Column in SMU newspaper sparks controversy, protest

Posted on 20 Apr 2006 at 9:52pm
By Tammye Nash – Staff Writer

Sophomore’s response to gay lecturer’s opinion article urges GLBT activist to tone down “‘flamboyance’

GLBT rights have been a hot button issue on the campus of Southern Methodist University this month, with controversy sparked by a student column published April 6 in the school’s newspaper, The Daily Campus.
Students angered by the column staged a silent protest on the campus on April 12.

In the column, SMU sophomore Joel Sartain criticized the GLBT community for its “flamboyancy,” saying that the “mostly laid back, Republican, Christian, tolerant people” at the university and in Dallas “do not appreciate you always purposefully ruffling our feathers.”

Sartain wrote the column in response to a column by George Henson, an openly gay Spanish lecturer at SMU, that was published in The Daily Campus on April 4.

Henson writes regular columns for the newspaper and often addresses GLBT issues. His office door was vandalized with anti-gay graffiti in March after he published a column critical of President Bush.

Henson took the title of his column “Gays, the new Jews?” from the title of a column written by Danny Miller, a contributing writer for both Salon magazine and the Los Angeles Times. In his column, Henson constructed a historically-based argument for likening the current persecution of the GLBT community to the persecution of the Jews during and leading up to World War II.

Two days later, the newspaper published Sartain’s column that began: “Damn, George. You’ve crossed the line yet again and need some help. No sweat, I’m here to help you and the entire gay community with a few suggestions.”

Sartain wrote that “we, the straight community do love you,” and includes frequent assurances of tolerance and acceptance. But he also includes numerous apparently less-than-tolerant references, such as “your made-up hissy fit that you are being mistreated,” “they should migrate to a more welcoming area,” “pockets of wacko liberals” and “deviant behavior.”

“Your flamboyancy kills whatever it is you are trying to accomplish. That is your number one problem: flamboyancy,” Sartain counseled his gay readers. “Is it clear? Flamboyancy. Overkill kills, gay movement. Too much is too much.”

Sartain then defines flamboyancy as “The multitude of stickers plastered on cars and walls around the country, the seemingly intentional intimate cuddling in public, the marches, the lousy editorial columns, the heralding of your makeshift heroes .”

These things, he said “are making us question our across-the-board tolerance of the gay community.”

Sartain also ridiculed the idea that some GLBT people lose their jobs because of their sexual orientation, and suggested that the GLBT rights movement is out of place in North Texas.

“More seriously, SMU and Dallas, Texas, are not the places for an outspoken, offensive, anti-Republican, flamboyant, gay movement to attempt to change the way society categorizes deviant behavior,” Sartain wrote. “That is the plan and simple truth, which may hurt.”

The column prompted a large group of students to gather on April 12 for a two-hour protest outside the university’s Hughes-Trigg Student Center and on the campus’ main quad. Protesters tied ropes across their mouths and remained silent throughout the protest to symbolize the silencing of GLBT voices.

Harrison Ford, a senior theater major at Southern Methodist University, organized the protest. He told Daily Campus staff members Emily Sears and Cate Briggs the event was intended to protest “the opinion that basically if you’re not like us, you need to leave.”

Sartain did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Reaction to Sartain’s column was swift, and for the most part, angry, according to Jessica Savage, editor-in-chief of The Daily Campus. Some of the anger was directed at the newspaper for publishing the column.

“We have had some negative feedback about it,” Savage said this week. “It hasn’t caused any direct problems, like a confrontation with a staff member. But there are some people who don’t agree with us publishing it.”

But Savage said publishing the column was part of the newspaper’s commitment to giving voice to as wide a variety of student opinion as possible.

“It was a judgment call. We don’t publish direct personal attacks, like if they call someone an idiot,” she said. “I think that freedom of speech is a good justification for publishing the column. Someone will always disagree with something on the opinion page. That is part of it. And some people think we publish everything we get, but we don’t. There are criteria.”

Henson agreed that the newspaper should not shy away from publishing possibly controversial articles and opinion columns.

“They have no obligation to publish my column, and I am sure they have gotten some criticism for it,” he said. “I know they have parameters, criteria for what they publish. And I know they did not publish another article a student wrote in response to my column because they considered it even more of a personal attack than the one Joel Sartain wrote.”

Henson said The Daily Campus “had every right” to publish Sartain’s column.
“Was it over the top? Yes. He needs to learn to express himself better in a public forum. But then, that’s why he’s here at SMU,” Henson said.

He added that he had sent an e-mail directly to Sartain, applauding the sophomore for “having the courage to come out and say what a lot of people are thinking to themselves.”

“I told him I hope his opinions will change, and that I thought his article was a perfect illustration of the point I was making in my article,” Henson said.

Responses to Sartain’s column posted on the newspaper’s online message board on Tuesday showed that four respondents agreed with him and 14 disagreed. Two others could not be clearly classified.

Some responses still might not have been posted online; Savage said only the most recent within a two-week time period remain available.

Savage had written an article in March about the vandalism at Henson’s office. She said she “thought it was important for students to realize this voice is here, on our campus. I think it brought a lot of context to what had happened to George Henson’s office.”

She said she was also glad to see that Sartain’s column had generated such a vigorous response.

“It was really interesting to see our community wrap itself around this issue and really dig into it. I haven’t seen anything like this happening in connection with other issues. I have never seen a protest like this one in the four years I have been here,” Savage said.

Henson, too, was impressed with the student-led protest. “It was one of the most thought-provoking protest events I have seen anywhere,” Henson said. “I was very moved by it, and very proud that the students had the courage to do something that visible. I think it had a significant impact.”

E-mail nash@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 21, 2006.

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