(Update: Fresno State president issues statement saying he is "deeply troubled by the homophobic slurs." See below.)
It started out like a normal college football Saturday evening in Fresno, albeit with a little more excitement than usual. The nationally-ranked Bulldogs, for the first time in school history, were hosting another ranked team at home. And it wasn't just any team. It was Big Ten heavyweight Wisconsin coming to Bulldog Stadium, and the game promised to be thrilling. It was long ago sold out, and a standing-room-only crowd clad almost entirely in red was on its way to the stadium by car, bus and foot. What fans encountered as they approached the stadium though, was something for which Fresno State shouldn't be too proud.
The first thing noticeable -- in addition to the thousands of red-clad fans walking towards the stadium -- was a group of men dressed mostly in suits gathered near the intersection where Cedar and Barstow avenues meet. Wearing suits to a football game? That's something you rarely see anywhere, but especially in central California on a 90-degree, late Summer evening.
In addition to the group of approximately six to eight men wearing suits (which can best be described as ill-fitting), there were at least two men displaying large "sandwich board" type signs as though they were advertising something. A closer look revealed that the thing they were advertising was hate. The messages on those sandwich boards referred to the "evils" of being gay, calling the GLBT community "sinners," and saying homosexuality was wrong. Signs were held by these protesters that proclaimed marriage to be only between one man and one woman. With California's Proposition 8 on the ballot in November, the group's intentions were obvious. The proposition seeks to overturn California's recently enacted law allowing same-sex couples to marry in the state.
It was as though I'd ventured into a college football stadium and a Cher concert broke out. I remember several years ago standing in line to enter a concert featuring the pop diva (during one of her numerous farewell tours) and being subjected to similar homophobia complete with anti-gay signs. Before that concert, however, the homophobia was a little more subdued, and far less in-your-face. No literature being passed out. No interaction between fans and protesters. Just a somewhat pathetic looking group holding anti-gay signs that made concert goers roll their eyes. Needless to say, the differences between a crowd attending a Cher concert and a Fresno State football game are entirely different. While the concert attendees were more forgiving and definitely of the live-and-let-live variety, Saturday's homophobic protesters played much differently in front of the mostly conservative football crowd.
The men dressed in suits (some equipped with odd sashes as though they'd just been crowned Homecoming King, and another in full highlander regalia complete with the accompanying bagpipes) were standing in a prime location near the school's softball diamond where thousands of spectators who'd just been dropped off on the university-sponsored shuttle buses were making the short walk to the football stadium across the street.
The group, apparently affiliated with an ultra conservative group touting Tradition, Family and Property, proceeded to distribute hate-filled literature to the crowd that included such thought-provoking information as, "Legalization of same-sex marriage creates a terrible problem of conscience, " "Same-sex marriage harms the common good," and the always intriguing, "We are opposing the homosexual moral revolution and battling for the soul of America."
Football fans passed by and were handed pamphlets entitled, "10 Reasons Why Homosexual Marriage is Harmful and Must be Opposed." At least one fan responded with the obligatory "f'ing faggots," comment (but with the expletive intact). "Dudes getting married? That ain't right," said another fan who then looked around as if he was expecting a high-five from fellow fans. A 60ish gentleman, who was in Bulldog garb and holding hands with what I can only assume is his wife, made the strangest comment of all. He walked directly up to one of the protesters, shook his hand and thanked him. "Keep up the good work," he said. "Thanks for all you do," he told the anti-gay hate monger.
Ah! Saturday college football. Nothing screams pigskin like a pig (with or without the lipstick).
Attempts to confront the protesters would almost certainly have been futile, given the pre-game setting and an environment where drinking was the norm, and the home crowd was already a bit on edge. The opponent -- 10th ranked Wisconsin -- brought upwards of 3,000 of its own fans to the game, and while it didn't result in the fan-on-fan nastiness that sometimes results during, say, a Fresno State-Hawaii matchup, there was a certain element of friction surrounding the game as early as 90 minutes before it started. Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said this of his reception from Bulldogs fans on his way into the stadium, "There were several interesting discussions about my history and ancestry."
