In three days, it will mark 15 years since police officer Reggie Fluty found Matthew Shepard tortured, and hung on a fence, and left to die. At a retelling of Shepard's story on Tuesday night at the Ole Miss, a group of the school's athletes decided to yell out "fag" and heckle the performers. After being punished, the athletes did not seem to "understand what they were apologizing for."
Students at the school's performance of The Laramie Project, a play about Shepard's murder, told The Daily Mississippian that the athletes were there because they were fulfilling a theater course requirement, possibly explaining why people who are using hate speech would show up to a play about Matthew Shepard and hate crimes. The Daily Mississippian reports:
According to the play’s director and theater faculty member Rory Ledbetter, some audience members used derogatory slurs like "fag" and heckled both cast members and the characters they were portraying for their body types and sexual orientations. Ledbetter said the audience’s reactions included "borderline hate speech."
Michael Barnett, assistant chair of theater arts at the school and also chair of the Ole Miss faculty senate, told USA Today that a house manager identified the group as athletes:
"From what I understand there were others who followed suit, who followed the lead of the students who were heckling some of our female cast members based on their body size," Barnett said. "And then there were several incidents from what I understand of using the term 'fag' or 'faggot.' That's when our house manager went to contact athletics."
And it gets worse. The athletic department actually asked the athletes (football players) to apologize for their hateful behavior, and they apparently couldn't even do that right. The Daily Mississippian reports:
"The football players were asked by the athletics department to apologize to the cast,” Ole Miss Theatre Department Chair Rene Pulliam said. “However, I’m not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for."
The football players’ apology, which was given by one undisclosed football player on behalf of the entire group, caused two cast members to cry.
University of Mississippi officials including Dan Jones, and Athletics Director Ross Bjork said that they are currently investigating the case and issued an apology Thursday afternoon. "We will be engaging our student-athletes with leaders on the subject of individuality and tolerance, so we can further enforce life lessons and develop them to their fullest potential," they said in a statement.
The whole thing is massively depressing when you take the context of what these kids were yelling out and what The Laramie Project is. These kids are jerks, no doubt. But incidents like this one also make you question Shepard's legacy and whether we all have done enough to make sure that no one forgets what this young gay man went through before he died. Maybe there are places and schools where we haven't.
"I was disappointed to see that a number of Ole Miss football players and others in the audience decided to interrupt a performance of the play using anti-gay slurs," Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, told the gay website Queerty. "Using hate-filled words to interrupt a play about anti-gay hate is a sad irony that only reminds me of the work we at the Matthew Shepard Foundation and each of us as individuals must undertake to help stop hate," she added.
Ole Miss is celebrating LGBTQ month and is hosting a Pride next week.