Robert Champion Death: Hazing or Hate Crime?

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 and accidental homicide to cover up an intended hate crime.

Champion was an unusual student to attend Florida A&M University (FAMU), one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and become a drum major: he was openly gay, and at HBCUs drum majors are usually heterosexual macho brothers, equivalent to the captains of football teams. Nevertheless, he was slated to be the head drum major next school year.

On Nov. 19, 2011 Champion, a music major from Atlanta, was one of six drum majors from FAMU’s famous “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, having suffered blunt trauma blows 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 forces HBCUs to once again examine their institutional heterosexism, along with their students’ individual and group activities of anti-gay violence.

Morehouse’s highly publicized 2002 gay-bashing incident has apparently taught HBCUs very little in terms of developing safe, nurturing, and culturally competent schools with support services for their LGBTQ students, faculty, and administrators. On Nov. 4, 2002 a Morehouse College student sustained a fractured skull from his classmate, sophomore Aaron Price, the son of a minister, not surprisingly. Price uncontrollably beat his victim on the head with a baseball bat for allegedly looking at him in the shower. 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 the suggestion by some in the FAMU community that 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 HinterlandGazette.com. “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 of 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, and he was 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.

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