying to get out of it with his skin intact. The fact that he would say: 'Well, in five years, maybe they'll re-elect me.' Really?"

Romo said that she doesn't think the controversy will change the heart of anyone in Pleasant Plains when it comes to homosexuality, but she does think it will make folks there choose their words more carefully in public, and that's a start. Even though she's an old hand on the picket line, Romo admits these months later that she was worried about what might happen at Midland. She was glad, she said, to see the line of state troopers there.

"It was with a great deal of trepidation that we went there," she said. "I wasn't going to put fear in my folks, but inside, I was scared to death of what could happen to us. But you've got to hold the line, you've got to stand up, and you have to move forward."

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