LAMBDA Volume 27: Issue 2
What the Elyse Crystall - Tim Mertes saga is teaching us about
homophobia in the classroom.
by Jermaine Caldwell
Calling it a strong feeling of
discomfort and “psychological terrorism,” UNC students and activists alike
are taking a look at the issue of homophobia in the classroom. As a result
of the Elyse Crystall - Tim Mertes incident, the questions are swirling:
Just what is homophobia in the classroom? And what is the University doing
to prevent its spread?
“I did not want to come back”
“I felt extremely uncomfortable, and
I didn’t want to be in class,” said senior Will Hall as he relived his Feb.
5 Literature and Cultural Diversity class with Elyse Crystall. “I did not
want to come back. I felt unsafe and vulnerable.”
As Hall and Crystall herself
remember it, junior Tim Mertes’s oft-misquoted comments described
homosexuality as “disgusting” and called sexual minorities a threat to life.
Then came the end of class. Then
came Crystall’s reprimanding e-mail, which she sent partly because class
wasn’t meeting for another five days.
To Hall, although he said Mertes was
“not so attacking in his tone,” his comments had crossed the line and became
homophobic and hateful. “As soon as he started letting the class know,” Hall
said, “I felt uncomfortable.”
Some say preventing LGBTIQ students
from feeling unwelcome in the classroom is a main concern – a concern the
English class controversy could help address.
“The comments made by Tim Mertes are
excellent examples of the type of homophobia that exists on this campus,”
said Zach Howell, outreach co-chairperson of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender – Straight Alliance.
Howell quickly draws the direct
correlation between an LGBTIQ student’s ability to perform within a
classroom and how welcoming the environment is. A room where words like
Mertes’s can fly undetected puts LGBTIQ students at a dangerous
disadvantage, he said.
“I think the main concern has to be
their grade and performance in a classroom that they do not feel comfortable
in,” he said. “The ultimate consequences are that these students come to
feel more isolated socially, they don’t feel able to participate in class,
they can become psychologically distressed, and they are fundamentally
disempowered. Homophobia, especially in the classroom, is psychological
Howell draws special attention to
those who could be questioning their sexual and gender identities. “I
believe the worst implication is that it silences the already quieted,” he
said. “When these students encounter homophobia, as exemplified by Tim
Mertes, they’re pushed further into the closet and outside of society.”
Hall admits had he witnessed this
episode early in his coming out process, the result could have been worse on
him but warns that once a classroom is tainted with such speech a return to
a sense of normalcy seems no longer possible.
“The whole situation has affected me
in a very negative way,” he said. “Just being in that room brings back
memories of what happened.”
“It is a teacher’s right”
Professors and instructors hold the
power to prevent such feelings of a negative classroom experience – also
making them one of the only lines of defense against homophobia in that
environment. Because a definite set of precautions has yet to be put into
place, the debate surrounding whether Crystall’s actions were justified as
well as what should or shouldn’t be done to head off homophobia continues –
UNC’s LGBTIQ students hanging in the balance.
In a strong show of support,
students, some from Crystall’s class, called a press conference in early
April to talk to the media, clarify facts about the class and defend their
instructor. Through a statement read by one student not in her class,
Crystall said, “I believed then and continue to believe that it is a
teacher’s right and responsibility to guide, support, and when necessary for
the greater good of the classroom community, limit student comments.”
Some believe Crystall was a catalyst
for a step in the right direction. Students are quick to note that Mertes-like
comments didn’t just appear this February, and they are quick to note what
that means: Homophobic remarks have been going unchecked by instructors and
unreported to the University.
Howell said, “The difference between
what happened in the Tim Mertes situation and what usually happens is that
in this case, there was an instructor who was willing to stand up for her
students and defined the rights of minority students.”
Hall corroborates such beliefs. “I
don’t know if all teachers would handle it the same way,” he said. “Most
teachers would let comments like that slide.”
“No clear stance”
While one of its instructors is
under investigation and LGBTIQ students are waiting for more clearly defined
protection, the UNC administrators are making few to no moves, some say. And
what has come from those sitting in South Building, they say, is actually
protecting homophobic remarks.
In remarks released March 26,
Chancellor James Moeser said, “Those of us within the University community
are not always going to agree among ourselves about the issues of the day.
“And we must defend the right of
those who have opposing views.”
Critics call the Chancellor’s
statement non-action, refusal to adhere to the University’s own policies and
de facto support of homophobia.
“The University has taken no clear
stance on this issue,” Howell said. “Tim Mertes has shamed the University by
making the comments he did and university administration has shamed the
legacy of UNC by failing to abide by their own policies.”
A lack of support from the
administration can affect the impression potential students who are LGBTIQ
have about the University as well as the impression current students have.
It still remains a question as to whether UNC is truly tolerant of sexual
and gender minorities, and underlying the Mertes-Crystall saga is a push to
answer that question.
Hall said his English class
definitely changed his perception of the University’s as a highly tolerant
place. “Before this happened, I would have completely agreed,” he said.
“This situation has definitely showed me that’s not the case at all.”
Piecing together protection
UNC officials could be waiting for
the investigation to end before clarifying classroom management procedure,
allowing them to base their actions, if any, accordingly.
Federal investigators from the
Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education will determine
whether Crystall’s comments discriminate based on race, color or sex.
Investigators have poured over
private Internet-based Blackboard discussions, read class material and
interviewed Crystall’s students.
“My ability to protect my students
has been taken away from me,” Crystall said in the student-read statement
about the investigation.
The question of protection, on
numerous levels, has been at the crux of the controversy and behind the
pleas of both sides of the issue. Are policies in place to back teachers who
regulate their classrooms to prevent homophobia? Is there a conservative
minority out there that requires protection? How will the integrity of the
University be protected?
To some, the most important question
is: How are LGBTIQ students being protected?
“Students should never have to feel
that way in class,” Hall said, just weeks away from graduation.
Howell will continue his studies
here at UNC next year, when the University sees the beginning of the Program
in Sexuality Studies. He hopes that the University will have learned a
little more about homophobia in the classroom, based on the understanding
that “Anytime students are harmed by the comments of another student in the
context of a class discussion, it’s a serious situation.”
Crystall, finding herself in her own
serious situation, still stands behind the actions she took to stifle
homophobia in the classroom.
Through her statement she said, “I
did not believe that it was okay to make any student wait five days to find
out if I cared about her or his comfort or safety in the classroom.”
Co-Editor in Chief and junior
Jermaine Caldwell, a journalism and mass communication major from
Winston-Salem, N.C., can be contacted at