In the heat of July, the chill of Oxford winter seems like a distant memory. As the calendar proceeds on its inevitable march, my early morning walks to class from Pittman Hall fade further into memory. There’s something unifying about a walk across campus in the early hours of the morning. Only those that have lived on the beautiful slice of heaven that is our campus can really know what it is like to listen to the sound of the leaves crunching under your feet as you walk through the Grove bound for class, completely alone.
However, following an experience in February, on one of those brisk winter days that seems so hard to recall, memory is colored by a harsh reality: your ability to enjoy the community and closeness of campus depends on who you are. On an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday, as I speed walked across campus alone, risking tardiness to a class, a nameless group of students in a truck changed the way that I perceived our campus forever.
“F*g!” screamed the driver in my general direction. Stunned, I froze. I grew up in rural South Mississippi as a self-identified proud gay man, and never had a stranger shown such random malice. I am a staunch defender of the place I grew up. Up until that point, it was my impression that though prejudice has been built into so many of the systems of Mississippian society, most people kept to themselves, or attempted to put up that public face. I’d experienced rumors and closed-door comments, but never had I been called out in public by someone that I didn’t even know.
This would not be the last time I was slurred on campus. My roommate and I, both gay men, would face exponentially more homophobic remarks together. It seemed that the mere existence of our friendship and its place on sacred campus ground was an affront to the daily lives of some of our peers. Though every queer person from Mississippi has story after story of transgressions, never in my life had either of us lived in a place where we faced explicit prejudice almost weekly.
The nature of these transgressions, random slurs shouted into the wind, allow the offending parties to stay anonymous. I couldn’t help but think about running into one of these nameless voices in the library or at the dining hall. Would they remember me? Could I stand up for myself if they decided to put actions behind those empty words? Would anyone even care?
Ole Miss is filled with organizations that tell you that they do, in fact, care about queer issues on campus. The Associated Student Body recently posted pictures of queer people at pride events, and affirms, in the text of an Instagram post that there is a “call… to respect the dignity of each person, and this begins with amplifying the voices of marginalized students at UM.” The sentiment is promising, but the solution to the problem that the ASB identifies is partially within their power to control. They – along with other institutions at the university – can post that they want to lift up queer voices all day long. How though, does this uplifting occur? From the looks of the @olemissasb Instagram page (I encourage you to take a look for yourself) it appears that pride month began and ended on June 30th. Between its series of 2021 pride posts and the pride post from the year before, LGBTQ+ issues were only mentioned once. This post was concerning MS SB 2536, a bill to ban transgender athletes from competing on teams of their identified gender. Though ASB took no official action to intervene in the passage of this bill, they called on students to call and email their representatives. ASB is arguably the most powerful student organization on campus with the most resources. The responsibility for upholding LGBTQ+ rights was shifted on the masses, rather than the people tasked with representing them.
Why is ASB not organizing phone drives? If truly concerned with equitable representation in sports, why aren’t directors of sports programs being called to testify in front of legislative sessions? Why is it that the only support that we, as queer people get, are empty words, empty promises and empty calls to action that reveal structural apathy to queer issues?
To adequately unpack how fundamental homophobia is to power structures at Ole Miss, let me provide you with a case study in queerness on campus. One of my favorite parts of my freshman year of college was the community of peers that I gained by living in Pittman Hall. As queer men living under the guidance of a queer CA, my roommate and I felt like our corner of Oxford was a safe and affirming one. I stopped looking over my shoulder when I stepped into the building and for a time I felt safe there.
This all was until an incident in our dorm GroupMe. In again a seemingly random act of hatred, a new member was added to the chat and immediately began to call me slurs in front of 300 people. I was humiliated. This was an official means of communication set up by student housing and this man felt so confident in sharing his prejudice because, up until this point in his life, I can only assume that he’d never faced repercussions for his actions.
I shrugged the incident off and went on about my life. Queerness is often an isolating experience. The last thing that I wanted to do was put a spotlight on myself. My friends, on the other hand, saw the incident differently. Screenshots of the group chat were sent by a number of my friends to the guy’s fraternity, and his letters were removed from his bio on Instagram. Suddenly, I had dozens of men from the fraternity texting and calling me, begging to apologize and promising that their organization “didn’t stand for hatred.”
My friends shouldn’t be responsible for pursuing action for action to occur. The existing protocol, had it been applied appropriately, should have held this guy responsible for his actions. Through the grapevine, I had been promised by members of the fraternity that the man had been removed from their brotherhood. A week later when I found this not to be the case, I went to FSL. After an initial expression of interest by Dr. Doctor over email, my requests for a meeting were never followed up on.
Through his official capacities as a CA, the person responsible for my floor filed a report with Student Housing. Weeks later, my building director contacted me for a meeting, profusely apologizing that it took so long for him to catch wind of the situation. The entire time, I had been looking over my shoulder on campus. This man slept every night in the same building as me, and I had, up until this point, expected retaliation for speaking my truth. The building director, though weeks late, was the only one that treated me like a human being during the whole situation. However, a few days after our initial meeting, a new person suddenly showed up in his office. Given the timing, I have been left to wonder if the failure to adequately respond to the incident using university protocol was pinned on the only person actually helpful to me in the whole ordeal.Systems of power at Ole Miss are structurally designed to inhibit the voices of queer people. Queer spaces that exist on campus are allowed to exist at the bequest of ASB and administration. Though I believe that spaces for young queer people to exist by themselves are important, in practice, they have been structured in order to take conversations about the queer experience away from discords that impact power and how it is distributed on campus.
It is my sincere opinion that Ole Miss is the most beautiful campus in the world. The structures that it is built on are much uglier. I don’t have a solution, but I do know one thing: ASB, FSL or whoever is appealing to queer people for likes during the month of June do not care about queer people or queer issues. They shouldn’t be praised for inaction with likes, comments and shares.
Why is it that the language of queer people is constantly policed, and not the other way around? If the words of ASB’s pride post, in name they are “committed to amplifying the voices of the LGBTQ+ community year-round.” Yet, when it comes to advancing and advocating for causes that they do have power over, our student organizations are silent.
I am proud to be a part of the Ole Miss community. I am grateful that I have experienced the magic silence of the Grove in the early morning. There is a place for silence and serenity and reverence for something bigger than yourself in Oxford. However, the place for silence is not in the meetings of student organizations. It is not on the streets where students are being actively slurred. It is not in fraternities that commodify, gaslight and exploit queer people to appear “woke.” Because, like it or not, LGBTQ+ people are living loud and proud in Oxford. As equal contributors to this community and everything it stands for, we deserve to be advocated for with meaningful action instead of empty promises.
We are better than the labels that make us different. It’s about time to be honest about queerphobia on Ole Miss’ campus. It is structural. It is active. And, largely, it is unaddressed.
Logan Baggett is a sophomore from Petal majoring in Spanish and international studies.