The University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss, is an institution in the small state of Mississippi, a state which has a population of just under three million people. Ole Miss is an icon for many residents, a symbol which carries both positives and negatives, memories of treasured family traditions, and the ugly racial history that the state of Mississippi is notorious for.
“The Laramie Project” is a play that addresses homophobia and its role in the death of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die in Laramie, WY, because he was gay. The anniversary of his death is Saturday. It’s been reported that players and other audience members used words like “fag” and openly ridiculed the cast members for their body types and the sexual orientations of the characters they were playing.
As a former student leader at another Mississippi state school, I have to think the players had to have known their conduct reflects on the school even when not in uniform. Yet they behaved as if it did not. According to DM Online, in an interview with the play’s director Rory Ledbetter:
The football players were certainly not the only audience members that were being offensive last night. But they were definitely the ones who seemed to initiate others in the audience to say things, too. It seemed like they didn’t know that they were representing the university when they were doing these things.
Every time something like this happens and it is played out in the media it’s a reminder of how far there is to go in the fight towards equality. Local activist Amelie Hahn gave a statement to Liberal America:
It’s so sad to me that in the year 2013, people are still in awe or disbelief that the LGBTQ community exists. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know who Matthew Shepard is. Not just because I’m gay but his story has touched the world. So for anyone to call out or laugh about the brutal murder of a fellow human being is disgusting. Gay people are human and it’s far time for us to be seen as such.
It is a hard realization for others to find out that currently in Mississippi gay, lesbian, and many transgender people are not allotted the freedom to adopt. They can’t get married. They have no employment protections. In the past couple of years, teens in the LGBTQ community have had to fight to take their partners to the prom, have their photo in the yearbook in non-gender conforming clothing, and be allowed to transition to their true gender.
So, for some it may not matter when football players at the state school throw around anti-gay slurs but for many residents of the state, it does. Ole Miss, as an institution, has officially been working towards being an inclusive community. Yet issues like this do seem to represent the entire school and have effects that go beyond Oxford. These kinds of events ripple through the state and make people afraid to come out. They make parents think twice about sending their children to Ole’ Miss.
Events like these sit in the minds of individual Mississippians. When asked by a Liberal America reporter how she felt about the incident Jackson resident Blossom Dupree stated:
It is a big deal because a lot of colleges and universities are not LGBTQ certified to understand the needs of us…. I was just reading the story of a trans woman whose 53 and living on campus at a university. Her roommates were outraged because she’s trans and living in a female dorm. And I think because this will be me in January when I live on campus.
While incidents of verbal hatred may seem minor they elicit real concern and fear among many. Especially since verbal attacks are generally the springboard to physical violence. It doesn’t help that this type of behavior acts as a confirmation for people who already think the state of Mississippi is a backwards, real life example of “Deliverance.”
The school immediately took action not only when the incident happened but after. There are those who remain concerned it’s was not enough. Ole Miss student James T. Brassell told Liberal America:
I’m personally disgusted by the incident. I also feel that actions taken by the school didn’t go far enough, mostly because of their desire to protect their football players….while the administration may state that the actions of those individuals don’t represent the culture and expectations of the University, when a portion of those individuals, who the University is treating as participants by its own admission, who are heavily rumored to have been not only active participants but the instigators of the incident, when those individuals walk out on the field, in a very real sense they do.
The University of Mississippi will have to deal with the increased scrutiny that this case brings, not only from those outside the state but those inside the state’s borders. The questions being asked refer to whether they picked their football program over effective punishment of the offenders. Those questions are unlikely to just go away.
There has been progress in Mississippi just as there has been in the nation. According to a poll by the Human Rights Campaign, 70 percent of Mississippians support legislation that would protect LGBT youth from bullying and harassment in schools. It’s doubtful that those surveyed meant just middle and high school.
Every year groups of people gather at the capitol to rally for LGBTQ rights. More and more straight allies across the state are willing to openly fight for the rights of their LGBTQ neighbors. For those Mississippi teens that are choosing to be out and proud in high school instead of having to endure years in the closet, there are organizations like the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition to help them. Changing hearts and minds and saying bullying and hate speech are NOT okay are the first steps to fixing these issues.
Laurie Bertram Roberts is the president of Mississippi NOW, a feminist activist, full spectrum doula and writer in Jackson, MS. She is passionate about reproductive justice and fighting oppression. When not smashing patriarchy she is likely watching Doctor Who, Star Trek, or engaging in other nerdy activities with her seven kids.