Feature writing

Alabama Special Election 2017

Alabama’s Nathan Mathis found his lesbian daughter dead. His message to Roy Moore in defeat: ‘you better pray for forgiveness’

The Daily Beast

December 13, 2017

The morning after Roy Moore’s loss, Nathan Mathis was in the mood to celebrate, though quietly with the memory of his beloved lesbian daughter Patti at the forefront of his mind.

Both of Mathis’ children have died (he also had a son, Joey), and he speaks with a gravelly, straightforward openness about loving and losing both of them.

“I’m very, very happy we didn’t get Roy Moore,” Mathis told The Daily Beast by phone of Doug Jones’ stunning victory over Moore in the Alabama Senate race. “I sure am. I’m very happy about that. It will be so much better for our country that Roy Moore is not up there. It will be so much better. We would have had a mess if we’d had Roy Moore in the United States Senate. You’d never know which wall he would have come off the next day.”

Footage of Mathis, 74, speaking while holding a deeply personal protest sign outside an event Moore spoke at on Dec. 11, went viral.

The sign read: “Judge Roy Moore called my daughter Patti Sue Mathis a pervert because she was gay. A 32-year-old Roy Moore dated teenage girls aged 14 to 17. So that makes him a pervert of the worse kind.”

Moore’s virulent homophobia has been long-held and well-known. On the day of the election his spokesman told CNN that he “probably” believed that homosexuality should be illegal.

Moore also concurred with an opinion, as Alabama Supreme Court’s Chief Justice in 2002, that “homosexual behavior” was “a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.” (This was in a case where he sought to deny a lesbian custody of her children.) He denounced the SCOTUS ruling for same-sex marriage in 2015 as “an immoral, unconstitutional and tyrannical opinion” and encouraged officials in Alabama to ignore it.

Moore also blamed the LGBT community for the multiple sexual-misconduct allegations against him.

Mathis told The Daily Beast that Patti had committed suicide in 1995, at age 23, in the mobile home she lived in near the family home in Wicksburg, Alabama, where Nathan and his wife Sue still reside. Mathis found her body. She had shot herself.

“Even though my daughter was dead, when Roy Moore took the stance he did against gay people calling them perverts and then abominations, and even went as far as saying it’s a crime to be gay… I don’t know, I just couldn’t sit there any more. I just had to say something,” said Mathis.

“Even though my daughter is deceased I still don’t like nobody saying negative things about her because my daughter was a good person. My daughter: She was gay but she was no damn pervert.”

What would Mathis say to Roy Moore today?

Mathis paused, then said with some force: “Look Roy, if you want forgiveness for what you’ve done you better tell the truth to God. You better get down on your knees, you better pray to your God to say ‘Please forgive me. I know God, you know what I did. I can’t lie to you because you know what I did, and I’m sorry for what I did and I’m going to change and I’m not never going to let this happen again.’

“And he needs to quit lying about it, that’s what he needs to do.”

Mathis said he couldn’t stand by to see Moore’s homophobia receive the sanction of senatorial office.

“I already feel bad about the way I acted towards Patti when I found it [her sexuality] out, but it just really made me hurt all over. Here we were fixing to send someone [like Moore] to Washington, D.C.

“Gay people would not have had a chance on any bill with him up there as a United States senator. There’s no way they were going to get a fair shake with Roy Moore, so thank god Roy Moore is not going to be going to Washington.”

Mathis was modest when asked about his sudden stardom.

“It wasn’t about me. I had a lot of favorable and some that wasn’t so favorable about what I did. It was about Patti being gay and the other gay folks who are still citizens of the United States. Gay people have rights just as people who are not gay. The Constitution (in fact, it’s the Declaration of Independence) says all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Had Moore been elected, said Mathis, “he would have held his hand up and sworn to uphold the Constitution. It would have been a lie. He wouldn’t have done it. He wouldn’t have upheld the Constitution, that gay folks have the same rights as everybody else. That’s why I did what I did.”

Patti didn’t tell her father that she was gay, he said. A friend of hers came to their home to tell him.

“When I confronted her with it she admitted it,” Mathis told The Daily Beast. “I said bad things to her, because I had been to church all my life, and sat there many times and heard preachers preach against gay folks from the pulpit. She even heard it. She went to church from when she was a small child right on up.

“It’s just something I couldn’t believe. I sat there all those years and not known my daughter was gay and when I found out I said mean things to her. It’s because of the way I had been taught. I even went so far… I told Patti that I’d rather my child was dead rather than have a gay child. I regret I said that very much but I did say that.”

At the time Patti was finishing her senior year at high school. I asked Mathis how she responded to what he said to her.

“It hurt her real bad,” he said. “When I came back home that day from work, she had moved out of the house and moved over to a friend of hers’ house. She stayed there about 3 months.”

Then one day, her father said, Patti had come to him and said, “Daddy, I don’t want to be gay any more. Would you help me get some help?”

Mathis said: “She was crying. I said, ‘I sure will,’ and this shows how naïve I was about it, I called up the UAB Hospital in Birmingham Alabama, and made an appointment, and took Patti up there.”

The doctors, said Mathis, “did all kinds of tests on her that day,” and finally at about 3:30 in the afternoon a doctor called both father and daughter into his office and said, recalled Mathis, “Young lady, there is not a thing we can do you. You can’t help the way you are.”

