Robert Champion, Jr.’s murder may never be solved. Those who struck the fatal blows may never disclose whether they used the guise of hazing as an accidental homicide to cover up an intended hate crime.
Champion was an unusual student to be at one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). He was openly gay, and a drum major slated to be the head drum major next school year. At HBCUs, drum majors are usually heterosexual macho brothers, equivalent to captains of football teams.
On November 19, 2011, Champion, a music major from Atlanta, was one of six drum majors of the famous Florida A&M University (FAMU) Marching ”100” band who traveled to Orlando for the annual Florida Classic football game between FAMU and Bethune-Cookman University.
At the end of the game that evening, Champion was found dead aboard a band bus resulting from blunt trauma suffered from flogging. Thirteen band members, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, each independently stated to police that Champion was forced onto a band bus with a reputation for hazing.
Law enforcement and the medical examiner ruled Champion’s death a homicide. But rumors that he was singled out because of his sexual orientation force HBCUs to once again examine its institutional heterosexism along with its students’ individual and group activities of anti-gay violence.
Morehouse’s highly publicized 2002 gay-bashing incident has no doubt taught HBCUs very little in terms of developing safe, nurturing and culturally competent schools with support services for its LGBTQ administration, faculty and student body.
On November 4, 2002, a Morehouse College student sustained a fractured skull from his classmate, sophomore Aaron Price — not surprisingly, the son of an ultra-conservative minister. Price uncontrollably beat his victim on the head with a baseball bat for allegedly looking at him in the shower.
In the 1980s and 1990s, it was more dangerous to be openly LGBTQ on Morehouse’s campus than it was on the streets in gang-ridden Black neighborhoods. And throughout the 1990s, Morehouse was listed on the Princeton Review’s top 20 homophobic campuses.
In 2012 HBCUs as a whole are still slow to take on the public challenge on LGBTQ issues for a few reasons. Some schools were founded with conservative religious affiliation, and Black colleges are no different from African American communities in general, which is why some in the FAMU community argue, claiming that suggesting Champion’s death was about his being gay is creating a mountain out of a molehill.
”Um, who cares? Unless his sexual orientation was the reason why he was beaten to death, then it’s quite irrelevant,” wrote the Black political blog The Hinterland Gazette. “We had previously heard about him being gay, but we declined on reporting about it because if the police were told this when they characterized his death a result of hazing and didn’t connect the two to say this was a hate crime, then why throw it out there? I’m sure Robert Champion wasn’t the first homosexual to pledge a fraternity.”
No one in the FAMU community wants to broach the topic of Champion’s sexual orientation as a possible motivating factor for the incident. And the pushback from students and administration is fierce.
Whereas an institutional shift at FAMU needs to take place, embracing an inclusive acceptance of its students’ various sexual orientations and gender identities, FAMU will work indefatigably to ward off lawsuits. (The Champions cannot sue FAMU for six months because the state institution is protected under a sovereign immunity.)
In an anemic attempt to exonerate FAMU band director, Dr. Julian White, of any culpability concerning Champion’s death, Chuck Hobbs, his attorney, released a statement that reveals both ignorance about anti-gay violence as well as no desire to change the culture that brought about Champion’s murder:
”Assuming that the assertions of the Champion family and their attorney Chris Chestnut are true, then it is entirely possible that Champion’s tragic death was less about any ritualistic hazing and more tantamount to a hateful and fully conscious attempt to batter a young man because of his sexual orientation. As such, the efforts Dr. White expended to root out and report hazing could not have predicted or prevented such deliberate barbarity.”
We may never know if Champion’s beat down from ”hazing” was an accidental homicide or an intended hate crime. But these are the facts we know presently: Champion was forced onto a band bus with a reputation for hazing; he was a vocal opponent against hazing, a band disciplinarian, slated to be head drum major; and he had an ”alternative lifestyle.”
Everyone in the FAMU community is willing to talk about all these issues except about him being gay.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow.