Appalachian State, Judy Shepard & distortion?

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: June 10, 2010 in Blog

This commentary piece is a follow-up to yesterday’s story on Appalachian State University’s rejection of Judy Shepard’s memoir.

I was born in Winston-Salem. I grew up there, steeped in conservative, “traditional values.” It’s upsetting to know these so-called “values” are pretty much the same as racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism.

Regardless, I love my hometown, its people, its history. My family, descended from pre-Revolutionary Dutch and English settlers, made their home in Forsyth and Davidson Counties, and later in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia. During the Great Depression, my grandfather’s parents moved their family to the Twin City. Winston-Salem and the backwoods of the northwest Piedmont are my home. Unfortunately, not much time ever passes before I’m occasionally embarrassed by the dimwittedness of the leaders there.

First, it was Vernon Robinson — the outrageously homophobic Winston-Salem city councilman who used every bit of his public influence to keep the road paved smooth and clear for local Boy Scout officials’ continued drive to discriminate against gay youth members and leaders. (And, let’s not forget about his ever-present diatribe against hardworking, Latino immigrants.)

Now, it’s Virginia Foxx — who represents North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District. I thought all might be well when she pulled ahead of Robinson in the 2004 Republican primary.

“Thank God,” I thought. “‘Vermin’ Robinson can go away now.”

But, I didn’t expect Foxx to be just as virulently hateful as Robinson was. She’s gotten herself into lots of hot water in the past few years. For the life of me, I can’t understand why she’d allow Republican House leaders (ahem, Eric Cantor) to use her as an attack dog. It only hurts her career, makes her constituents look like dumbasses and makes a mockery of this great Old North State.

Last April, Foxx shocked the nation when, during debate on the House floor, she said the murder of Matthew Shepard was a hoax.

“I also would like to point out that there was a bill — the hate crimes bill that’s called the Matthew Shepard bill is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed, but we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn’t because he was gay. This — the bill was named for him, hate crimes bill was named for him, but it’s really a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills,” said Foxx.

This nasty history and political climate filled with anti-gay hate is the context in which faculty and staff at Appalachian State University declined to use a memoir by Matthew’s mother, Judy, for their summer reading program. Their decision might have been innocent in and of itself if not for the reasons behind it, later leaked on Facebook by an archivist at App State’s Belk Library and friend of two of the reading program’s committee members.

According to that library worker, the two committee members said the book, “The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed,” was  was rejected in part because it contained “homophobic” passages. Although program director Dr. Emory Maiden denied such claims, he didn’t help his cause or the university’s and state’s reputations when he made commentary on the life and work of Shepard, saying she wasn’t the “best spokesperson to bring to campus on the issue” and that she was a “grief-stricken mother [who] had gotten into print on a subject that she neither wholly understand nor have [sic] a broad experience with.”

For an article wherein the overwhelming majority of text was devoted to Maiden’s own words — taken directly from his own responses to qnotes — I thought we were being pretty damn fair. We didn’t even seek out comment from Shepard, the Matthew Shepard Foundation or co-writer and current Advocate editor-in-chief Jon Barrett.

Yet, that didn’t stop Maiden and others associated with the university from chastising us.

“[H]ere is the second attempt to coax this ‘editor’ away from the distortion and misinterpretation of basic facts about our program that were creeping into his responses,” Maiden wrote in an email to qnotes and his summer reading program’s assistant director, Rachel Forrester.

My response: “Please tell me exactly where you’ve found distortion in my piece or where I [have] misrepresented you. The piece quotes your responses, from both emails. I didn’t add any commentary to the piece; the bulk of the article is your words, not mine. If I have misquoted you or if there are any inaccuracies regarding your quotes please let us know. We’d be happy to issue a correction.”

I continued, “If the two committee members who told Kathy Staley they thought the book was homophobic, and that those thoughts were the reason for the committee’s decision, would like to speak with us and clear the air, we’d be happy to speak with them. Or, if you think Staley’s remarks are inaccurate or false, please let us know.”

What have I heard in return? Chirp. Chirp. Chirp. Crickets.

It isn’t my job to censor or otherwise craft someone else’s message. It also isn’t my job to control what other people say, because that’s simply not possible. Neither is it my job to play P.R. guru or go on damage control for a university and its screw-ups. We can only report what people say to us. If leaders would rather spend time criticizing qnotes for doing its job, instead of taking the time and energy to put more thought into their on-the-record statements to the media, that’s their prerogative.

I have a simple message to all my fellow Tar Heels living in the 5th District: Please shut up. Or, learn how to say something that isn’t homophobic, offensive and insulting. Our state is already known for Jesse Helms’ hateful legacy and Charlotte’s ridiculous funding spat over “Angels in America.” And, now, when I speak to colleagues and friends across the country and mention my hometown or some other identifier, their immediate remarks are almost always: “Isn’t that where that nasty, vile Virginia Foxx is? Oh, I’m so sorry.” On top of that, Keith Olbermann has now dubbed Foxx the “fool from Winston-Salem.” It makes me want to hang my head down in shame.

For all our state’s proud, progressive history — so much more than many other Southern states, I’d argue — our reputation as a breeding grounds for hate and stupidity is really sad. Must we heap more embarrassment on ourselves? It’s got to end sometime, people. Here’s a suggestion: Think before you speak.