Educating against homophobia

Education is better than any punishment in limiting hateful thinking.

Trent M. Kays

University of Mississippi football players recently hurled gay slurs at performers during a university production of “The Laramie Project.”

Audience members, who were primarily first-year students, interrupted the play about the murder of Matthew Shepard.

The event serves as a reminder that homophobia still exists. While it’s becoming increasingly laughable, homophobia still permeates parts of our society and culture. Stereotypes and ignorance die hard. It’s unfortunate because it means some people still live in a world that should have perished long ago.

Some communities are better than others. These communities have evolved to accept their fellow humans as they are and not as they “should” be. This situation will now test the ability of the Ole Miss community to move past stereotypes of the South.

In response to the gay-bashing, Ole Miss head football coach Hugh Freeze tweeted: “We certainly do not condone any actions that offend or hurt people in any way.”

Freeze indicated the school was looking into the event. This, of course, is no guarantee any action will be taken; however, it’s a good sign to see Freeze move so quickly to address the situation.

As a former Southerner, I was not surprised by this turn of events. I certainly don’t think every place in the South is bigoted, but it’s still unsurprising.

So what should happen to these football players?

I’m not sure. Education and punishment are both viable options. There are many days when I think that punishment is more viable. It’s easy to punish and harder to educate, yet it’s obvious that punishment will not work.

If someone hurled gay slurs because they believe homosexuality is wrong, I suppose they are entitled to that despicable perspective. Their intolerance is based in ignorance and a poor reading of a 2,000-year-old text. I don’t want to punish them. I want to pity them.

Education is a wonderful thing because it teaches us the flaws bigotry is based in. I’m not a homophobe apologist. I do think changing a bigoted heart is hard, though this doesn’t mean I condone such behavior. I find it vile. However, in the state where people beat and burned Marco McMillian, an openly gay politician, in 2013, it’s time to consider the culture in which we allow this to happen.

The argument can be made that the first-year Ole Miss football players were acting out their hyper-masculinity through gay slurs. The act of yelling “fag” or “faggot” serves as an utterance of disapproval within an arena where “fags” are often found: the theater.

On the other side, mob mentality and groupthink are strong forces, especially in football. I suppose it’s possible that other football players felt the need to support their comrades. Still, it’s unfortunate that no one in the group stood up to their fellow players.

In 1998, 15 years ago this week, police found Matthew Shepard severely wounded, likely targeted for being gay. Shepard died nearly a week later from his injuries.

When this group of football players disrupted the performance, they dishonored the memory of Shepard. Their words interrupted education on a gruesome narrative that McMillian’s life painfully illustrates.

They are certainly entitled to their own opinions, but we are entitled to ours. Until they prove otherwise, we should assume these students are bigots.

That may seem harsh, but education can be harsh. I don’t think they should be suspended. A suspension doesn’t solve the cultural problem. These football players are students first, and they need to be reminded of the priorities in their lives.

I would be happy to forgive students who hurl gay slurs. They are in need of forgiveness; we should educate and show them the error of their ways.

This, of course, becomes exceedingly hard because we allow gay slurs or language appropriation to continue without consequence. Every time we allow “that’s gay” to be used negatively, we’re allowing subtle homophobia.

I hear this phrase often, especially from the current college generation. How is this different than “fag” or “faggot”? They each evoke shame based on small differences between people.

Would we be as upset if the Ole Miss football players yelled “That’s gay!” instead of “Fags!”? The latter is definitely meant to hurt, but doesn’t the former also hurt? I would say it does. It’s meant to show disapproval and unwelcomed distinction. Yet, I doubt the football players would be in as much trouble as they are had they just said the more colloquial and commonplace hate speech.

Punishment is not an appropriate option. It doesn’t teach the football players anything. First-year students are in a delicate position. They’ve just left the lives they’ve known and have been introduced to an environment where they are expected to be adults. This is hard to adjust to. You can’t be an adolescent on Sunday and then an adult on Monday.

I’m not excusing their behavior. I’m sure they now realize that what they did was wrong. But now they have the chance to understand why it was wrong and how language wounds.

They should be given the opportunity to learn from this experience, to grow from it and to understand it. This is what education is all about.