Attitudes about sexual orientation strain WSSU community

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Aaron McCorkle, an openly gay student at Winston-Salem State University, lost his election for Mr. Ram in the aftermath of a series of derogatory tweets.

by Jordan Green

As gay students push for acceptance at Winston-Salem State University, the fallout from an ugly series of tweets reveals how far the campus has to go on creating an inclusive culture.

 

A faultline of division between old and new attitudes about sexual orientation has surfaced at Winston-Salem State University through the saga of a popular comedian who disparaged an openly gay candidate for Mr. Ram.

The online attacks commenced against Aaron McCorkle, a junior majoring in mass communications, when another student posted photos online of McCorkle dressed in women’s clothing. The flurry of anti-gay messages on social media reached a mass audience when Brian “B-Daht” McLaughlin, a popular comedian who has been a member of the cast at the Wild Out Wake Up Show on 102 JAMZ since 2005, joined the fray.

McLaughlin, an alum who was working under contract as a public announcer for the athletic department through December 2013, tweeted on March 28: “#WSSU: y’all really letting a dude, that goes out in drag [#ns***] run for Mr. Ram? Have y’all lost y’all mutha f***** minds, man?!” In another tweet, McLaughlin opined, “Yes we ARE talking about this putrid s***. Y’all have completely lost it. The nigga dresses in drag, & HE will represent our school?”

Four days later, Chancellor Donald J. Reaves issued a public statement, saying that “words or actions that seek to marginalize any person or group constitute unacceptable behavior and are not tolerated.”

And with media attention and criticism mounting, McLaughlin made a public apology to McCorkle, and said McCorkle had agreed to a personal meeting with him.

“Going forward, I will be more proactive in exercising better judgment and social responsibility when expressing my opinions in an open forum,” McLaughlin said in the statement. “I am also committed to conducting myself in a way more exemplary and becoming of the personal, local and national brands that I represent.”

McLaughlin’s feelings about homosexuality were not a secret.

In a comedy bit posted on his LinkedIn site entitled “Faggotry” from a 2012 performance in Miami, McLaughlin outlines a series of practices he has problems with, including handicapped parking at skating rinks and Braille services for the blind at drive-through bank ATMs.

“Other things I don’t like is faggotry,” he says. “I don’t like a whole lot of faggotry. Gay is one thing, but I don’t like faggotry. I don’t like the, Yes, b****, how you doing. B****, yeah! I don’t like that. I don’t like that, sir!”

As to whether he has reconsidered those views on gender types and masculinity in light of the recent controversy over his tweets, McLaughlin declined through a publicist to answer questions.

McCorkle lost his bid to represent the university as Mr. Ram to another student, Brandon Bowden, in a vote of 565 to 727 with 28 percent of students voting in the race on April 2. The student who is elected to the position is considered “the voice of the university” and holds the community-service chair in the Student Government Association, McCorkle said.

McCorkle said he has emerged from the experience more determined than ever to work hard to make the campus more inclusive.

“I was shocked by it; I was hurt by the tweets,” he said. “I wanted to be an advocate and to now become a visionary to stand in front of the problem and defuse it instead of running from it.”

McCorkle said he wants to work with the administration to create an anti-bullying campaign, develop safe zones for LGBT students and hold public forums on gender differences.

Outside the Donald Julian Reaves Student Activities Center, Dinah Murphy and Deja White greeted McCorkle after casting their votes in his favor. The two women expressed admiration for McCorkle’s commitment to the university and his selection a couple years ago to travel to Washington DC for a leadership conference.

“We should support each other,” Murphy said. “Whatever his orientation is, that’s his personal business. Aaron has done a lot to improve the campus.”

But it was not hard to find students who are uncomfortable with having an openly gay student step into a position of visible leadership on campus.

“If you’re gay, but trying to run for Mr. [Ram], it’s not right,” sophomore Kenyata Thomas said. “You’re wearing a dress, but you want to be a ‘mister.’ I don’t get it.”

Thomas also voiced distress about the prospect that McLaughlin would not be invited back to serve as public announcer in light of his comments.

“B-Daht been with us since Day 1,” Thomas said. “Losing him, that would be a loss for us.”

Nancy Young, director of public and media relations, said she doubted the university would want to renew McLaughlin’s contract, but that no official decision had been made. She added a cryptic addendum: “There are a lot more layers to this than have been brought to light.”

Young reacted defensively in an interview to criticism by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT rights organization, and its offer to meet with administrators to help strategize ways to address the current situation and prevent future attacks.

“My concern is that had outside influences not gotten involved I think we could have handled this better for Aaron and the rest of the students,” Young said. “When you look at it, Aaron is a victim of this. Winston-Salem State University is a victim of this. Everybody else who’s running is a victim too because no one else is paying attention to the other races.”

Young went on to characterize the tweets as “cyberbullying” and describe the language as “awful.”

Attention from the Human Rights Campaign and the media came about because of the intervention of a small group of former and current students active in the LGBT community.

Jane Vaughan, a former president of the Gay-Straight Student Alliance who attended Winston-Salem State University through 2013 and now lives in Greensboro, said another former student emailed her a screenshot of the tweets.

“I knew we needed to reach out to the Human Rights Campaign rather than on campus,” Vaughan said. “I was concerned with [McCorkle’s] safety after seeing some tweets that gentlemen were going to cut him and they were going to come after him.”

In one of the tweets an individual identified as “G. Class CEO” writes, “All the former #Mr.WSSU should get in line and whip his ass damn shame.” Another social media user named “René” writes, “Na, let em cut his ass up.”

Young dismissed the notion that the climate on campus is hostile towards LGBT students, noting that staff in the Student Affairs Office reached out to McCorkle to make sure he was okay.

“He’s not given me any impression that he’s felt threatened,” Young said.

“I’ve talked to our gay students, our lesbian students and our transgender students,” she added. “Ask them how hostile they find the campus. They know there are people on campus who are uncomfortable with their sexual orientation. As far as feeling they’re in a hostile environment, I haven’t found anyone.”

Young noted that McCorkle was elected Mr. Freshman and Mr. Sophomore — a span of time that included his posting of photos of himself in drag that were recently used in an attempt to publicly shame him. If the campus is so hostile towards LGBT students, Young asked, how could students have elected an openly gay peer to as Mr. Freshman and Mr. Sophomore?

Vaughan said Winston-Salem State University has a large and growing population of gay students who are out of the closet, but the university doesn’t acknowledge them enough.

Vaughan said she came out in her sophomore year. She wound up dropping out of school in 2012 because her family withdrew support. She said what “saved” her and helped her get her academic career back on track was the outreach of Chevara Orrin, a staff advisor to the Gay-Straight Student Alliance.

In response to the hateful messages directed at Aaron McCorkle, Vaughan sent out a mass letter expressing her concerns.

“I said, ‘As an LGBT young lady, I refuse to have doors open to where I can see some of the world and some of the world can see me but I’m not supposed to step into it and be a part of it,’” Vaughan said. “That’s where I think WSSU needs to wake up.”

Meanwhile, she said she sees the current crop of LGBT students being less assertive about defending their rights than a few years ago.

“Now you see a lot of LGBT students who don’t feel like [homophobia on campus] affects them,” Vaughan said. “They’re about to leave. They look at a lot of businesses where they feel like they might get fired. There’s a real world out there for sure. The real world is way ahead of Winston-Salem State University in accepting LGBT folks and meeting their needs.”