Mathis thought, “Man, this doctor must be crazy, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” but the pair saw other doctors and psychiatrists “and they all told Patti,” said her father, “’You can’t help the way you are. You’re who you are. There’s nothing we can do about it.’”

“That just opened my eyes a little bit,” said Mathis. “Instead of her being in the wrong, I was the one in the wrong.”

Mathis does not think Patti intended to kill herself. She had stopped at a local gas station and charged the bill to his account, he said. She had told the attendant she was heading to Panama City, but first she had to cut some grass.

“When I found her, she had the clothes on that she would cut the grass in,” recalled Mathis. “She would wear earphones when she rode the lawn mower.”

A neighbor told Mathis they had seen her talking to another young woman in the yard for a couple of hours. Mathis was contacted by Patti’s niece to say she had knocked on Patti’s mobile home door and heard music, but Patti had not responded.

Mathis went to the mobile home, opened the door and found his daughter dead. At the time of her death she had been attending nursing school for a year.

The mobile home had a little bar in the kitchen, Mathis said. “It appeared to me she had put a little pillow there on the end of the bar. I guess she thought she was going to shoot herself and lay her head down and go to sleep. Of course, when she shot herself her body recoiled and she ended up halfway across the room. She shot herself in the neck and the bullet clipped the main artery, and so once she pulled the trigger it was all over.”

Her father called 911.

“I felt terrible. I still do feel terrible about it,” Mathis told The Daily Beast. “I felt like I had failed my daughter. But once that happened I couldn’t change anything. I had no more control over it any more. I just had to live with it. And so do I sit and watch Roy Moore keep lambasting gay folks, or do I try and do something about it? Somebody needed to do it, and so I did it.”

Since Patti’s death, Mathis said he had built a 70-acre lake, situated between Wicksburg and Slocomb, dedicated to her. It is named Lake Patti Sue. People come to fish there, and enjoy themselves, he said.

“It was a way for me to keep Patti’s memory alive. That’s what I was trying to do. It’s real beautiful. We’re still working on it, and trying to make it even better.”

Mathis is certainly all too acquainted with tragedy. He said he isn’t good with ages or dates—“I try not to remember dates”—but that his son Joey had died 4 or 5 years after his daughter, aged around 37.

Some time after Patti’s death, Mathis said, Joey had tried crystal meth, “which messed him up.” Then Joey took two Oxycontin tablets, “and it had paralyzed him. He needed to roll over and throw up his vomit, but couldn’t. So he drowned in his own vomit.”

“He was a real nice, handsome young man, married with two children,” Mathis said, “and what made him try crystal meth I don’t know but once he did it was out of his control from then on. That drug had control over him.”

Mathis said he was a peanut farmer, growing cotton, corn, and running cattle. He has been trying to retire, and his grandson has been farming the property for the last 3 years. He also has a farming supplies business, Mathis Farm Service, and his nephew owns the lease of a restaurant he owns, Nate’s Oyster Bar, in Slocomb. Sue runs Wicksburg’s senior citizens’ center.

“She’s not real favorable of it,” Mathis told The Daily Beast of his fame-garnering activism. “She just grieves in her own way. Everybody grieves differently. I had to do what I did, and I hope she forgives me and not holds it against me. But if it was left for her she would never mention anything about Patti dying. She would just keep it to herself. That’s the way she would deal with it.”

Mathis laughed. He recalled that Patti had been nicknamed “Peppermint Patti,” and that she still retained the scoring record at Wicksburg’s High School for girls’ basketball; he said that she had also got a scholarship at Enterprise State Junior College (now known as Enterprise State Community College) in softball. She was the captain of the team, and organized all the team’s events and parties. “Everybody liked her, the girls and boys,” said Mathis.

Before Patti died, she knew her father supported her, Mathis said.

“When she died she knew that I loved her,” Mathis said. “We had made our peace about it. I had told her I was sorry. I believe she had forgiven me for my actions. I really honestly believe that.”

Mathis said he would continue with LGBT activism, if required.

“I will do anything I can do to help. All people need to realize that what happened to my child… it could be your child next or your grandchild. Don’t do like I did. You need to hug their neck and say, ‘Look, you are who you are and I love you regardless.’

“And we need to realize that gay folks have rights just like people who are not gay, and we need to quit letting politicians lambast gay folks every time they have an election, trying to get votes. That’s all it is. Most of it is hypocritical by politicians, anyway.”

What would Patti have said to Mathis about his activism?

“I believe Patti would have appreciated what I did,” her father said. After she died, he found among her possession a scrapbook containing articles about LGBT events and LGBT rights. “I believe had Patti still been alive, she would have been out there holding up that sign herself.”

Mathis said, “I don’t know what fighting I can do but I’ll be a voice if someone wants me to tell my story. I’ll be glad to do that. Any way I can help people who are not being treated according to the Constitution, I’ll certainly try to do it.”

What would Mathis say to Patti if he could? He paused again, and then his voice cracked. “That’s hard. ‘Patti, it’s good to see you, and I love you so much and I missed you so much, and I love you, and I want you to know it. I missed you like crazy.’

“I know she’d be proud of what I’ve done,” Mathis added quietly.