In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyo., because he was gay. We have dedicated this year’s One Book, One Richmond program to “The Laramie Project”—a play based on the murder and responses to it. Though deep-seated homophobia led to Matt’s murder 15 years ago, we must continue the conversation today because prejudice, discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) individuals still persist worldwide. Here, in Virginia, we have recently seen the advancement of marriage equality in the state, along with other shifts toward tolerance for the LGBTQ community. These and other advancements toward full equality for the LGBTQ community are occurring alongside the legalization of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in Arizona, criminalization of homosexuality in parts of Africa and intense violence against LGBTQ individuals in Russia. If anything, the hate-filled murder of Matthew Shepard was just the beginning of the long-overdue conversation about the treatment and status of LGBTQ individuals in the U.S. and worldwide.
In the film version of “The Laramie Project,” there is a sign alongside the road that says, “Hate is not a Laramie value.” Following the murder of Matthew Shepard, the town of Laramie, Wyo., wanted to dissociate itself from such violent bigotry that garnered international media attention. Unfortunately, it looks as though nothing more than this effort to “move on” has occurred; Wyoming still lacks hate crime and nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and bars same-gender marriage. One’s words (and slogans) of acceptance ring hallow in the absence of efforts to protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination and violence and recognize them as full citizens (and human beings, for that matter).
Borrowing from that slogan, LGBTQ student leaders at my alma matter, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, successfully launched a campaign, “Hate is not a UMBC value.” When I arrived in 2003, it was clear that the message resonated with most students, staff and faculty. But, it was clear that we had to work to create equality. In my sophomore and junior years of college, I co-led a group of students, staff, faculty and administrators in pushing to create more resources and services for LGBTQ students, including a campus resource center. Unfortunately, the momentum died as I turned my attention to applying for graduate schools and moving on to the next chapter of my career. But, my personal drive to improve conditions for LGBTQ students has not ceased.
When I applied for faculty positions, I was quite intrigued with the University of Richmond. I was pleased to see the success of Common Ground, and the recent hiring of Ted Lewis as associate director of LGBTQ campus life. Ted (and others at Common Ground) have worked tirelessly to revamp the Safe Zone program, created the Q-Community living-learning floor, hosted the first-ever national conference on LGBTQ athletes and created a lounge for LGBTQ students, among other great initiatives. Being able to secure benefits from the university for my partner was a plus, as well. Scouring the archival project of LGBTQ history at UR, conducted by (the phenomenal) graduating-senior Dana McLachlin, I was impressed to see such great strides toward LGBTQ inclusion in just the past decade. I had little reservation about accepting the offer to join the faculty. I was excited to become a part of the UR community.
However, no college or university is perfect. UR, like any other institution, is a work in progress. I am deeply disappointed about the homophobic and sexist comments made by UR board of trustee member, Paul Queally, at a 2012 Kappa Beta Phi induction ceremony. And, as others have expressed either privately or publicly, I am underwhelmed by the university’s response: simply reaffirming a commitment to “inclusivity, civility and respect”—essentially, the Richmond Promise. I am happy to see Mr. Queally’s third statement about this controversy, specifically affirming his personal commitment to the Richmond Promise, and the university-wide email from President Ed Ayers. But their statements may not be enough to ease the pain and confusion that arose from these events.
By the end of last week, the personal significance of Queally’s comments and the limited response from the university began to sink in. Queally, as a member of the board of trustees, will have final say over whether I am granted tenure at UR. As a queer professor, who studies the lives and well-being of LGBTQ individuals and teaches courses on gender and sexuality, I began to feel that the odds of job security at this university were declining by the minute. I wondered, am I foolish to stay when I know at least one person who decides my fate may be hostile toward me, my scholarship and my community? How many other top leaders at the university share these views? Life as a new, tenure-track professor is already stressful enough; this controversy created an uneasy feeling in my stomach.
I felt it would be best to take a coffee break before returning to teaching prep and grading. I ran into professor Glyn Hughes, director of Common Ground, and Kathleen Roberts Skerrett, dean of Arts and Sciences, while getting coffee at 8:15 at Boatwright. They immediately hugged me and expressed concern that I might be distressed by this controversy, particularly as a new, queer professor. When I noted that I felt as though my hands were tied, that I may jeopardize my tenure-ability by speaking up about these incidents, they affirmed their support for me. I was truly overwhelmed by this exchange. On the way back to my office, I tried to hold back the tears of relief.
I share this event because it reminded me why I decided to join the UR community. Considering all of the progress toward diversity and inclusion that the university has made, these comments by Paul Queally were out of step with the otherwise inclusive climate. Though I have only been here for six months, I am confident that the University of Richmond is genuinely committed to the values articulated in the Richmond Promise. I think that my own invitation to join the faculty is just one of the many examples of that commitment. I hope that I will be invited to stay in the long-term.
So, if I may borrow from the already borrowed expression: Hate Is Not A Richmond Value. Whether or not the slogan catches on, we must do the work to translate those words into actions. We must do more than respond to homophobic and sexist comments with a quote from the Richmond Promise. Life “gets better” for LGBTQ individuals because we, along with our heterosexual and cisgender allies, go to work to make it better. I am proud to be a part of the UR community as it continues to work toward becoming a safe and inclusive place for all people, regardless of their gender identity and expression and sexual identity.
Professor Eric Anthony Grollman is an assistant professor of sociology.