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Equation for a Hate Crime: How Hazing and Homophobia Could Have Played a Role in FAMU's Robert Champion Jr. Death

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Recently, advocates from around the country gathered in Baltimore for the annual Creating Change conference, hosted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. At the 24th national conference on LGBT equality, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) and the National Education Association's Office of Minority Community Outreach partnered to present a timely townhall meeting that focused on the challenges lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth of color face -- one of these issues being violence at school.

Hazing is alive and well on college campuses across the nation. The tragic death of Robert Champion Jr. at Florida A&M University (FAMU) is a reminder of this.

Campus officials for two decades knew about the famed Marching 100 band's hazing rituals, but zero tolerance and threats to punish band members did not change the band's tradition. But until Champion, no band member had ever died.

Was Champion's death a hazing act that went wrong, or is there something more? What is not being readily discussed in this hazing death is why, in his case, the beating he received was severe enough to kill him. Publicly, it seems that the college is quick to assert that being gay had little to do with Champion's death. The attorney for the Champion family, Christopher Chestnut, also stated, "Our investigation is very clear: This was hazing, not a hate crime." The attorney does admit, however, that Champion's sexual orientation may have been a factor, albeit one of several factors.

The Department of Justice's definition of a hate crime reads: "a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin." The key words here are "in whole or in part."

A full investigation by law enforcement is necessary to determine if there was any bias motivation in the FAMU hazing death. As the executive director of Campus Pride, a national nonprofit organization that provides voice to LGBT college students, I know all too well that it is common for anti-LGBT attitudes and harassment to be at the root of hazing acts, especially within fraternal organizations. I have published three books, Out on Fraternity Row, Secret Sisters, and Brotherhood, which openly share the stories of LGB fraternity and sorority members. Personal accounts of hazing depicting anti-gay or anti-transgender acts illustrate how anti-LGBT beliefs are often a culprit within hazing rituals or traditions. Knowing or perceiving that a victim is gay can be added motivation to haze harder and in a more extreme manner in such instances.

A study of the LGB experiences of fraternity and sorority members by Campus Pride in 2007 reports that over 50 percent of current members shared that the climate within their fraternity was somewhat anti-gay. Although there have been notable improvements, there is limited educational work being done within fraternities to even deal with anti-LGBT behaviors. The fact that anti-LGBT attitudes can be a contributing factor in hazing is largely ignored by fraternities, as well as by colleges and universities.

A cursory review of LGBT-inclusive policies, programs, and practices at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) like FAMU depicts a reticent culture of silence and inaction by campus officials on issues of LGBT safety. According to Campus Pride's Campus Climate Index, only a handful of HBCUs have even assessed their campus environment for LGBT students and staff. There are only a few HBCUs listed on the national index, despite our outreach efforts. In most cases, the students at HBCUs are the ones addressing LGBT issues of harassment and safety on campus, when it should be the role of administrators to do so.

Campus Pride's 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People national report indicates that 13 percent of LGB respondents fear for their physical safety on campus. This finding was even more salient for transgender students and LGBT students of color. Fear for physical safety plays a large role in the silence and invisibility, as we found that more than half of all students, faculty, and staff hide their sexual orientation or gender identity to avoid intimidation.

In a media statement, FAMU President James Ammons stated, "The university has a zero tolerance policy toward hazing. Period." In light of Champion's death, I seriously question the accuracy and enforcement of this statement. I also question whether the same declaration would be said by the president about anti-gay violence or harassment on campus.

To date, FAMU does not have any inclusive LGBT policies, programs, and practices, nor does it have an institutional commitment to LGBT safety and inclusion. The campus does not even have a bias response team or bias incident reporting system for any student to report bias incidents when they occur on campus. FAMU has also not participated in the Campus Pride Index to even begin the process of addressing LGBT issues and concerns.

The death of Champion demands action by the FAMU administration on the issues of hazing as well as anti-LGBT violence and attitudes. All colleges and universities have the responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for academic success for every student.

Campus Pride stands with the NBJC and supports their call for a full investigation of Champion's death as a possible hate crime. Sign the NBJC petition online.

Let Champion's death be a call to action for HBCUs. End the silence and inaction that allows hazing and dangerous anti-LGBT attitudes to thrive.