Viewpoint: Keep homophobia out of 'U' sports


Published November 2, 2009

As many in the University community know, Ann Arbor has a well-deserved reputation as a liberal, tolerant and open-minded city. Imagine my great shock, then, when I traveled to Ann Arbor to watch my beloved Wolverine athletic teams play only to be faced with the kind of ignorant, bigoted behavior I would expect from those associated with far lesser institutions. I'm talking about the homophobia I have seen and heard exhibited by students, alumni and fans alike, particularly at some of the most popular events like football and men's ice hockey.

As a former student and Yost Ice Arena cowbell player from roughly a decade ago, I'm well versed in the chant performed by the student section when an opposing player is penalized. Hell, I can still recite the 1999-2001 versions of it from memory to this day. A couple of years ago, to my horror, I learned that the student section had appended "cocksucker" (a pejorative term for gay men) to the end of the chant and voiced it with what seemed to be a particular flourish. Suddenly, it seemed that in less than 10 years, I had gone from leading more than 6,000 fans in chants to persona non grata in Yost.

I never thought I'd live to see the day when I would have to defend Michigan Marching Band baton twirler Nathan Magyar from homophobic comments made by Michigan football fans (as opposed to, for example, MSU fans at last year's game), but that day came just before this year's Penn State game. Carl Grapentine's booming baritone introduction of Magyar during "M Fanfare" was immediately followed by a shout of "fag boy" from a fan in the row behind me. Never mind that, even if that were the case, that's nobody's business but Nathan's — but this fan, who I believed to be an alumnus, felt it perfectly okay to demean a member of his University's marching band based on a stereotype and hate. I chided this fan, "So what even if he is gay? It doesn't matter — he's one of ours."

These incidents are part of a disturbing trend of homophobia increasingly considered perfectly acceptable, and in fact even encouraged, at University sporting events. This needs to stop, and it needs to stop now.

I remember well from my days at Yost how creative we could be back then without crossing the line of using terms offensive to minority groups. It was a known fact to many of my fellow Yost fans of the time that I am gay, and none of them were bothered — even eight years ago, before many of the recent advances gay people have made in society. Where has the basic level of tolerance and respect gone in just eight years?

Don't get me wrong. There are few things in life I love more than the Wolverines. I fork over large amounts of hard-earned cash not only to see them play, but also to fund the Athletic Department, which gives scholarships to student-athletes so they can make a positive impact on our world long after they have hung up the block M or winged helmet. It pains me that my love for the University is met with such hateful words by fans and that the hateful words are met with indifference by the Athletic Department.

The news came out last week that Athletic Director Bill Martin will be retiring from his post next Sept. 4. With the jury still out on what legacy he will leave with his recent coaching hires, combating homophobia at Michigan sporting events would be a great way for Martin to leave a positive, lasting legacy on Michigan athletics, regardless of Rich Roderiguez and John Beilein's eventual win-loss records. I call on Bill Martin to make this a priority in the sunset days of his career at Weidenbach Hall.

And in closing, I call upon you — students, alumni and otherwise unaffiliated fans — to do your part. Refrain from homophobic statements and chants at athletic events, and speak out to combat those you do hear — that's just what the leaders and best do.

Larry Harvilla is an Engineering alum