Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion was gay and that could have been one of several reasons why he was viciously beaten during a hazing attack in November, the family and its attorneys told the Orlando Sentinel.
Attorney Christopher Chestnut, speaking at a news conference with Champion's parents in Orlando, said the parents came forward to discuss their son's sexuality because rumors had been swirling that the 26-year-old student was hazed specifically because of his "alternative lifestyle."
Though Champion's sexual orientation may have been a factor, Chestnut said, his own investigation indicates that it was probably one of several that caused students to beat him so violently that he died. He insisted, however, that the overriding motivation that likely led to such a brutal attack was Champion's outspoken resistance to hazing within FAMU's famed marching band. "Our investigation is very clear: This was hazing, not a hate crime," Chestnut said.
The New York Times adds:
That Mr. Champion was gay was “a private thing, not something he advertised publicly,” his mother, Pam Champion, said in an interview. Instead, she said at a press conference in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday, her son had been targeted as retribution for his well-known stance against hazing. [...]
Many former Florida A&M band members have alleged that the prestigious university band, the Marching 100, has a culture of musicians punching, slapping, paddling and forcing one another to perform degrading acts. ... The former band director, Julian White, who was fired after Mr. Champion’s death, suggested on Tuesday that this might have been an isolated case of homophobia. He said the bullying “could not have been predicted or prevented.”
"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," said Dr. White’s lawyer, Chuck Hobbs.
The line between hazing and homophobia is often blurry, said Shane L. Windmeyer, the executive director of Campus Pride, a national group for gay students, and author of several books about gay life on college campuses. "Hazing often gets taken to a new level when its against someone who is gay," he said.
Police have ruled Champion's death a homicide from hazing. The university and police are trying to determine which students were responsible. The Champion family intends to sue the university but that lawsuit must wait for about six months. Meanwhile, the family has just filed a negligence lawsuit against the bus line that transported the FAMU band, reports the Orlando Sentinel.
FAMU's celebrated band boasts an unfortunate and violent hazing tradition. Students were hospitalized in 1998 and 2001 following severe paddling. One student was hospitalized in 2001 with kidney damage following paddling. And in December, three band students were arrested and charged with hazing a freshman student in November by severely beating her legs.
The National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) is urging the federal government to launch an investigation into Champion’s death as a potential anti-gay hate crime. "Anti-gay violence is not only a civil rights issue; it is a Black issue," said NBJC Executive Director Sharon Lettman-Hicks. "It is a Black issue because violence against gay and transgender individuals is disproportionately affecting our Black youth. The civil rights community can no longer stand on the sidelines while our sons and daughters continue to suffer in silence."