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Writing on the wall

Frat prank, or hate crime?

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Every month, the story is told in fist fights or name-calling or bloody noses. Every month, Mona Bachmann hears of someone beaten up for being gay. People are dragged out of cars, shoved into lockers, taunted. Bachmann, an active member of the Outfield Alliance—a University of Montana group of lesbian, gay and transgendered faculty, staff, grad students and their supporters—says she does not believe Missoula is a safe place to be openly gay.

“People are beaten up fairly regularly. People are assaulted. And that’s very serious,” says Bachmann. “There’s this whole climate that gay people are valued less than straight people.”

For some Missoulians, that climate has grown uncomfortably warm since a recent UM fraternity escapade—an act that is being seen by various camps as either juvenile prank or out-and-out hate crime.

On Oct. 2, six members of Sigma Nu, a UM fraternity, admitted to defacing a wall that borders Sigma Chi, a rival fraternity house. The Nus spray-painted “Sigma Chi are fags” and “We love cock” on the brick face.

A different slogan–“Hate Hurts”–hangs in the office window of Eldridge Moore, UM’s Greek Life advisor. The offenders, says Moore, need to answer some questions about their motives, like “Why do you say that? What makes you use those terms?” But he doesn’t think the vandals pose any real threat to gays or lesbians, and believes that any ill will was directed at the rival frat. “Although it could be considered a hate crime, it was a fraternity prank gone bad,” he says. “Many of them are 18, 19—high-school mentality, just in a college body.”

Excusing the perpetrators as benign and immature is common, says Karl Olson, executive director of Pride!, Montana’s gay and lesbian advocacy group. “‘Boys will be boys,’ we hear that a lot…[Society] would not accept that harassment against black students or Jewish students, and there was a time when that was acceptable, too.”

But if there’s anxiety over the crime, there may be even more over the punishment. Three groups have jurisdiction over the students: an ad hoc Greek tribunal, which sentences its own members; the UM dean of students, who reviews individual violations of the student conduct code; and the city police, who investigate at the request of the victim, in this case Sigma Chi, which has yet to press charges.

So far, only the tribunal—a secret group comprised of the offenders’ peers—has delivered a judgment: next semester, Sigma Nu must send at least half of its members to one meeting of Lambda, UM’s coalition of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students. The six vandals are required to attend four meetings each. Not surprisingly, that decision has raised some eyebrows. Within two weeks of the verdict, Christy Schilke, ASUM vice president, heard about 30 concerns, which she describes as variations on a theme: “This decision scares me to death.”

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel threatened,” says Schilke. “While I see [Lambda] as a wonderful educational tool, we’re compromising safety in our student groups…There are members of Lambda that are not publicly ‘out.’ That’s partially why they come to these meetings.”

Other people, including Bachmann, doubt that attendance at Lambda meetings is a stiff enough sentence. “It hasn’t been dealt with strongly enough,” Bachmann says. “I’d like to see an acknowledgement that this was hate speech.”

Bachmann has urged the dean of students to send the six fraternity members to tolerance workshops and to educate them on gay issues. The president of Sigma Chi, Charles Denowh, also awaits the dean’s decision. If it is just “a slap on the wrist,” he says, he will ask the police to investigate. Generally, fraternities don’t like to get the police involved, says Denowh, but “This one was so far beyond the line of fraternity prank,” he says, “it crossed over into hate.”

The wobbling domino is dean of students Charles Couture, who says the incident is still under investigation. In deciding upon a course of action, Couture says he considers any sanctions imposed by other groups—like the tribunal—and the fears of other students on campus. But he cannot lawfully reveal the names of the students involved, or any disciplinary action they might receive.

What does such justice do for the next victim of the next hate crime? The University’s decision will be kept secret. The tribunal’s decision frays as many nerves as the spray-painted message it’s meant to rebut. The police could still investigate, but Bachmann recalls the February arson fire that drove Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff from their South Hills home: the Outfield Alliance has serious criticism of the way that investigation was handled.

“It was a very serious homicide attempt and the police have focused the investigation on the women themselves,” Bachmann says.

Moore continues to vouch for the fraternity members, insisting they’re harmless: “They do candy drives—those are the same guys who you think are the homophobic, racist, misogynist individuals.”

Whomever the six are, they will likely remain faceless, nameless. The men themselves are out of reach, and their fraternity president, Tyler Chapman, did not return phone calls for comment. Whatever discipline or education may be imposed by UM will not be made public. The privacy of students, after all, is federally protected.

Others in Missoula are not as safely shielded, by either law or by concern for their privacy. Every month, a thrown fist or slur reminds them of their status.

Last February, a Missoula couple and their baby were given an even harsher reminder: they were burned out of their home. Now, a city sign on the building’s door jamb reads “demolition.” The lawn is dry and yellow. No one lives there anymore.

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