October 4, 2013 11:35:07 AM
On the same day students disrupted a play in Oxford about the murder of a gay man, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of a woman who was denied a permit to open a gay bar in Shannon.
It's Mississippi 2013, but it could just as easily be Mississippi 1963, if these two incidents are an accurate portrayal of where we are when it comes to attitudes about gay rights.
At a time when 14 states and the District of Columbia have approved laws that would permit gay couples to marry, Mississippi seems to scarcely acknowledge that gays have even the most basic of rights, including the right to be treated with common decency or open a business.
In a state that prohibits work-place discrimination on the basis of gender, age, ethnicity or religion, it is still legally permissible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
The lawsuit stems from a June 4 vote by the Shannon board of aldermen to deny Pat Newton a permit to open a gay bar on the same site that she had previously owned a gay bar. Newton had obtained a state business license and liquor permit but was denied a permit under the town's zoning ordinance. The vote came after a crowd of 30 to 40 Shannon residents showed up to show their opposition to the bar and the alderman voted 4-1 against allowing Newton to open her business.
So now, the town faces a potentially costly lawsuit, mainly because there are many residents in Shannon who apparently are opposed to having a gar bar in their town. A far more obvious and certainly less costly response would have been to allow the permit and let citizens show their opposition by the simple act of not patronizing that business.
Meanwhile, on the Ole Miss campus Tuesday night, a group of students who were attending a university production of the play, "The Laramie Project" as part of a class assignment, disrupted the play with laughing, taking photos and yelling gay slurs at the actors. The play focuses on the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie. The murder was denounced as a hate crime and was a key factor in the development of hate crime legislation.
Many in the audience were scholarship athletes, including some football players.
Ole Miss chancellor Dan Jones and athletic director Ross Bjork issued a joint statement condemning the conduct and promised to investigate the matter to determine the identity of those who participated in the behavior and punish them appropriately.
For many, the focus of the incident will fall on the athletes' involvement. Others will note that the incident happened at Ole Miss, which has worked hard to rehabilitate its image in light of its unfortunate history in the area of civil rights.
But the most disturbing aspect of the incident is not that it involved high-profile athletes or that it happened at Ole Miss. The most disturbing part of the incident is what it says about the attitudes of our young people toward gays. With each passing generation, there is some hope -- and some evidence -- that attitudes change with enlightenment.
But what does it say about our state when that "next generation" -- a group of 18-to-22-year-old college students -- see nothing wrong with laughing at gays and yelling slurs at them?
When a gay person is denied the right to open a business and when it's socially acceptable to ridicule and verbally abuse a gay person, it seriously questions how far we have come.
The events of Tuesday may have happened in Shannon and Oxford, but it reflects on all Mississippians.
A lot has changed since 1963.
At least, that's what we tell ourselves.
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