When she read the Miami Herald's June 27 Tropic magazine, the issue with anti-gay crusader Ralf Stores pictured on the cover, Carol Parker knew she had the makings of a good column. As a regular contributor since 1991 to the South Dade News Leader, a twice-weekly newspaper based in Homestead, Parker was always on the lookout for controversial people or events. "What I try to do each week is to touch people's hearts and make them think," Parker says.
In Stores she figured she'd found a winner. Here, after all, was a Homestead furniture salesman who was gaining quite a bit of attention for himself and his cause. As the Dade County coordinator for the American Family Association, Stores will be responsible during the next twelve months for gaining the signatures of 100,000 registered Dade voters to assist the statewide drive to place a proposal on the 1994 ballot that would prohibit the state, or any cities or counties, from passing laws that would defend the civil rights of homosexuals. It would also repeal any laws already on the books designed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in areas such as housing and employment.
Parker was specifically troubled by one thing Stores had told Tropic staff writer Mike Wilson. He was afraid his battle against homosexuals might get bloody, Stores had said, and he feared for the safety of his children. But, he quickly added, he would not bend to such possible threats. "I would rather have my children be burned in a fire knowing that their father stood up for Christ," Stores was quoted as saying, "than have them live a long life knowing their father denied the faith." The quotation was followed by Wilson's description of Stores as a "friendly, agreeable fellow, a guy next door."
Having pondered Stores's assertion, Parker says, her column flowed easily. "The mere thought of his being the guy next door greatly alarms me," she wrote in her July 13 piece for the News Leader. "I'd much rather live in a community of loving gay couples than next door to a guy who would watch his children burn to death for the sake of his convictions. Shades of Waco! Is there anything he wouldn't do to get what he wants? Why would anyone want to sign their name to a petition in the hands of such a dangerous person? Even if they did agree with it."
Parker noted that Stores and the American Family Association were planning to get all 430,000 signatures for their petition through churches and religious groups by August of next year. "I wonder how many Christians will sign it?" she wrote. "I wonder how many will be persuaded by scripture-spouting zealots who believe they know God's plan for everyone's lives (something that should be between each individual and God)." Christianity, she added, should be about love, not intolerance. She cited biblical verses to support this view.
"Out of respect for his freedom of speech and religion, I would be the last one to prohibit this friendly fellow from speaking his mind," Parker summed up. "But we need to be cautious of anyone who wields his freedoms as weapons to destroy the freedom of others. Even if he is using legitimate measures. Freedom is not free. It has been -- and always will be -- bought with the blood of those who cherish it. We must guard it zealously. If we stand aside and watch as groups of people begin to lose this precious freedom -- or worse yet, cause them to lose it -- surely it's only a matter of time before we lose our own."
Parker, who lives in Key Largo, was pleased with the column. After receiving it in the mail, the newspaper's editors didn't call with any questions or concerns. They made only a few slight changes. She didn't give it another thought until two weeks later. On July 29, she says, she received a frantic phone call from the News Leader's managing editor, Yolanda Ulrich. According to Parker, Ulrich told her that Ralf Stores was furious. "She told me he said he was going to sue over what I said in my column," Parker recalls. "She was so livid and so angry. She was speaking to me like I was some kind of naughty schoolgirl. She called me 'Missy.'"
Her first reaction to the legal threat, Parker says, was to laugh. But what followed was anything but humorous.
Stores, it seemed, had angrily pointed out that the proposed amendment was not anti-gay and would not legalize discrimination against homosexuals. The 53-year-old columnist says she told Ulrich that the complaints were ridiculous, that Stores was simply trying to bully a small newspaper. She offered to call Stores herself, Parker adds, and take full responsibility for what she had written, but Ulrich told her Stores only wanted to deal with the newspaper's attorneys.
The next issue of the South Dade News Leader contained no column by Carol Parker. Instead, Ulrich published a column of her own, headlined: "Fallout from 'lazy' style of journalism." In the piece, Ulrich did not mention Parker by name, but took her to task for not interviewing Stores before criticizing him, for not better acquainting herself with the amendment, and for not clearly stating in her column that she was only expressing her own opinions. It was wrong for Parker to assert that the proposed amendment would legalize discrimination against homosexuals, Ulrich wrote: "The columnist wrote that as fact. Stores took issue with the paragraph, stating nowhere in the amendment is the word homosexual mentioned. And he's quite correct."
When she read the managing editor's column, Parker was stunned. "I felt like she had taken me to the middle of Homestead in stocks," she says. "I was devastated. I cried for two days."
As time passed, though, she grew angry.
First, Parker says, the idea that she should have called Stores never occurred to her. As a columnist, she saw her role as that of commentator on events that already were in the news, in this instance an article in the Miami Herald. Further, as for the criticism that she neglected to identify her published views as "opinions," Parker points out that her column appears on the News Leader's opinion page, accompanied by her byline and photograph, with the word "OPINION" spelled out in large type at the top of the page. "It was obvious these were my opinions," Parker says in disbelief. "Whose else could they have been?"
It is disingenuous, and utterly ludicrous, Parker argues, for Ulrich not to recognize that the American Family Association's so-called Florida Civil Rights Clarification Amendment is aimed at gays and lesbians. Homosexual activist groups in the state certainly consider themselves to be targets of the group. And while Ralf Stores is often careful in choosing his words, he has never made any secret of the fact that his support of such legislation was spurred by what he sees as the dangerous growth of the gay-rights movement. The Tropic story outlined in detail Stores's views regarding homosexuality, which he sees as an abomination and an affront to God; the religious grounds for his beliefs also helped to explain why he is targeting church groups to gather signatures for the petition drive.
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Moreover, given Ulrich's reaction to Stores's criticism, Parker wonders why the editor didn't raise any questions about the column before publishing it. "She just crumbled and gave in to [Stores]," Parker says.
Reached by phone, Ulrich refused to discuss her treatment of Parker's column. Likewise, she would not comment about the tone of Stores's conversation with her or about Parker's claim that Stores had threatened to sue the News Leader if a retraction were not printed.
For his part, Ralf Stores acknowledges that he called the News Leader to complain, but he declines to say whether he threatened to sue the paper. "There were definitely some problems with the article," Stores says, without being specific. "I expressed my concerns in very certain terms. They looked at it and obviously concurred, and they took the appropriate action."
Although Parker submitted a column to rebut Ulrich's, the News Leader has so far refused to print it. Until they do, she has told the paper not to run any of the other columns she submitted prior to the controversy. Although she was only paid twenty dollars per article, Parker says, "I miss having the column. I feel so alone without it." And with more than a year to go before Stores's petition drive is complete, she wonders who else might fall victim to his method of persuasion. "I'm really scared," she says. "Actually, I'm terrified.