When 'Not Gay' is 'Not OK'

November 15, 2007

We come from old Virginia,
Where all is bright and gay.

After a Cavalier touchdown, the marching band strikes up what, to an outsider, sounds like “Auld Lang Syne.” But, to its tune, students and alumni sing the “Good Old Song,” its lyrics written by Edward A. Craighill in 1895, its mention of all being “bright and gay” a throwback to when “gay” meant “happy,” the line a launching pad for what’s since become a university tradition of negating the word “gay” with gleeful (often drunken) shouts of “not gay!”

At the University of Virginia, steeped as it is in tradition, a student-led campaign this semester has applied peer pressure to encourage students to rethink the ritual. “Essentially,” said Stephen Leonelli, president of the Queer and Allied Activism group at Virginia, “we believe that it marginalizes the gay community by creating an environment in which certain people who may or may not identify as gay do not feel welcome.”

The campaign has sparked a fury of letters and opinion pieces in the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, with the latest opinion piece, on Wednesday, defending the “not gay” chant and criticizing a culture of political correctness and liberal groupthink. “I’m just expressing my religiously informed political views that it’s wrong to act homosexual,” Alex Cortes, a first-year student and the writer of “Not gay and proud of it,” said in an interview Wednesday.

But while Cortes described his participation in the “not gay” chant as ideologically driven, those behind the campaign believe the bulk of those chanting are following the crowd. This isn't the first time the cheer has sparked controversy: An earlier campaign six years ago to challenge the chant had been quite successful at stemming the shouts, at least from students, said Lauren Tilton, the president of the Student Council. But institutional memories at colleges are short – at least on the student level – and, “We noticed that at one of the games that we thought the chant was starting to come back a bit. So we decided to basically do something before it got much louder,” Tilton said.

“It is student self-governance in action," said Carol Wood, a Virginia spokeswoman, adding that while the administration has not been involved in the issue, the students spearheading the campaign have its full support. "With student self-governance it’s really great to see the students taking this action themselves.”

At a November 3 home game between Virginia and Wake Forest University, students distributed stickers that said, simply, “Where all is bright and gay,” in addition to an open letter explaining that the "not gay" chant "lends community support to harassment, violence and bigotry," and can make an already marginalized group feel unsafe and uncomfortable. “We ask that you not only not say 'not gay' but hold your peers to the same standard. If you hear it, remind them why it is not acceptable and use it as an opportunity to educate our community on how we need to be open and inclusive," the letter said.

“What we found a lot of times is that people weren’t thinking really critically of why they were saying it,” Tilton said. “We took it as an education campaign, to remind people that when you say this it actually hurts people in our community.”

“At the Wake Forest game, I noticed a remarkable drop in the number of people who said the ‘not gay’ chant,” said Wyatt Fore, a leader of the campaign and co-chair of the Minority Rights Coalition. "From where I was sitting, it not only decreased from previous games, but it decreased during the game itself.”

“If you see people wearing these stickers, you realize, well there are lots of people around me who don’t say it. It makes you think and have that conversation with yourself – ‘why do I say it?’”

“It was a really great experience for me because even when people disagreed, they at least familiarized themselves with the fact that people do disagree with students or alumni saying ‘not gay,'" added Leonelli of the Queer and Allied Activism group. Handing out stickers to a "group of three girls, one said, 'I don’t want this at all,' and one said, 'I do.' And then they started talking about it.”

Yet, as the Cavalier Daily has reported, there has been some backlash. On the one hand, “There are the contrarians,” Fore acknowledged -- and in fact, a recent Cavalier Daily column quoted one such law student as saying, “I probably wouldn’t do the cheer myself if it wasn’t for the people out there somewhere telling me I shouldn’t be doing the cheer.”

But beyond the contrarians, said Patrick Lee, co-chair with Fore of the Minority Rights Coalition, “When I was passing out the stickers, alumni were saying some pretty nasty things to me.”

“I go to other campuses all the time,” said Lee, who called Virginia “the bastion of southern gentlemen.”

"What you hear, what’s considered OK there and what’s considered OK here, is just amazing,” said Lee, who added that while he understands the student self-governance model, he wishes the university administration would be more proactive in addressing the issues at stake directly.

“People still wonder why the university can’t seem to shed its reputation as an unfriendly place for certain minorities. This is why,” said an editorial in the October 15 Cavalier Daily calling the “Not gay” chant “Not OK.” The editorial pointed out that the chant is sometimes audible to television audiences.

"For many viewers watching the games from home, their only exposure to the university are the several times each game when insecure fans shriek how 'not gay' they are....The university's inability to curtail the chant tarnishes its reputation. And rightfully so."

“How the school responds to it is the key thing,” said Pat Griffin, a professor emeritus of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and director of It Takes a Team, a project that promotes education about sexual orientation in sports. Such potentially offensive cheers -- which, in some cases, take the form of taunts, like in the recent case of a Duke University basketball player who, as OutSports reported, was called "Brokeback" by opposing fans -- could evolve at any college, Griffin said. “All it takes is a vocal minority who don't care to start something up like that. It’s up to the school to set the norms for what’s OK and what’s not OK.”

“We certainly haven’t done away with homophobia especially in a football stadium setting with lots of people, and possibly some drinking going on,” added Griffin. (She spoke during a panel discussion at the University of Virginia several years ago.)

But while some cite tradition and football spectator culture as reasons why certain students and alumni resist calls to cease the chanting, Cortes, the author of the Wednesday opinion piece defending the cheer, said it’s a mistake to discount all those who yell it as “drunks or homophobes.”

"I'm neither...It's a lot easier to label me as a drunk or a homophobe so they don’t have to address my concerns [intellectually]….When I’m saying I’m not gay, I’m asserting basically that I’m heterosexual and, through that, that it’s wrong to act gay,” Cortes said, stressing that he is not condemning gay people but homosexual acts.

“During the second half of the football season I have felt uncomfortable saying the 'not gay' chant, not because of the content, but because of the stares and criticisms I receive after doing so,” he wrote in his Cavalier Daily opinion piece. “Despite this discomfort, I will continue to press on as one of the last beacons of strength and morality. That may sound too pompous for the rather insignificant matter at hand, but courage on any level is hard to find these days. Political correctness, a weakening morality and lack of courage are suffocating our once-great nation.”

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