NEWS

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March 4, 2003

Mr. University event raises spectre of homophobia

Homophobic comments made at the Mr. University pageant last Thursday night brought into question the community's acceptance of homosexuals and raised concerns that the Greek system, whose members were a large part of the crowd, condones homophobia.

The slurs, called out by a handful of the approximately 700 students at the pageant, came mostly during the talent portion of the contest. The derogatory comments reached a crescendo during the singing performance of one candidate, when a member of the audience yelled "faggot," among other vulgar statements.

Immediately after making the comment, the student was forcibly removed by Lori Hurvitz, assistant director of student activities and advisor to the Greek system. After she spoke to him, the student, a fraternity member, returned to the pageant.

Seen by some as a throwback to the era when social groups were marked by highly exclusive standards, fraternities and sororities strive to maintain the grain of tradition which defines them. At a place with so much emphasis on egalitarianism, equality, and open-mindedness, some feel the fraternity hall represents the only outlet for students to espouse views no longer acceptable around campus.

The comments Thursday night follow an incident last fall where a student in the College was assaulted with a beer can after dancing with another male student at a fraternity party. According to Hurvitz, these two instances have not been the only acts of homophobia during the academic year, though they were the most visible.

"Several instances have involved the Greek system," she said. "Whether it's a coincidence or not, I'm not sure."

To explore the issue, the University is convening a meeting with leaders of the Greek system this week to discuss homophobia and find ways to ensure that fraternities and sororities are not the source of anti-homosexual sentiment.

Several of the estimated eight percent of students in the College involved in Greek life at the University are homosexual, according to Hurvitz.

"I don't think the Greek system is helping, but I don't think homophobic tendencies are limited to it," she said. "It is a community we can concentrate on and work with."

Hurvitz said that though the several incidents of homophobia on campus are cause for concern, they are attributable to small groups of individuals--not to the institution of fraternities and sororities.

In Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji), one of the University's larger fraternities, there are no openly gay brothers, according to president Connor Looney. He said that no homosexual student has ever tried to become a member.

"Most of the guys here are on the football team--those are the only guys who really want to join," Looney said, adding that he has known of no openly gay members on Chicago's football team.

The University's homosexual community, for its part, responded formally to the incident at the pageant with an open letter by the Queers and Associates student group underscoring the University's anti-defamation policies and reiterating the negative effects that such remarks have on the community.

Kathy Forde, academic advisor and co-coordinator of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer Mentoring Program (LGBTQ), expressed that while the outburst on Thursday night was troubling, the University community is generally respectful and accepting of homosexual students.

For Forde, the University community is a model for what society as a whole should strive to be: a place where people are valued for who they are and the contributions they make, not their sexual preference.

"Homophobia makes it difficult for LBGT [lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender] students to participate fully and that's a shame," Forde wrote in an e-mail interview. "It's important for people--gay and straight--to speak up when they hear homophobic comments. By not letting the comments slide and by addressing them as offensive, people start to realize that homophobia is inappropriate."

Mary Anne Guediguian, president of Kappa Alpha Theta, the sorority which hosted the Mr. University pageant, issued an apology to all those who were offended at the event.

"As an organization, and members of the Greek Community here at the University of Chicago, Kappa Alpha Theta does not condone or endorse any of the comments made during our show," Guediguian wrote.

Susan Art, dean of students in the College, said that students in the College hold a "range of attitudes" about sensitive subjects such as homosexuality. The primary reason there were so many homophobic slurs at the pageant, she said, was that the consumption of alcohol unleashed these sentiments.

"It's not so much Greek life as it is excessive alcohol use," Art said. "If they are inebriated, they lose control of their own speech and judgment."

Art emphasized that the University is determined for homosexual students to feel welcome here, and to feel that the climate is acceptable for them. She admitted that the spectrum of ideas on campus includes some disagreeable ones.

"They don't show good judgment in not keeping to themselves--they pollute the environment when they speak out," Art said.

"What students with these views should do is recognize their prejudices and learn from each other," Art said. "If we really have an open community, some of the prejudices will be addressed and disappear."

To Bill Michel, assistant dean of the College, the most the University can hope for is that educational activities will erase students' homophobic beliefs.

"The most we can do is challenge people's views and provide the opportunities for growth," he said. "We can't mandate what people think, but we can make clear what's acceptable in the community."

Michel, who said the general University community is open and accepting of homosexuals, hoped that the Greek system was not involved in the acts of homophobia.

"I plan to bring up that question: what kinds of things the community--all of it--is doing to be accepting of all students," Michel said of his new role as assistant vice president of student life.

But for Nathanial Prottas, a fourth-year in the College who is openly gay, the Mr. University situation disappointed him more than anything else.

Prottas, who said he has not experienced any personal attacks during his four years here, also said that though the consumption of alcohol may have lowered students' inhibitions, there was some other sentiment--more troubling--beneath the inebriation.

"I don't think drunkenness can ever excuse that kind of behavior," he said. "Under any circumstances you know what is right and what is wrong to say.

"Clearly, many were caught up in this fraternity world. I can't pinpoint it but there was something else there--you don't just say things like that because you're drunk."

But more telling about the University community to Prottas was the absence of response from students in Mandel Hall, where the pageant was being held.

"To hear this and then see that the whole student community didn't stand up and gasp, I was shocked," Prottas said. "The events seemed to go undisturbed. I was surprised there wasn't more of an outcry at the moment."