On Tuesday, Oct. 1, something happened at the University of Mississippi. During a play based on the 1999 hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who attended the University of Wyoming, some audience members snickered during one of the play's most dramatic moments. In the scene, the actor playing Aaron McKinney, one of Shepard's attackers, describes his victim as a queer and a fag.
At other moments, as Justin Hosemann reports this week, crowd members, which included Ole Miss football players, hurled epithets like "fag" at the performers and joked about the weight of a female character (see "Living 'The Laramie Project' at Ole Miss," page 9).
But it's what happened after "The Laramie Project" fracas that is most encouraging. Administrators immediately apologized on the school's behalf and deployed the school's Bias Incident Response Team.
Also, as it did after the 2012 election-night incident, and really is its entire reason for being, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation initiated a dialogue on restorative justice on campus.
If we agree that Ole Miss is one of the barometers through which we can measure our state's progress, these actions give us hope that not only has our state come a long way, but that we might be further along than the nation or even give ourselves credit for.
In this 50th-anniversary year in which we commemorate important Mississippi markers in civil-rights history, we should take note of all our strides in the social-justice arena while recognizing the work that remains in addition to black-white race relations.
This year, in many corners, Mississippians have shown the courage to confront and discuss issues of race. Now, we should challenge ourselves to show the same bravery to tackle rampant homophobia in our state.
The urgency for such courage has never been greater. Over the summer, despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision extending federal benefits to gay married couples, Mississippi state officials declared that those couples would not be permitted to apply for those benefits on state property, such as National Guard bases.
As professor and the play's director Rory Ledbetter told the students, the Oct. 1 incident meant they were no longer merely performers in "The Laramie Project"; the students had a chance to live it.
Mississippi is also living "The Laramie Project." But the officials at Ole Miss who led the response to the embarrassing incident after "The Laramie Project" have given us a road map to think seriously about the ways we think and talk about same-sex-loving folks in Mississippi. It's a journey that we should start immediately.