Imagine a tailgate crowd in Tuscaloosa, and then transport them to the San Joaquin Valley. Fresno State has a knowledgeable football crowd and a devoted fan base that is the envy of nearly every school not affiliated with the Bowl Championship Series. If Stanford and Cal are cheese and wine, Fresno State is clearly meat and potatoes. This was not the environment in which to confront anti-gay hate, and there appeared to be no university officials monitoring the situation, which certainly on its face had the potential to become violent.
What makes all of this more alarming is where this took place. On campus. As fans were on their way to a football game. And there were no visible indications anyone was unhappy or upset with the protesters, or that their presence seemed out of the ordinary! All of this at a school where the sports discussion has been more about winning in a court of law than winning games on the field for the past year. Literally within spitting distance of the outfield at Bulldog Diamond, the school's softball stadium where head coach Margie Wright has coached her team to 27 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the best streak in the country. A few months ago, Wright was awarded approximately $600,000 in a settlement with the university after originally filing a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights citing gender discrimination back in 2004. Wright is one of several female coaches, administrators and staff members who have either settled discrimination cases against the university or won court cases against Fresno State in just the past 15 months.
Former Fresno State women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein, fired by the university in March of 2005, alleged sexual discrimination and was awarded an astonishing $19.1 million following a tension-filled, 8-week trial that concluded in December 2007. That amount was later reduced to around $6.6 million. According to a report from the Women's Sports Foundation, Johnson-Klein's lawsuit alleged that the Fresno State athletic department had a long-standing pattern of discriminating against women coaches, specifically those who are lesbian or who complained that women's teams were not receiving funding or support equal to men's. Johnson-Klein alleged she was told, "that lesbian coaches were not to be hired" at Fresno State.
Former women's volleyball coach Lindy Vivas, the winningest coach in her sport in school history and three-time Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, was fired in 2004 but won a $5.85 million verdict against Fresno State in July 2007. That amount was later reduced to approximately $4.5 million. As part of her claim, according to the campus newspaper The Collegian, Vivas (pictured in this Associated Press photo, hugging her mother following the verdict's announcement) said the university discriminated against her because of her perceived sexual orientation.
Eleven months ago, former athletic administrator Diane Milutinovich settled with the university for approximately $3.5 million in yet another sexual discrimination case. Milutinovich alleged that Fresno State reassigned her and ultimately fired her after she spoke up for equal treatment for female athletes on campus.
In a statement issued less than three months ago in response to a state legislative inquiry into the lawsuits and the alleged discrimination on the Fresno State campus, university president John D. Welty said the following, "I do not and I have not tolerated discrimination at Fresno State. I act when any discrimination is found." He continued, "These lawsuits may indicate some past problems in athletics at Fresno State, but they do not reflect today's new era in Bulldog athletics. Nor do they reflect our reality at Fresno State as the university of opportunity for everyone."
Given the legal cases and the events of the past year, it's not surprising that the area around Bulldog Stadium became fertile ground for a group of hate solicitors. While the anti-gay group may argue about their right to free speech, does Fresno State bear any responsibility? Is this a public image the school really wants to portray after a year of lawsuits?
An e-mail was sent to president Welty as early as Monday morning following the Saturday evening game, along with two separate follow-up e-mails. Welty was asked if the school planned to offer any sort of apology to GLBT fans who were forced to encounter this hate speech on their way to the football game, and he was asked if the university planned to denounce the group's anti-gay agenda or post any response on the official school web site. Welty responded Wednesday in a written statement saying he was awaiting additional information on this issue and would outline the steps the university plans to take as soon as he gets all the facts.
Update: University president Welty, on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008, issued the following statement:
"Some fans who attended last Saturday's football game at Bulldog Stadium question why advocates of Proposition 8 (proposed state constitutional amendment that would recognize as valid only marriage between a man and a woman) were allowed to confront them as they arrived for the game.
Reports indicated that the advocates stood on public sidewalks adjacent to the campus and the stadium. As the crowd grew, University Police Department officers asked them to move and they did so, walking to a public sidewalk in front of the Bulldog Shop.
Fresno State does not and will not tolerate discrimination against individuals because of sexual orientation. I am deeply troubled by the homophobic slurs on signs these people carried aimed at our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. I find this type of expression to not meet the civility that I would expect in a political campaign.
We at Fresno State support freedom of speech and the right of people to engage in civil political debate, but we do not support the use of language which lacks civility and promotes hatred."