The silence sounded delicious.
In early 2004, I was on the phone with then-state Sen. Bill Stephens, the Republican Senate majority leader who a week earlier announced at a press conference that he was introducing an amendment to Georgia’s constitution to protect “the sanctity of marriage” from same-sex couples and activist judges. It was our third or fourth conversation of the news cycle, and sensing where our interview was headed, Stephens had me on speaker phone in his Capitol office.
After polite greetings, I started with the question that Atlanta’s mainstream media was too polite to ask: “I’ve spoken to your ex-wife several times, and she’s not sure you’re the best person to be defending ‘the sanctity of marriage.’”
That’s when the deafening silence flowed across the telephone line, amplified by speaker phone. I savored the dead air for a few seconds, then tried to mute the vengeance from my voice as I asked Stephens whether it was true that his adultery with a staffer ended his 15-year marriage, and whether he annulled that marriage, wiping it out of existence and bastardizing the two children born of it.
Our telephone call ended abruptly, and a few minutes later our newsroom received a fax from Stephens’s lawyer threatening a lawsuit if we published the story. The article ran on the front page of that week’s now defunct Southern Voice, and Stephens was immediately replaced as the frontman of the family values initiative.
He said not another word about same-sex marriage that legislative session—not via press conference or speaker phone, nor when the Senate debated the bill he introduced. He didn’t start talking about same- sex marriage again until the 2006 Republican primary for Secretary of State, when he used his sponsorship of the amendment to pander to Georgia’s GOP base. It didn’t work. Stephens lost both the primary and a runoff, and has been out of politics ever since.
Stephens, along with many of Georgia’s anti-gay torchbearers from a decade ago, learned what they should have been taught in Sunday school: God don’t like ugly.
Republican state Sen. Mike Crotts, who replaced his philandering colleague as the lead sponsor of the marriage amendment, tried to parlay the anti-gay measure into a seat in Congress. He was humiliated, receiving just 11 percent of the primary vote in the final election of his inglorious career.
Speaker of the House Terry Coleman, who ordered a second vote on the marriage amendment after it was initially defeated in that chamber, cemented his epitaph as the Democrat who presided over the last days of a 140-year political dynasty.
The richest justice was bestowed upon the man who initially was the biggest beneficiary of the anti-gay amendment, Glenn Richardson, who became the first Republican Speaker of the House since Reconstruction. During House debate on the amendment, Richardson “apologized” to the women in the chamber for even discussing a topic as filthy and repulsive as gay and lesbian relationships.
I know it’s unfashionable to speak badly of mentally ill people who are fragile enough to attempt—yet too incompetent to succeed at—suicide, but it was impossible not to cheer as life knocked the snot out of a political bully like Richardson.
Just two years after his historic rise to Speaker, the holy defender of marriage was investigated for an affair with a lobbyist that he later confessed to; a year later, his wife divorced him; a year after that, Richardson was sprawled across his bathroom floor after a failed overdose attempt; within a month the Speaker of the House was ousted from political office for good, literally in tears.
Perhaps Richardson should have “apologized” to his wife, children and parents for being such an imperfect being. Or maybe he should have remained silent instead of slandering LGBT love.