Latta Police Chief Crystal Moore has never had a flair for the dramatic. In April 2014 interviews after the mayor of Latta fired Moore, the South Carolina town's first openly lesbian police chief often told the story of her ordeal in the bland, even-keeled style of an incident report.
Much has changed in Moore's life since then. She reclaimed her job in June 2014 after the town voted in a referendum to restructure its government, allowing Town Council to override the mayor's decision. She married her longtime partner in December 2014 after a federal court decision forced South Carolina to begin recognizing same-sex marriages. And in the year since Moore's firing pushed her into the national spotlight, she has taken on a new role as an advocate and public speaker for LGBT rights.
"It's kind of like I've been adopted as the poster child," Moore says. Recently, Moore testified at the Statehouse in favor of a bill that would protect gay, lesbian, and transgender South Carolinians against employment discrimination. With the General Assembly set to end its session on June 4, the bill is unlikely to pass this year, but Moore says she has high hopes for 2016. She's seen reason for hope in her own hometown.
"You know, the day of the referendum, it was thundering and lightning. I still had people with oxygen bottles rolling in and still going to vote, and that spoke volumes," Moore says. "A Baptist preacher said a prayer over a vigil the night that I was fired. It was overwhelming ... I'm overwhelmed with gratitude to the people."
Maybe next year
Moore traveled to Columbia with the S.C. Equality Coalition last Thursday to testify before the House Judicial Constitutional Laws Subcommittee about H. 3949, a bill that would ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
"I let them know that I was a normal person going to work. I'd been there 23 years, never had any reprimands, looking forward to work," Moore says.
Like 19 other states, South Carolina does not have a law barring employers from firing employees based on their sexual orientation. Jeff Ayers, interim executive director of S.C. Equality, says Moore's testimony commanded the attention of the five-member subcommittee, even though the meeting had been postponed by hours of debate on the House floor about a bill to ban sharia law. Moore came with letters of support from the Town Council members who passed Latta's own LGBT anti-discrimination law in November, making Latta the smallest municipality in the state to create such a law.
"If a small, rural community like Latta can rally behind a lesbian police chief and reverse what a mayor was trying to do ... then what's the issue with the rest of the state?" Ayers says.
S.C. Equality, which previously worked to pass anti-discrimination laws in Columbia, Charleston, and North Charleston, focused its attention on trying to pass a statewide protective law during this year's legislative session. A similar bill introduced by Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland), which would have also protected against discrimination in public accommodations based on sexual orientation, lost momentum after Republicans voted en masse to send it back to a committee on May 5.
- Paul Bowers file photo
"The general consensus at the Statehouse is that most conservatives, unless you're really conservative-conservative like the Tea Partiers, none of them want to even take up and go on record and vote either up or down on an LGBT bill right now. They just want it to go away," Ayers says.
Rep. James E. Smith (D-Richland), who sponsored H. 3949, says the story of Moore's firing has helped build the case for his bill. "Most people were shocked that the chief didn't have any recourse," Smith says.
The subcommittee also heard testimony from opponents of the bill, including representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention and Catholic Diocese of Charleston, who expressed concern that the bill would affect employment practices at religious institutions. Rep. Bruce Bannister (R-Greenville), chairman of the Constitutional Laws Subcommittee, says Moore and other proponents' testimonies were "compelling," but he said too many questions remained unanswered for him to form an opinion on the bill, particularly as it relates to transgender rights.
"We heard from the opponents of the bill, who pointed out things that varied from 'That's a lifestyle choice that should not be forced on anyone else as opposed to race or nationality or sex or religion' — from that to the science of transgender transition is really kind of cutting-edge and new, and the myriad of questions that come up with when that transition is happening and when you shift in a workplace from using ... the men's restroom versus the women's restroom," Bannister says. "Those kind of questions, in that area of science, are unanswered and need more study before we give it a protective status and statute."
The subcommittee did not take action regarding H. 3949 last Thursday. Rep. Smith says he plans to continue pushing the bill in 2016 after gathering support from companies around the state that have their own LGBT non-discrimination policies in place.
"In January we'll pick right back up where we left off," Smith says.
Small town pride
Meanwhile, Moore says she's proud of her town. Throughout the public furor over her firing last year, she says she only received one piece of hate mail — and she later received a check from the same address, part of a fundraising effort to help her make ends meet during her brief unemployment. "Their views have changed," she says. According to Moore, the memo on the check read, "God bless you."
- Paul Bowers file photo
"'Love thy neighbor' was what it was all about," Moore says. "I remember when I was little, growing up in the Baptist church, dedicating my life as a teenager as a Latta Baptist member, and rededicating my life four years ago. Nobody judged me except for that one person."
"That one person," as Moore puts it, is Mayor Earl Bullard, who remains the mayor of Latta, albeit with diminished hiring and firing powers under the restructured government. Bullard maintained in 2014 that Moore's firing had "nothing at all" to do with her sexual orientation. He did not respond to a request for an interview last week.
Recently, Moore and her wife traveled to the GLAAD Media Awards ceremony in New York. It was her first time riding in an airplane. Along with MSNBC Live anchor Craig Melvin, she received an Outstanding TV Journalism Segment award for an interview she gave about her firing last year.
Back home in Latta, Moore says she's glad to keep busy at the same department where she's worked since she was 21 years old.
"I'm Crystal to them," she says. "I'm a police officer to them, so they trust and believe in me."