Was the FAMU Band Death Bigger Than Hazing?

Was Champion's ritual more brutal because of his sexual orientation? 

Prosecutors have announced that thirteen Florida A&M University Marching 100 band members will be charged in the death of drum major Robert Champion, Jr. Champion died last November in a "crossing" ritual after FAMU’s biggest game of the year.  Police investigated the death and ruled it a homicide. They determined that Champion was the victim of hazing by fellow band members. Hazing is a tradition for HBCU marching bands and thus a discussion over whether traditional hazing practices had gone too far began immediately after Champion’s death.  This particular discussion, however, may have missed a crucial point.

A few months after his death, Champion’s parent’s revealed that he was gay, leading many to wonder whether Champion was hazed more severely because he of his sexual orientation.  The National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), the nation’s leading Black LGBT civil rights organization, was at the forefront urging the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Community Relations Service (CRS) to launch an investigation into Champion’s death as a potential anti-gay hate crime.

“What could possibly drive someone to pummel another human being to death?” asks Sharon Lettman-Hicks, NBJC Executive Director and CEO. “It was absolutely heart-wrenching to listen to State Attorney Lawson Lamar detail the brutal beating that killed this young man.”

State Attorney Lawson Lamar said during his announcement of the charges, "While Robert and his family were sacrificing and preparing for his entrance into college, which eventually should have given him a bright and meaningful future, no one could expect that his experience could include being pummeled to death," he said.

"I have come to believe that hazing is a term for bullying. It's bullying with a tradition that we cannot bear in America," Lamar said.

Bullying nationwide has been so severe that The White House had a summit on bullying prevention last year hosted by the president and the First Lady. Anti-gay and anti-trans bullying is practically has reached alarming levels.  The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs has found that violence against LGBT people is up 23 percent, with people of color as the most likely targets. Of the victims murdered in 2010 in anti-gay/anti-trans hate crimes, 70 percent were people of color.

Robert Champion was obviously the victim of hazing, but it’s also possible that he was beaten more severely not because of a Black college tradition--but because of anti-gay prejudice among his fellow band members.  The NBJC has partnered with the Department of Justice for an upcoming forum at FAMU to provide students with a better understanding of what constitutes a hate crime under federal law.  In the end, Champion’s death was not charged as a hate crime but the fact that he was gay and may have received more severe beatings as a result certainly create a need for a serious conversation about anti-LGBT bias.

Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and soon-to-be attorney.  You can follow her on Twitter: @ZerlinaMaxwell