An open letter to the mayor of Rushville, Illinois
Dear Mayor Thompson,
I write to you with a heavy heart. I have just learned of Sheriff Don Schieferdecker’s anti-Semitic and anti-gay posting on his now-deleted Facebook page. As you can easily see from my signature, I work at a national organization that seeks legal and social justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the United States. Indeed, creating a society in which the sheriff’s postings would never occur is my life’s goal.
I grew up in neighboring Beardstown, graduating from high school in 1970. I am mostly proud of where I come from, with some exceptions. The sheriff’s postings caused me to recall:
• Students in Beardstown High School bullying and harassing others whom they thought to be gay or lesbian;
• A basketball game between the Rushville High School (RHS) team and a team from Jacksonville at which a Jacksonville player, who was African-American, was called “nigger” by RHS fans;
• Townspeople in Beardstown who called others “fag” and “dyke” on the street;
• A letter to our local newspaper that suggested my parents buy me a one-way ticket to Russia because I had organized a brief and relatively mild student assembly to discuss the Vietnam War;
• That Beardstown was ignobly a “sundown town,” having signs posted on its outskirts until the early 1950s that read “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you here”;
• That I did not meet an African-American person until I left our West Central Illinois region;
• That I did not meet a Jewish person until I left our West Central Illinois region.
I relate all of this to you in the interest of sharing my own history and experiences of racist and homophobic language and behavior in the valleys and hills of the Illinois River. Of these incidents, I am not proud and all still sting.
I note with some measure of pride, though, that you have called for a community meeting to talk about hate speech. I hope that this will be a good and healing gathering for the folks in Rushville who were hurt by the sheriff’s words. Your leadership shines through with this important initiative. I also note that, to date, no action has been taken regarding the sheriff and his postings. I urge that you and other responsible leaders of Schuyler County ask for and receive and accept his resignation. As an elected official, you know that law enforcement officers, from the leadership to the front line officers of all law enforcement agencies, cannot harbor such bigotry against the citizens they serve and protect. If they harbor these thoughts, how can those they serve have any confidence in their equal and just application of the laws? You must take all means to remove the sheriff from his post. I know this cannot be easy or simple, but it is your sworn duty to uphold the constitutions of the United States and the state of Illinois and to ensure equal protection for all under the laws of the nation, the state, and the county. There is no other way to win back the confidence of those you represent.
My high school classmate, David Osmer, just retired as sheriff of Cass County. I have not communicated directly with Dave about this, but intend to do so in order to seek his advice and counsel and reassurance that the Cass County sheriff’s office would not tolerate expressions of bigotry such as come from Sheriff Scheiferdecker. I want to know that because I have reason to visit Beardstown and Cass County from time to time and would not want to assume extra risk on a trip there to visit my parents’ graves or to attend my high school class reunions.
While I am a lesbian, I am not Jewish. But my wife is Jewish. We have raised our children to believe fervently in the dignity and equality of all people. It is with equally heavy heart that I know I must tell my children the story of the sheriff and that I have written you this letter. Our children, all our children, must know that we have their backs and will protect them from the public expressions of anti-Semitic and anti-gay bigotries. They will ask me if the sheriff will be appropriately dealt with and I will want to tell them that the mayor of Rushville is taking all due measures to see that his town and his county are well-served by the office of sheriff and its personnel. Please let me know when I can tell my kids that you have done what you must do: accept Sheriff Scheiferdecker’s resignation.
I thank you for reading this letter and I apologize for its length. I know you must be receiving correspondence about this matter from many people. I appreciate that you may not respond to me immediately.
With respect and deep interest,
Director, National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force