No matter how hard I try I can't understand how any society that claims to cherish freedom, justice, and democracy as much as the United States of America does would allow a creature like Jesse Helms to have power in shaping the policy of the country. What's even more disgusting is the fact that he is treated with respect and dignity when he deserves to be shunned, if not tried for crimes against humanity.
In the 1960's, he fought against the racial integration of schools in North Carolina. Since his election to the senate in 1972, he has done his best to deny rights and liberties to any group he sees as not fitting into his narrow definition of the world order. Whether its been women seeking equality under the law, Hispanics and African Americans asking for assistance to redress the years of inequality in quality of education and job availability, and for the last twenty years anything allowing homosexuals even the appearance of equality in the eyes of the law, his has been the voice raised loudest in opposition.
His apologists say things like, well one thing you can say for Jesse is that you know where he stands on things, which isn't something you can say about lots of politicians. Well you can say the same thing about Hitler and Stalin but that didn't change the fact they were despotic monsters. Anyway what difference does it make that he's honest about being a bigoted hate monger or not, it doesn't change the fact that he is one.
At first glance, you wouldn't think you could find someone more diametrically opposed to Jesse Helms then Tim Kirkman if you tried. He's gay, works in the arts as a film director and scriptwriter, and lives in the epitome of the liberal north, New York City. What could these two men have in common?
Actually, quite a lot; they were both born in the same small town in North Carolina, attended the same high school, spent a year at the same college, worked in radio and for newspapers while in school, and both obsess over gay men. For all those reasons, and maybe the last one in particular, Tim returned to his hometown with camera and crew in an attempt to understand Jesse Helms, and the state that has elected him to the Senate since 1972 that they both call home.
The resulting documentary film Dear Jesse has now been released on DVD by Sovereign Distributors and goes on sale this October. Tim criss-crosses North Carolina speaking to people from as many walks of life as possible, both supporters of Jesse and those who oppose him, creating a picture of the man who represents them in the eyes of the world that's not very flattering.
I don't know if it was his intention when he started out on this journey, but along the way it also becomes an examination of his own life and his relationship with his family and friends that still live in North Carolina. Through interviews, news clips, and voiceovers Tim tells the story of two of the state's native sons. He does his best to be an objective observer, and let other people and the historical record paint the picture of Jesse Helms, and to a large degree, he is successful. The majority of the analysis he indulges in centres around his own life, and the choices he's made along the way.
It's there where we can make our own suppositions of course. How much were those choices a product of the environment he grew up in; the environment fostered and created by Jesse Helms. Would he have been more open about his relationship with another man to his parents if Helms hadn't so poisoned the atmosphere of North Carolina with his riling against same sex relationships?
Even during the filming of the movie, he is still too unsure of how his parents would be able to cope with him talking about how upset he was because a man he had loved had just committed suicide. Can you imagine not being able to turn to your parent's for comfort when someone you love dies? Can you imagine how lonely and isolated that would make you feel?
That's what made Dear Jesse such a powerful movie is the fact that it was able to show the subtle and insidious ways that prejudice can affect the lives of people. It's not just the overt hate mongering that causes so much damage, it's the atmosphere of fear, and suspicion that it generates that can cause as much grief. Is it any wonder that a disproportionate numbers of teenage suicides are gay?
To the person who is already insecure, like most teenagers, add the fear of being rejected by ones own family to the lack of support in the community at large and you can feel like the loneliest person on the planet. The interviews that Tim conducts with individuals who have been affected by the poisoned air of North Carolina that is the legacy of Jesse Helms show just how insidious it can be.
The mother of a boy whose son died of AIDS, who had received a personal letter of condolence from Senator Helms when her husband died of cancer, reads from a letter that Helms wrote her in response to her plea for more research into the AIDS virus. In it, the Senator tells her it was her son's own damn fault that he died and that he got what was coming to him. What kind of human being would write a letter like that, rubbing salt into the wounds of a person's grief?
In Jesse Helms' North Carolina in 1996 the Klu Klux Klan were still marching in the streets without people rising up in protest against their presence let alone the fact they existed at all. Any place that hate mongers feel confident enough to stage public marches with out the worry of harassment is not going to be one where minorities are going to feel welcome no matter how long their families have lived there or how deep their roots run.
In Dear Jesse Tim has created a documentary that condemns its subject the harshest by showing how normal North Carolina looks. Yet since 1972 they have elected an openly racist, misogynistic, and homophobic man as their senator. That's the scariest thing about this movie, and I don't even know if Mr. Kirkman was aware that result was showing up on the screen.
A few years ago, a young man by the name of Matthew Sheppard was pistol whipped and left tied to a fence in the Montana where he died. The only reason he was killed was because he happened to be gay. Hate crimes like these are only possible because the people who commit them have been told by people like Jesse Helms that Matthew Sheppard was less then human and didn't deserve to be treated like a person.
At one point during the filming of Dear Jesse Tim goes to a small college in North Carolina where Jesse Helms was to have given a speech. They ended up missing the speech, so he did interviews instead with people outside the building. Ironically, one of the people he interviewed was Matthew Sheppard and his boyfriend. It is the only known film clip of Matthew.
Dear Jesse made me shed tears of sadness and rage when I heard how life under Jesse Helms had affected the lives of so many people through his hate mongering. Hopefully now that he no longer is in the Senate things might begin to change, but I wonder how long it will take for his awful legacy to be obliterated. One thing is for sure, there is no need to build him a memorial, – there are plenty of tombstones across the country of people who died of AIDS that will serve quite well.
Who knows how many of the bodies buried under them might still be alive if it hadn't been for his obstructionist policy against funding research into treating AIDS. I really wonder how he sleeps at night.
(Originally posted September 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.