Monday, November 26, 2007

Football Fans, Fags and Free Speech

OK, I so I got carried away with the F alliteration in the title of this post. However, these are the major elements under discussion at the University of Virginia this fall. It is a tradition that, following a touchdown by the home team, the band plays a tune written in 1895 and fans sing along.

The lyrics include a declaration that all is “bright and gay.” The song was written in a time when “gay” was universally understood to mean “happy.” Now, of course, the word “gay” also means “homosexual.” So, when the fans get to this part of the song, some fans echo a loud “not gay!” to affirm their (probably drunken at this point) heterosexuality.

A group of students at UVA have initiated a campaign to encourage UVA fans to forego this tradition out of concern that the “not gay” ritual marginalizes the gay community at UVA and creates a hostile climate. A similar campaign several years ago apparently did have some success as fewer fans participated in the “not gay” shout, but over time, the ritual has crept back into the stadium.

A spirited debate has ensued in the school newspaper and on campus over the “anti-not gay” campaign. Some students call the campaign evidence of political correctness and liberal groupthink, infringements of free speech, and affirmations of the sin of homosexuality. Others maintain that acceptance of thoughtless anti-gay sentiments do have a negative effect on school climate and that the words we use are important. They applaud the effort to stop the “not gay” shouting.

I am tempted to speculate whether or not shouting “not black” or “not a Jew” would be tolerated by nearby fans or school officials as a way to point out that none of these expressions is acceptable. The problem with this comparison is that anti-black, anti-Jew and other prejudices are still acceptable on campuses too.

Fans at football and men’s basketball games at some schools routinely taunt opposing players with racial, homophobic and sexist shouts from the stands. Opposing players taunt each other with homophobic and racist slurs and refs rarely catch them. When I speak to collegiate athletes, the men, in particular, readily acknowledge that calling someone, a teammate or an opponent, a “fag” is an accepted and widespread occurrence.

Everyone who spends time with young people knows that saying, “That’s so gay,” to describe feelings about something is an accepted catch-all substitute for calling a person, a movie, a class, a pizza, or anything else “stupid,” “ugly,” or “uncool.” It’s so pervasive that most coaches, teachers and students who do object just let it go rather than being accused of being “too sensitive,” “gay themselves,” or PC or because they feel helpless to stop this pervasive part of school culture.

So, I applaud the efforts by the students at UVA to apply a little peer pressure to stop the “not gay” chant. It would be easy to just let it go when so many other people do. Each one of us has a sphere of influence – our family, our classroom, our co-workers, our team. I encourage everyone reading this to think about the places and people with whom you have influence.

If you’re a coach or a teacher or a team captain, the next time someone says, “That’s so gay,” or shouts, “not gay,” or calls someone a “fag or “lezzy,” don’t just turn away, roll your eyes or ignore it. Speak up. Let others know that you don’t like slurs or jokes of any kind, whether sexual, racial, religious, whatever. Use your influence. It can make a difference and, even if it doesn’t change the world, it can change your classroom or your team. That’s an important change.

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