Remembering Nicholas West of Tyler, Texas
By Richard Lindsay, Soulforce Director of Communication
On November 30, 2013, I attended a gathering of a small but dedicated group of people in Tyler, Texas. They had come together to remember the 20-year anniversary of the kidnapping, torture and death of a young man named Nicholas West. We gathered in the park where Nicky had been abducted, around a small stone marker placed in his memory. We reflected on how much had changed since 1993, and how much still has to change.
The murder of Nicholas West played a role in the beginning of Soulforce, which I explained in my comments to the group:
My name is Richard Lindsay and I’m here representing Soulforce. We work to end religious and political oppression of LGBTQ people through relentless nonviolent resistance.
Our founder is Rev. Dr. Mel White, someone who spent many years working in Christian media, acting as a ghostwriter for people like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Billy Graham. But all that time, Mel held a secret—that he was a gay man.
In 1992, Mel came out to his former clients in the religious right and they immediately rejected him. He wrote about this experience in Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America, published in 1994.
He was appointed Dean of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, and a National Justice Minister for the Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination that ministers primarily to LGBTQ people.
It was in these roles that he attended the memorial service for Nicholas West, held right here in this park 20 years ago in 1993. Mel also attended the trial of Nicky’s killers.
You have to remember what it was like 20 years ago, because things were different for LGBT people. There was very little positive visibility for LGBT people on TV or in film. There was no Ellen, there was no Will and Grace, no Modern Family. The President of the United States was not coming out in favor of marriage equality. In fact, President Clinton, who had been elected with such expectations of hope and transformation for the LGBT community signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which said our relationships couldn’t be recognized at the Federal level, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which kept us from serving openly in the military.
At the same time as we were being made to be political pariahs, AIDS was decimating our communities, particularly gay men and people of color. By 1993, this disease had taken thousands of lives, and there was only one drug approved by the FDA for its treatment. We didn’t yet have the drug cocktails that have made AIDS a manageable chronic disease for many people.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, there were religious right figures—people who called themselves men of God—on TV every day saying the terrible things that were happening to the gay community were God’s righteous punishment against us.
So it was in this dangerous and paranoid environment that Nicky West was kidnapped from this park and brutally murdered. There were so many negative messages around gay people at the time, that Nicky’s killers might have felt justified in killing him—for ridding society of one of those ‘sick, dirty queers’ that were ruining our country.
It was because of events like Nicky’s death that Mel White started to say ‘Enough is enough!’ and founded our organization on the principles of action through nonviolence as taught by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.
Recently, I was going through our organization’s online archives and I happened to read about Mel’s involvement in the Nicholas West case. It wasn’t an hour later that Ben Strube contacted me via Soulforce’s Facebook page telling me about this memorial event in Tyler. I wouldn’t have had any idea who Nicholas was and why he was important to our organization if I hadn’t seen that in the archives just before Ben contacted me.
The page I was looking at was the first nonviolent training Mel White put together for people who wanted to join him in countering the bigotry of the religious right with nonviolent action. He was calling it the “Journey into Soulforce.” And at the beginning of that training, Mel had written, “This journey is dedicated to Nicholas West.”
So that means that Nicholas West was there at the founding of our organization, and was one of the catalysts for the Journey into Soulforce we are still on today.
In Nicky’s name, we stood up to religious leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and told them to stop telling lies about our community.
In Nicky’s name, we took on institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family, and challenged them to dialogue with us about changing their teachings.
In Nicky’s name, we took the Equality Ride to dozens of colleges and universities where you could be expelled for coming out as LGBT—including Abilene Christian and Baylor right here in Texas.
In Nicky’s name, we continue to stand against the violence that is still unleashed on our community against young gay men like him, and even more against trans people and people of color.
In Nicky’s name, we will continue to stand against the exporting of religious hatred from the United States to places like Uganda.
In Nicky’s name, we will continue to spread the Good News that Mel White and Soulforce have taught from the beginning: That whether you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or a heterosexual ally of those communities—wherever you fit along the mysterious and beautiful continuum of sexual orientation and gender identity—you are a precious child of the Creator. You are not sick, you are not sinful, you do not need to change. God loves you and blesses you just the way you are. And you and your relationships are deserving of the same dignity and respect as any other human being.
At the event, I was honored to meet Brenda McWilliams and Lou Ann Smoot, two longtime Soulforce supporters who had participated in denominational actions over the years, and helped host the 2012 Equality Riders when they came through Tyler. Also present was Wesley Beard, who had attended the trial of Nicholas West’s murderers along with Mel. The event was planned in part by Jerry Bailey and Pastor John David Creamer of Life Covenant Church, and by Ben Strube, a UT Tyler student. See the excellent report below by KLTV Tyler.