‘Hate-Filled’ Backlash After Laurel Paper Reports on Mississippi Gay Couple Who Married Despite Brain Cancer Struggle

The front page of the Feb. 7, 2013 edition of the
Laurel Leader-Call highlights the town’s first
gay wedding. Click here to visit the site.

The staff of the Laurel Leader-Call were met with what a new op-ed called a “hate-filled” response in which at least 15 people cancelled their subscriptions after the century-old newspaper dared to report on an historic event: The first known gay wedding ceremony in Laurel, Mississippi.

On February 7th, the Leader-Call ran on its front page the moving story of Jessica Powell and Crystal Craven, a Laurel couple who married the Saturday before. One year ago, Crystal was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. Since, she has had three surgeries, and neither she nor Jessica are certain what the future holds.

But in in October, Crystal got down on one knee and proposed to Jessica.

The wedding was much like any other wedding you’ve ever heard of. Jessica had a dress from David’s Bridal. The wedding included a maid of honor and a best man. There was a cake-cutting and punch at the reception. There was a flower girl and there were ring bearers. But Jessica was given away by her son, 6-year-old Aden.

At the wedding, Crystal wore a vest, a tie, and a white cowboy hat. The cowboy hat was meant to conceal the scars from her surgeries; her last surgery took place just weeks before the wedding. In attendance were staff from the oncology clinic where Crystal goes for treatment.

“If chemo doesn’t work, we don’t know what happens after that,” Crystal said in the article. Yet despite the uncertainty surrounding their future, Jessica not only stood beside her, but committed to marry her in front of family and friends.

The wedding isn’t legal in Mississippi, of course, but it’s certainly real for them.

That story should move anyone. Anyone who was moved by the movie A Walk to Remember – in which Landon Carter (played by Shane West) proposes to and marries Jamie Sullivan (played by Mandy Moore) after learning she has leukemia – should be just as moved by this story and fervently hope it has a much happier resolution. As Jessica Powell said in the article, “Love is love, it knows no gender.” In other words, there exists no difference between the love Jamie and Landon shared and the love Jessica and Crystal share. Except, of course, Jessica and Crystal actually exist.

Jessica Powell (left) and her new wife Crystal Craven (right) of Laurel, Mississippi,
leave their wedding ceremony hand-in-hand. Photo by Cassidi Bush.__


But it was obvious that not everyone in Laurel felt that way. After the publication of the Saturday paper, the Laurel Leader-Call was inundated with angry phone calls – over 50, according to owner Jim Cegieklski. The newspaper’s Facebook page was also hit by a string of angry comments, some directed at Cassidi Bush who reported the story. She’s been accused of promoting the “liberal agenda” because of her reporting. For the record, Cassidi identifies as a conservative.

One commenter wrote, “This is what we have to put up with on the world news every night. Never thought I would open my local paper and see such. Insulting!!!”

“It’s a sad day for traditional family values when this is printed on the front of a newspaper,” another wrote.

Betsy wrote, “I don’t see ‘hatred’ in any of these comments. I personally believe that gay ‘marriage’ is wrong in the eyes of God.” It’s obvious: Betsy’s opinion is pretty much the same as God’s opinion, generally, and she is the barometer by which we should all measure how well our opinion aligns with the Big Guy’s. Just so you know.

One commenter simply offered the couple prayer:

“When I said my vows to my wife in the presence of God Almighty, I made a promise to love and be faithful to her until death. I do not understand how a person can promise, in front of our Lord God, who created us, to live in sin against His will for the rest of their life. You can word it however you want to, but I pray for the soul of any man or woman who takes such a vow in the presence of God.”

That Sunday, a local preacher told his congregation that, if he’d had a subscription to the Laurel Leader-Call, he would’ve cancelled it.

Clearly belying all of these comments is a sense of entitlement among the socially conservative part of the population. It’s an entitled, small-minded worldview that doesn’t believe in sharing a world with anyone who is different. They, after all, are entitled to continue to exist as they always have. Gay people aren’t supposed to actually surface in society; they are supposed to remain marginalized, hidden from view, secluded in their “sin,” pariahs to Southern society. They are only ever supposed to show up as fodder on a Mississippi Sunday when pastor gets an itchin’ for some real fire and brimstone.

