UM Pride Network helps change campus climate in Mississippi

During LGBT History Month last year, the University of Mississippi made national headlines when a theatre performance of "The Laramie Project" was disrupted by members of the campus community, including around twenty student athletes, shouting anti-LGBT slurs, laughing at characters, and taking photographs while making cruel jokes. The fact that the play derives from real-life interviews and reactions to the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, makes what took place in Mississippi even more disconcerting. As Robert McAuliffe, president of UM's Pride Network, wrote publicly last year, "…we must not look at this incident as a hiccup in the story of The University of Mississippi but as a catalyst to continue the work we have all been doing for so long."

Numerous students expressed their belief that the cruel irony of the incident spoke more to the need for 'Ole Miss' to address LGBT discrimination campus-wide than to the views of individuals or athletes in particular. According to the school's paper, "The Daily Mississippian," inequality is still prevalent this year, particularly in a lack of partner benefits for school employees', a lack of gender-neutral restrooms, and a general feeling among LGBT campus members and their allies that the school community lacks 'genuine social acceptance.'

Still, UM Pride Network, the school's LGBTQ organization, has continued their work of creating a safe, accepting space for all students and supporting LGBT community members over the past year with events like this past April's "Breaking the Silence LGBTQ Symposium: Changing the Campus Climate," this October's National Coming Out event with Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, and other important school-wide happenings.

GLAAD got the chance to speak with UM Pride's co-presidents, Robert McAuliffe and Ian Whalen, about their initiatives, last year's incident, and what it is like to be LGBT in Mississippi! Read on as we highlight the important work being done in Mississippi. 

What is it like being LGBT in Mississippi?

Ian: Being LGBT in Mississippi has been complicated. There have been ups and downs at different times throughout my time here. The LGBT community in Mississippi has to navigate the complex culture of the South. While attitudes are changing, there is still a lot of hate being preached.

Robert: It requires walking on eggshells at times. Feeling out who around you will be okay with you as you are, and who won’t. All in all, I’ve found Oxford particularly accepting within the right circles, but the culture at large still expresses very negative sentiments towards LGBT-identified folks.


What is the thing you are most proud of?

Ian: I would have to say the thing that I am most proud of is the fact that even in the South there is a growing LGBT community that is becoming more outspoken and fighting to change the hearts and minds of those individuals that are against LGBT issues.

Robert: I’ve been particularly proud of being able to create a space on campus where queer and trans people can come together and feel accepted. That kind of a space is uniquely hard to find in the South.


That is such an important space to have! I've read about it in the news, but can you tell me briefly about "The Laramie Project" incident last year? Had UM ever done the play, or a similar play, before?

Ian: At one of the performances of “The Laramie Project” last year, there were some homophobic and body-shaming outbursts from the audience. In the past the UM Theater Department has put on plays that included LGBT characters, like “Rent.” But, to my knowledge, it was the first time a specifically LGBT-centric play like “The Laramie Project” was performed on campus.


 In a recent Daily Mississippian article, it is stated that students, faculty, staff, and alumni are disappointed in a lack of progress towards LGBT inclusion on campus. How have things changed for the better since "The Laramie Project" incident?

Ian: There has been an LGBT Advisory Committee to the Chancellor established. It aims to discuss and find solutions to problems that face the LGBT community on campus. Other positive changes I’ve seen around campus is the willingness to openly discuss LGBT issues has increased. Also LGBT Pride Month, which is observed every October, will hopefully continue to grow and increase visibility for the LGBT community on campus.

Robert: The main change I’ve noticed is in visibility. Even a couple years ago, editorials and discussions of gay rights only happened every once in a while. This year, it’s become a fixture on campus and I don’t think it’s going to stop. Just about every week there’s an editorial in the Daily Mississippian with nuanced discussion about LGBT issues, being transgender on campus, and other personal experiences from the community.


That's great! In addition to a lack of partner benefits for campus employees, what are some other aspects of campus life and community that need to change?

Ian: I would say that making the campus more trans inclusive is something that needs immediate action. Establishing gender neutral restrooms and coed dorms on campus would be a step in the right direction.

Robert: Greater integration within structures of power on campus would be a huge step. The fraternity and sorority system still accept very few openly LGBT individuals and integrating that system would create a completely different climate on campus.


As co-presidents of the Pride Network, what initiatives have you worked on to create positive, lasting change? What initiatives are you planning for this school year?

Ian: What I hope to accomplish this year is to increase visibility of the LGBT community on campus. We will be having another Mississippi collegiate activist symposium in the spring and we will be hosting documentary movie nights and hopefully get a dialogue series up and running to continue to change the climate on campus.

Robert: In addition, we’re planning a trans visibility week, as well as events to highlight the importance of the African American community within the LGBT movement.


 Have any other LGBT-related campus organizations, groups, classes, etc. developed in your time at UM? If so, what are they, and what do they do?

Ian: I would say that it has really been in the last two years that LGBT-related classes have emerged. The Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies has established a sexualities emphasis within their department and queer-themed literature courses and queer theory courses have been offered to students. There is one other LGBT-related group on campus, OUTLaw, the LGBT organization at the Law School hosts an LGBT-themed legal symposium every year offering lectures and dialogues concerning the legal battles that face our community.


 Do you interact with other similar groups, either in your local community or in the south in general? How do you support each other's work?

Ian: We have worked closely with the HRC this year, co-sponsoring the Chad Griffin event. We are also teaming up with them to have a Grove tent at the Egg Bowl in a couple of weeks. We have also worked with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, the Sarah Isom Center for Gender Studies and the Center for Inclusion here on campus to coordinate events and create a coalition to give an even louder and stronger voice to the LGBT community at the university.

Robert: We also invite similar undergraduate LGBT college activist groups from around the state to join us for our annual LGBT activist symposium. For our last symposium, we had representatives from Jackson State University, Mississippi State University, and Southern Mississippi University. This year we’re hoping to expand that to even more Mississippi colleges.


What support could you use in order to do the work needed more efficiently?

Robert: Honestly financial support is always helpful. We love bringing speakers and professional presenters to campus, but that usually costs far more money than the Associated Student Body extends to us. We’ve been extremely grateful to our partners and departments around campus that have supported our events, especially the William Winter Institute and the Sarah Isom Center


 Is there anything else you would like folks to know about the Pride Network?

Robert: Just that we love to hear suggestions from the community! We want all queer and trans identified people to have a space within our group and to be able to turn the problems they face into activism, so to that end we want to hear from the Mississippi LGBT community at large what their needs are and what we could be doing better.


Get involved in the conversation, and tune in to GLAAD's Southern Stories to learn more about the important LGBT work being done in the south!