LATTA, S.C. — When openly gay police chief Crystal Moore was fired by a mayor who condemned her lifestyle as ‘‘questionable,’’ she feared her two-decade career in law enforcement in this town was over.
Then, this conservative small town rebelled.
The people of Latta, who voted overwhelmingly for a state amendment banning same-sex marriage eight years ago, turned against the mayor. The Town Council reduced his powers and rehired Moore.
Residents said Moore’s dedication to the town mattered more than her sexual orientation.
They remembered Moore’s civic spirit from as far back as 1989, when Hurricane Hugo tore through Latta. She was a high school student working part time as a police dispatcher and helped cut downed tree limbs to clean the debris.
This February, when an ice storm crippled the town and left it without power for days, Moore piled her officers in her SUV and checked on as many people as she could.
‘‘That’s Crystal. All she does is help people. I don’t get why he fired her. Maybe it’s the ignorant people who talk the loudest. She was the same great Crystal yesterday as she is today, and she’ll be the same person tomorrow,’’ said Latta native Dottie Walters.
Mayor Earl Bullard vehemently denied that he fired Moore because she was a lesbian. Instead, he said she was dismissed for ‘‘sheer insubordination’’ during the three months he was her boss.
Moore said she had not received a single reprimand during her career until Bullard presented her with seven the day she was fired in April. Word of her termination spread fast in this tobacco hub of about 1,400 people, just off Interstate 95. About two dozen people gathered at her office in support on the day she was let go.
The support for Moore grew when Town Councilor Jarett Taylor started secretly recording his conversations with the mayor, which is legal in South Carolina. Taylor said he learned not to trust the mayor because he would tell him something and later deny he ever said it.
In a conversation released to reporters after Moore was fired, the mayor said: ‘‘I’d much rather have somebody who drank and drank too much taking care of my child than I had somebody whose lifestyle is questionable around children, because that ain’t the damn way it’s supposed to be.’’
Bullard, who has avoided reporters for much of the past three months, said that was him on the tape. He offered no apologies.
‘‘I don’t like the homosexual ways portrayed in front of children,’’ Bullard said. ‘‘You can’t explain to a 5-year-old why another child has two mommies or two daddies.’’
Since the story made headlines, Bullard said he had received a stack of hate mail that was ‘‘probably an inch-and-a-half thick.’’
Within days of Moore’s termination, the Town Council passed a vote of confidence in her. It also set up an election to strip the mayor of his power and give them more authority, including the ability to hire the police chief.
Last month, 69 percent of 475 voters approved of taking the mayor’s power away. Now that he is essentially a figurehead, it is not clear what he is going to do next. He has three years left in his term.
When Moore returned to work June 30, people honked their car horns and gave her thumbs up as she drove around in her police SUV, according to television reports.
‘‘Crystal is a good chief and she loves this town,’’ said Taylor. ‘‘It made me proud of my town to see everybody come out for her the way they did.’’
Before the firing, Moore would bring her partner to civic festivals but avoided gay pride events because she did not want to draw attention to herself. Now she travels about once a week to talk to gay groups and encourage laws to stop discrimination against homosexuals.
State unemployment officials said Moore was fired without cause and eligible for back pay and benefits for the two months she did not have a job.
The fight left her with nearly $20,000 in legal bills. About $8,000 has been pledged from people through a Facebook site, but that still leaves a lot of debt for someone who makes less than $40,000 a year running a 10-officer department.
So the town is arranging a fund-raiser, Moore said. ‘‘It’s just remarkable,’’ she said. ‘‘I can’t ever thank this place enough.’’