That’s how it’s always been in Mississippi, and for social conservative, God-fearing Christians, that’s how it always should be. It is their Lord, their God. Laurel is theirs. The Leader-Call is their paper. It their culture. Marriage is theirs. And their reality shouldn’t have to co-exist alongside that of gay people. And, for God’s sake, think about the children! Their children. As Casey wrote,

“Really classy, LLC. If this is front page material then the news business is getting tough. Front page should be for promoting something worthy of attention, not something that I would hope my children wouldn’t see or read for that matter. I’m not judging the couple by any means, that’s God’s job, but you don’t have to glorify it on the front page!!!”

See, Casey wasn’t judging the couple; but really, Casey is entitled to receive a newspaper that doesn’t report things Casey doesn’t like. Therefore, the marriage must not be historic or newsworthy, since Casey doesn’t like it.

In an op-ed this past Saturday, owner Jim Cegieklski responded to the obvious logical fallacy:

“You don’t have to like something for it to be historic. The holocaust, bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the Black Sox scandal are all still historic. I’m in no way comparing the downtown wedding of two females to any of these events (even though some of you made it quite clear that you think gay marriage is much worse), I’m just saying that whether you liked the story or not, the first known gay wedding to take place in Jones County is still historic.”

Cegieklski also notes that the sheer volume of response the story has received proves that it is indeed newsworthy. It has engendered a far greater response than stories on elections, serial rapists, or murders. Which are apparently much more savory topics where children are concerned, really, considering the fact that no one ever cancels their subscriptions or complains about those.

Thank you to the Laurel Leader-Call for not only showing journalistic integrity, but bravery and commitment to reporting the world as it is, not as many wish it still was. Cassidi Bush, Jim Cegieklski, editor Mark Thornton and the staff of the Leader-Call deserve major kudos. If you have a chance, head over to their Facebook  page and leave them a thank you.

I want to give my best wishes to the newly-weds, and extend my hopes and prayers for a full recovery to Crystal for long, happy lives together. Thanks for sharing your beautiful story with all of us. I’m sorry that there are people who are so blinded by their own prejudice that they cannot see the love, beauty, and compassion that your relationship embodies.

Correction: This post initially identified Jim Cegieklski as the editor of the Leader-Call. Mark Thornton is the editor of the Laurel Leader-Call, Jim Cegieklski is the owner.

There are 18 comments

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  1. Anonymous

    Next thing you know you folks’ll be putting people who eat shellfish on the front page. When did the Constitution override Leviticus? 1788? *Oops. Edit: It was 1788. My bad.*

  2. Anonymous

    Just paid $20 for a six-month online subscription. Having worked at a small-town paper, I know how disheartening it is to be on the receiving end of that sort of response.

  3. Anonymous

    Excellently savvy writing to tie the whole piece together. I enjoyed this heartily and I send on my own heartfelt support to the paper for their journalistic integrity. Smashing response from the editor!

  4. mposeyphoto

    I worked in Laurel for three whole weeks, which was all I could actually stand. I’m from Mississippi, grew up there, and love lots of places there. But Laurel is something else. When I was there they didn’t even believe in desegregation, so I don’t know why anyone would expect them to believe in rights for anyone else. I talked to one rental property owner who proudly proclaimed his absolute resistance to fair housing laws with a loud sentence, yelled out in the middle of the street, using the “N” word. Sense of entitlement is right. My own policy since then has been to avoid even traveling through Laurel. I won’t spend a cent there, I won’t visit. (But I’m glad to see the newspaper has changed; I got in trouble for standing up to the racist landlord.)

  5. chicago dyke

    thank you for your attention to this story. it’s important. i can’t seem to find the comments section at the paper (do they have one?) but i thought i’d leave a supportive comment here and thank you and wish you luck and success in your career after you graduate. MS will change. because of people like you.

  6. Anonymous

    Our Home Universalist Church in Jones Co. has performed same-sex weddings at least twice before this wedding. The big difference was someone noticed, this time.

  7. Bryce Thomason

    Some in the spiritual arena of thought accept as true that they “must stop” the “gay agenda, whatever that might be. Of course, there are folks who are very obstinate in the GLBT community about certain issues such as gay marriage and they demand to be heard and are vocal on the following stage over this debate. When I read the gentleman’s essay arguing that no one is born gay, I certainly understood where he was coming from, as he felt as if the ““gay agenda” had come too far, and so, he is just as adamant about pushing back now.

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