Jan. 16, 2013 09:34 PM
South Louisiana is by no means known for spreading the love to the LGBT community, but could Lafayette be a diamond in the rough? As news of the story of an attack on two gay men at the Grand 16 spread like wildfire, initial headlines largely focused on the fact that Lafayette Police did not charge the alleged perp, Joseph Menard Jr., with a hate crime. Instead Menard was booked on two counts of simple battery, despite that his actions followed comments consistent with someone who has a deep-seeded dislike for gays.

While the men on the business end of Menard's alleged bigotry don't agree with the PD's inaction and hope the charge is upgraded, they say Lafayette is a mostly tolerant community.

Twenty-three-year-old Walt Jamison, one of the two openly gay men targeted and allegedly attacked by Menard during the Sunday
 Walt Jamison
matinee, says he and his friends are overwhelmed by the flood of support coming their way on social media by perfect strangers. Mainly perfectly straight strangers - some people Menard now admits he might have previously judged as being intolerant of a sexual orientation different than his or her own.

"I feel uplifted by the volume of people, from all age groups, walks of life and backgrounds, who have positively commented and supported me and my friends and expressed their solidarity for our right to see a movie without being verbally or physically harassed," Jamison tells The IND during an interview Tuesday at Pamplona downtown. "It really just goes to show you can't judge a book by its cover, and just based on how someone looks, you can't say how they would support a cause one way or the other. I think the response we've received shows Lafayette is growing in leaps and bounds, and I really don't think this is an occurrence that will be repeated for a very long time, if ever."

Colin Miller, a gay Lafayette man who worked three years as a civil rights lobbyist for the nonprofit Forum For Equality, says for the most part, Lafayette is different from most Southern cities, where views of homosexuality are dictated by entrenched conservative world views.

"I like to think of this incident as an anomaly, but at the same time it doesn't surprise me," Miller says, pointing to a 2004 vote in which the majority of the city's residents came out against same-sex civil unions and marriages. "That doesn't necessarily spell tolerance to me, but it also doesn't necessarily mean the people here feel antagonistic toward gays and lesbians. What it means is there's more work to be done to educate the public here on how to understand people who are different."

Lafayette may be well on its way to becoming the next Southern city best able to attract people who want to be employed by creative industries. Miller points to Sunday's incident as a testament to the need to continue pushing for more tolerance among residents, adding the perception of Southern intolerance still persists in other parts of the country.

"Lafayette has worked a long time to market itself as the next creative mecca in the U.S., and there is some potential for that, but the problem is people often forget that tolerance of gays, lesbians, different religions and races is a large part of growing that creative class," says Miller. "If you're trying to attract these types of people and they see these kinds of things in the news, well, it doesn't really help make our case, and it doesn't make tolerant, fair-minded people want to move here.

"But I would be hesitant to accuse the police of a lack of action or concern because of our sexuality. They were very respectful and took the matter very seriously. Basically, I think they just erred on the side of caution, because a hate crime is a very serious crime."

For the most part, Sunday's attack represents an isolated incident, according to Lafayette Police spokesman Cpl. Paul Mouton. Yet Miller says that doesn't mean intolerance for gays and lesbians is largely nonexistent here, just that more often than not it doesn't result in an arrest.

"I used to be a civil rights lobbyist, and so many times people would tell me their personal stories, so I do know about young gays and lesbians, mostly in high school and middle school, being bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation," Miller says. "But every now and then you have a case that becomes a real turning point. My hope is that when people see this story in the news, that it causes them, no matter where they are on the tolerance spectrum, to ask themselves how it makes them feel. Hopefully it will make some people take a second look at where they stand on these types of issues, and I hope it spurs a real public conversation on where we stand as a community in regards to tolerance."