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Howard University grapples with gay-bashing via cyberspace.
When Howard University graduate student Lethan Wilks Jr. went to check his e-mail at the campus computer lab last Nov. 14, he expected to see the usual messages that he gets from classmates, colleagues, and friends.
On that day, however, his in-box held a message with a subject line that read: “You faggot bitch.”
The rest of the e-mail was equally disturbing: “I hate gay motherfuckers like you. You are a slant eyed Chinese dick sucker. You are a faggot ass wanna be black.” It was signed “Tony Smith.”
The 24-year-old Wilks replied to Smith’s hate mail with understandable confusion. “First of all,” Wilks wrote, “I don’t even know who you are. Secondly, I am black and Asian….I don’t understand why you are acting like this.”
“Tony Smith” shot back: “The reason I am acting like this is because people like you make a bad name for Howard. People will think Howard is producing nothing but homosexuals like yourself and that makes a bad name for the school.”
After the second message arrived, Wilks went to the office of Howard University’s provost and chief academic officer to file a complaint. He was referred to the campus police department, where he filed a report on Nov. 22. Campus police started their own investigation and urged Wilks to contact the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) as well. He did so the very same day.
On Jan. 19, two months after the first two messages, Wilks received another e-mail from “Tony Smith.” This message bore the subject line: “A Chinese Faggot.” Its sender promised to “commit a hate crime” against Wilks.
The last message, with its specific threat, raised the stakes considerably. It has attracted the attention of the FBI, which moved last week in concert with federal prosecutors to subpoena records from the campus computer lab.
As the criminal investigation of the harassment of Wilks has intensified, the case has raised questions about Howard University’s sensitivity to gay-bashing on campus.
Wilks complains that despite almost a dozen e-mails and messages addressed to various university administrators, including President H. Patrick Swygert, the only response that he has received was from an attorney in the campus’s General Counsel Office. He believes that institutional homophobia is driving the university’s cool response to his harassment.
“These are issues that the university doesn’t want to face,” Wilks argues. “The university is covering this up.”
Howard University spokesperson Donna Brock says that Wilks’ charges are “not true.” In response to an interview request, Brock provided a copy of the school’s code of ethics, a letter from Swygert to the campus community about the incident, and a copy of a “sound bite” from a March 2 speech by Swygert decrying the harassment of Wilks as “an unfortunate event” that underscored the message that “any form of harassment through any means is simply not to be tolerated here at Howard University.”
Brock declined, however, to answer a wide range of specific questions about Wilks’ case and broader attitudes toward gays and lesbians at Howard University.
The first two messages from “Tony Smith” and the Jan. 19 threat were chilling and unfamiliar experiences for Wilks, who says that he’s been out since he was a teen. He describes his time as an openly gay undergraduate at the University of Washington as uneventful, and he expected a similar experience when he enrolled as a graduate student in sociology at Howard last fall.
Campus law enforcement officials have taken the incident seriously, particularly after the January threat. In a Feb. 8, letter to Wilks, Chief of Campus Police Reginald Smith informed Wilks that “this third e-mail…appears to fulfill the definition of a hate crime and was referred to the Metropolitan Police Department’s Third District for investigation.”
As word of the hate-crime threat against him spread, Wilks also received support from campus groups and local lawmakers.
In early February, Howard students Sterling Washington, 27, and Tiffany Cook-King, 20, co-facilitators of the Bisexual, Lesbian, and Gay Organization of Students at Howard (BLAGOSAH), sent an e-mail to several university officials, including Swygert, asking them to get “personally involved” in the matter.
BLAGOSAH also contacted Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, who sent Swygert an e-mail message asking to be kept informed of steps that Howard was taking to resolve the matter.
Swygert did respond to Graham’s e-mail about Wilks’ case.
“I would like to take this opportunity to underscore to you,” Swygert wrote, “as we have to Mr. Wilks, that in the event that it is determined that the perpetrator of this conduct is a Howard University student, we will discipline that student under the University policies and Code of Student Conduct that have been violated.”
When Graham received Swygert’s response, he forwarded a copy to Wilks
along with a letter, dated Feb. 23, congratulating him on his “courage in bringing this matter forward.”
Even as Graham praised Wilks for his courage, however, the Howard student says that he began to live his life in fear. Thoughts of suicide overcame him, says Wilks, and he became afraid to take walks, especially when alone.
Wilks argues that much of his distress stems from a lack of concern on the part of the university’s administration.
All in all, Wilks says, he has sent nearly a dozen e-mail messages and letters to several of Howard’s most senior administrators, including Swygert. In these letters and e-mail messages, he has told various officials that he is suffering “mental anguish” and has argued broadly that the school is ignoring problems related to discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Howard University has hundreds if not thousands of gay men and women…and they have suffered as I have because the university is unwilling to pay attention to problems related to sexual orientation,” Wilks asserted in a Feb. 25 e-mail message to university officials. “This whole ordeal has ripped apart my soul and caused me to come to the realization that the Howard community is indeed one full of bigotry and hate.”
Wilks admits that the lack of response to his case from Howard administrators has made him increasingly testy. When an MPD investigator called him twice before 7 a.m., he says that he refused to speak with the officer.
“He called me so early; it pissed me off,” Wilks relates. “I guess I was uncooperative because that’s a ridiculous hour to call me.” He also admits to a “belligerent” phone conversation with another Howard official whom he’d contacted in an attempt to receive an update on his case.
A number of Wilks’ messages have threatened a lawsuit against the university, and he has rebuffed the only contact offered to him by Howard administrators to datea meeting with Sharon Banks, an attorney with the school’s General Counsel Office. Wilks says that he is seeking legal advice and that he wants a lawyer to be present for all meetings with Howard officials.
Howard University will not say whether the distance that administration officials have kept from Wilks is a result of his legal threats.
Attorney and writer Keith Boykin, who penned One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America, believes that Howard is not unlike other historically black colleges and universities in possessing an “institutional culture” that discourages the “open expression” of sexual orientations other than heterosexuality.
Boykin, who is also the president of the National Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, says, “I get the impression that a lot of people on these campuses think that part of the charge that they bear as faculty and students is that they uphold some sort of black standard of behavior and decorum. And homosexuality in some ways is inconsistent with this standard.”
Boykin adds that although the black intelligentsia and policy-makers generally support civil rights for sexual minorities, they often do not incorporate these concerns into the overall African-American civil rights agenda. Moreover, he argues, many African-Americans still tend to think “white” when they hear “gay.”
“The assumption is that if you’re black, that’s your primary concern,” says Boykin. “We can be supportive of gays, but we don’t want the issue of homosexuality to overshadow the importance of the race issues.”
Alvin Thornton, who chairs Howard’s political science department, argues that Boykin’s view is “an unfair assumption about black campuses.” Thornton believes that there is an even more “heightened sensitivity” to the issues of sexual minorities on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities and that these schools have traditionally been more sensitive than predominantly white institutions to the concerns of all minority groups in general. Boykin’s assertion that blacks tend to focus more on racial issues than on sexual-orientation concerns, Thornton argues, is “dated.”
BLAGOSAH facilitators Cook-King and Washington side with Boykin, adding that, in their view, Howard’s “social climate” is not tolerant of sexual minorities. They also report that they personally have witnessed several acts of anti-gay behavior on campus, including students ripping their group’s fliers from campus bulletin boards.
For his part, Wilks says that he’s leaving Howard. He’s upset by what he sees as the school’s indifference to his concerns and fears.
“My whole life has been turned upside down,” Wilks says. “People just don’t realize what I’m going through right now.” CP