October 1, 2007
Class note case is no joke
Paige Parvin ’96G is editor of Emory Magazine and former cochair of the Emory University President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns.
Maybe some people hang on to college just a little too long.
Apparently an unknown acquaintance of two American University alumni, Ross Weil and Brett Royce, decided he (or she) wanted to play a funny trick on them. So what to do? Short-sheet their beds? Put Ben-Gay in their underwear?
Oooh…I know. Dude. Let’s tell everyone they’re gay.
According to reports, the university alumni quarterly, American Magazine included in its spring issue a class note announcing that the 2002 graduates are “life partners” who got married in June. It also claimed Weil is chief operating officer of the “Gay Rights Brigade,” a made-up organization.
As it turns out, none of this is true. Weil, 29, and Royce, 28, are former housemates who live in Manhattan; neither is gay. Hilarious, right?
But the highjinks don’t stop there. The pair is so royally piqued at the prank that they are suing their alma mater for a total of $1.5 million, claiming magazine editors acted in “malice” and “gross negligence” by printing the announcement. It is unclear who submitted it — but a safe guess it was someone with shallower pockets than the university.
It’s enough to keep an alumni magazine editor up at night.
“Gay” has long been a choice insult in locker rooms and frat houses, but it is deeply disturbing that educated adults still find the very notion of homosexuality so embarrassing that it is employed as the ultimate malicious joke. Equally egregious is the idea that to be incorrectly identified as gay is considered grounds for a high-priced libel suit. Substitute the name of any other minority group and consider whether “defamatory” would apply.
It is true that in most states, including Georgia, one can be fired for being gay; in some states it can get you killed. But that’s exactly why this moronic hoax — and the targets’ dramatic response — is so damaging. Widely accepted, derogatory attitudes about same-sex relationships advance insidious social homophobia and legitimize the discriminatory laws and policies that keep gay people at risk.
And just as troubling is the elevation of a class note into a court case. Class notes are a time-honored tradition in alumni magazines around the country, a kind of message board where graduates can share their news: marriages, new babies, promotions, professional and personal achievements. They are a way of staying connected to classmates, friends and the university itself; many alumni readers report that the class notes are the first section of the magazine they read.
Distinct from the editorial content of the magazine, class note entries typically are submitted by alumni themselves, by the hundreds. Emory Magazine, for instance, averages about 200 class notes in each issue. It would be nearly impossible for the editorial staff at even a large, mainstream publication to personally fact-check every single such submission, much less the small staffs of most alumni magazines. Such a burden might well render class notes unsustainable.
Instead, we necessarily rely on alumni to respect class notes for what they are: a community service, regulated by the honor system. Fortunately, the vast majority does.
In recent years, Emory Magazine and many others — in recognition of gay alumni, and usually in keeping with their universities’ policies — have begun to include announcements of same-sex committment ceremonies and gay couples having or adopting babies. So the announcement of Weil and Royce’s nuptials would not necessarily have raised an automatic red flag for
editors at American Magazine, here, or elsewhere.
But abuse of the communal good faith will send editors scrambling to cinch guidelines that will protect their universities and potentially rob class notes of the warm, personal content that makes them an asset to broader alumni outreach efforts.
The pair’s attorney has told the press that the lawsuit “has nothing to do with homophobia.” In fact, it is a case of raging homophobia from start to finish, reinforcing negative stereotypes and further hindering the already agonizing progress toward social equality for gay Americans. Talk about gross negligence.
I’m sure the fake class
note submission seemed an inspired idea to the mystery prankster(s), as he composed it over a few beers. But I hope he is sobered by the serious turn his little trick has taken. Dude, there is now $1.5 million at stake.
As for Weil and Royce, I hope they don’t get enough money from American University to buy even a six-pack of Amstel Light.