A group of 20 University of Mississippi football players disrupted an on-campus play Wednesday night by yelling gay slurs at cast members, missing the entire point of the play a theater class required them to attend.
The play, The Laramie Project, tells the story of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered on in 1998 on the University of Wyoming’s campus. Shepard was gay and his murder brought to light the lack of hate crimes laws in states across America. Instead of learning that lesson, though, the group of football players and other audience members heckled the cast with gay slurs of their own, the Daily Mississippian, Ole Miss’ student newspaper, reported:
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.”
“I am the only gay person on the cast,” junior theater major Garrison Gibbons said. “I played a gay character in the show, and to be ridiculed like that was something that really made me realize that some people at Ole Miss and in Mississippi still can’t accept me for who I am.”
An account of the events said that while Ole Miss players weren’t the only ones heckling, they were instigating the disruptions. When the athletic department got word of the incident, it forced the players to sign a letter of apology and deliver it to the cast after the show. Whether the players will face further disciplinary action, such as suspension from Ole Miss’ game at Auburn on Saturday, is unknown. The university is also still looking into the incident and, according to USA Today, has referred it to committees that handle bias and LGBT and racial discrimination on campus, so it at least appears to be taking the incident seriously.
“We certainly do not condone any actions that offend or hurt people in any way,” Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze tweeted Thursday. “We are working with all departments involved to find the facts.”
Mississippi, where an openly gay mayoral candidate was murdered in February of this year, does not have a hate crimes law that extends to sexual orientation. President Obama signed legislation extending the federal hate crimes law to sexual orientation in 2009. The law was named after Shepard.