Rev. Emily C. Heath

Wizard hats, frat boys, and gay undergrads at Emory University

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | October 27, 2010 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Atlanta, bullying, frat boys

I am a proud Emory alum. I have to start by saying that. emory.jpgFrom 1994 to 1998 I was an undergrad at the university, a place that has left an indelible mark on my life. I still stay officially connected to my alma mater through reunion committees and other obligations. I truly love Emory.

And that's why I have to say that today I am deeply disappointed. As an alum, I am a member of the Emory community. And so when I received an email from my college roommate today about an event that took place this weekend, I was more than a little concerned for my community. Emory, a place that nurtured me as an out undergrad, is now in the news for the anti-gay actions of an alum and a group of students.

This weekend an alum named Adam Smith allegedly physically ejected a gay party-goer from an off-campus party. The partygoer apparently wore a wizard's hat to the party, along with a loud jacket and pants. Smith allegedly questioned his "gay ass hat", and then asked the student whether he was gay. When the student responded that he was, Smith is said to have used the word "faggot" as he physically threw the student out of the house. According to partygoers, many cheered.

When I attended Emory it was one of the most gay-friendly schools in the South. We had a non-discrimination policy that included LGBT people. The school offered domestic partnership benefits. We were one of the few Southern schools to have an office of LGBT life, and one of the few anywhere to have a full-time director.

I was the president of our undergrad student LGBT group and I found nothing put support from the administration. We found support from representatives of the undergrad community who voted us the student organization of the year in 1997. I personally found great support from classmates who elected me as their representative to student government as an openly gay woman. I would argue that Emory was way ahead of its time in many ways.

But there were also indications that all was not well. My freshman year an out, gay male friend found a poster on his dorm room door that read, among other things, "faggot, die of AIDS". Additionally, signs were placed around his dorm with his room number drawings of men having sex with one another. Despite the fact that only one student in the dorm had a scanner capable of producing the signs, and that this student was a known homophobe, the administration did nothing.

Contrast that with another situation that occurred in Emory's dorms several years before that. One student had slipped a racist note under another student's door. In the aftermath the entire university was outraged. A police investigation was begun, and sensitivity training happened everywhere. The difference in responses between the two incidents was never lost on me.

There were other indications as well. One night, for instance, when we chalked slogans for National Coming Out Day outside of the student center (with the permission of campus life), a police officer made us wash them off. And then there were the less-than-gay-aware interactions that friends of mine had at the student health and counseling center.

In many ways, I think that Emory is the first-tier research university that its rankings suggest. It is a fine school with world-class resources. It's a place of which I'm still proud to be a part. As a school, Emory has done a lot to be a community leader in the fight for LGBTQ equality. But, it's clear that it is also a place that needs to do more.

If what we hear about the party turns out to have been true, Emory not only graduated a man who believes it is okay to use the word "gay" to demean someone's clothing choices, but who also believes it's appropriate to call him a "faggot" and physically assault him. That's a problem. Receiving an Emory degree means more than simply completing a rigorous courseload. It also means learning to live in a community that has a strong policy of inclusion. Somewhere along the way, Mr. Smith slipped through the cracks and his behavior was never challenged.

Were I to meet Mr. Smith I would remind him that when we graduated from Emory the university president conferred our degrees saying that as Emory graduates we now not only gained, "rights, honors, and privileges" but also "responsibilities". If the allegations are true, Mr. Smith has failed in the responsibility and brought shame upon his, and my, alma mater.

But Mr. Smith is not the only problem here. There is also the issue of the cheering partygoers. From what we know, it seems that no one intervened to stop Mr. Smith from aggressively touching a young man he was calling "faggot". One thing I learned well at Emory, particularly from professors and staff members who had studied the Holocaust or participated in the Civil Rights Movement, is that silence is acceptance. And the young gay man was met more than just silence. He was met with cheers of approval for his attacker. If this is the culture that is being allowed to thrive at Emory, that is an indication that something is deeply wrong.

I love my alma mater, and honor what is has done right. But I love it too much to not acknowledge that it has made some mistakes around responding to homophobia in the past. I am watching this story closely to see how it will respond to this situation. My hope is that the university will not try to bury this story under the guise of "internal discipline" but will instead show those of us who are LGBTQ alumni what they are doing to transform the culture at Emory. For all its flaws, Emory was still a marvelous place for a young, out undergrad fifteen years ago. My hope is that it will learn from the mistakes of its past in dealing with this incident, and make it the kind of place I would choose all over again.

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I went to a pretty good school too, full of liberals and open-minded people, and then there was the frat world.

I think chalking it up to the "frat world" is unfair. I was openly gay on my campus from 04-08 and served as Greek Council President. Not all fraternities are homophobic, and indeed once you get involved on the national level there are plenty of gays around. Just like any other student organization, on some campuses they can be homophobic, and on others accepting. But a fraternity that is living up to it's professed values should not tolerate this kind of behavior.

As a fellow Emory alum, I find this incredibly upsetting. What is the best course of action at this point? Letters to the President or Greek Council? Please let me know if you hear anything about how this is being addressed by the larger Emory community!

Only under the light of examination will hatred be dismissed. Watch, speak, and hold all those committing hate responsible. Refuse to accept bad behavior.

I'm in a community college and anti lgbt language and actions seem to be tolerated as free speech.I am reasonably involved in school clubs and am Phi Theta Kappa.I recently wrote a letter to the school complaining about discrimination. 1 week later we had an LGBT safe schools speaker come in to speak to students and train faculty.The problem is the school didn't make the training mandatory for all staff.I live in a state where gender identity is protected the school does not list it in it's discrimination policy so I asked about about it.The response that I got was that the school didn't have to list it in it's discrimination policy but that if there was a lawsuit that would be considered against them in court.The school still hasn't sent me an official response to my letter and I am very disappointed by the safe harbor program and the fact it wasn't at least mandatory for faculty.There were maybe five students that attended the student part and I can't tell you how many faculty showed up for their part.I have seen many discriminatory acts that should have easily resulted in a students suspension witnessed by staff and they do nothing.It is very disturbing and I can't help but wonder how much worse is it going to get after November second.

The promising point is they did do something. So there is hope. Now it is just a matter of making them understand it is not enough.

There are many options to help you in this. Your own local organizing is one. A LGBT student group or even a Gay Straight Alliance can be formed to educate.

Nationally many organizations offer support and education resources to students and educators. They would be happy to help improve the situation.

Please click on my name link to my blog. It will offer you all the links to people who can help you with this. Review them and choose which best suits your need.

In my letter to the school I recommended forming an LGBT straight alliance or an equality club.Part of the problem with starting an on campus club like this is that you have to find a willing faculty member to become the advisor.Also the school that I'm attending has strict guidelines on how the clubs can be ran and it has created problems in gaining participation for the clubs.I'm thinking about transferring to a four year college at the end of this year that has some sort of LGBT club and representation.It would be nice if we as a community could come up with some kind of rating system for colleges.It could include whether or not they have LGBT clubs,how well they support LGBT students,and do they offer health insurance for students that cover LGBT related medical issues.

I'll address that for you on my next blog update. I have some links.

Finding any campus that is LGBT-friendly is a gem in a time where kids are getting bullied into suicide for being LGBT. The important thing is to have advocates within and outside the campuses.