By City Weekly editors
MAY 18, 1998: The Daily Utah Chronicle had published contentious letters about homosexuals before, but never one quite like Abel Thompson's.
A senior in accounting at the University of Utah, Thompson was obviously distressed that a gay man was handing out towels at one of the school's locker rooms. At least, he thought the man was gay.
Soon after Thompson's letter ran, the student-run newspaper unwittingly set off a chain reaction of emotional distress, heated response, a possible lawsuit, and an apology of sorts. Call it a lesson in how not to handle homophobia.
A senior in accounting, Thompson was obviously uncomfortable around gay people. His letter to the Chronicle told it all, in a style of disgust that mocked a humorous tone. The man handing out towels spoke in a high voice, painted his fingernails purple, and wore an earring. The conclusion was easy to draw, really. Taking the Paula Jones school of sexual harassment to absurd extremes, Thompson felt that his rights had been violated. He was going to let this fellow have it.
"I would argue that just the sight of a homosexual working in the locker room is suggestive to the point of making an offensive environment," he wrote. That, even though the high-voiced, fingernail-painted person described made no sexual advances toward the accounting major.
Letters in response ranged from the outraged to the educational: "Why provide a forum for such blatantly inflammatory comments?" an assistant professor of Russian asked.
"I know that homosexuals are people, they are not crazed animals," wrote a political science major.
No one was more distraught than Nelson Clayton, a 22-year-old English major. He, after all, was the towel boy in question. His initial anger turned to unease, followed by fear. He was angry because he didn't understand why he was being singled out. He was disturbed by the letter's ignorance. He was afraid he might get attacked.
"You do hear about that stuff happening in the news, as much as it surprises you," he says.
Thompson declined comment for this story.
The university's Lesbian and Gay Student Union, along with openly gay U. Law Professor Terry S. Kogan, were a little less conciliatory, especially where the Chronicle was concerned. It's Kogan's opinion that Thompson's letter had no news value, and even constituted an invasion of Clayton's privacy.
"The real question is, 'Should a newspaper be outing someone absent of some important public purpose or absent their consent?' " Kogan asks. As for the letter's tone, "That kind of hate-mongering has no place in society, much less a university."
Clayton mused briefly about the possibility of a lawsuit, but dismissed it just as quickly. "To argue a suit involving invasion of privacy I would also have to argue that being gay is a terrible thing, and that's not a position I'm willing to take," he says. "It would only reinforce the views aired in that letter."
For its part, the student-run newspaper acknowledges the mistake of failing to edit Thompson's description of Clayton from the letter. The error is all the more curious given a comprehensive policy printed in every issue: "Letters ... which demean or threaten harm to any individual or group based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion will not be considered."
Kade Rolfson, the editorial editor who approved Thompson's letter for publication, sees it all as a learning experience. And, not incidentally, a chance to defend free speech. If you want to kill the cancer of homophobia, it has to stand for some public exposure, he contends.
"We don't condone [Thompson's] opinion, but for crying out loud, this is America, he can have his opinion," Rolfson says. "Situations similar to this letter have come up, and I haven't made the same mistake twice. As a student newspaper, the Chronicle has served its purpose."
As Clayton now knows, though, free speech isn't always free. "I didn't think of quitting my job or getting a gun, but it cost me peace of mind," he says.
News & Opinion: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics
© 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Salt Lake City Weekly . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch