A story on the Mississippi Today website about an Ole Miss senior who has decided not to return to school for her final semester invites comparisons to the most shameful period in the university’s history: the 1962 riot over the admission of a single Black student.
The current senior, Lindsey Tranh, is gay. She has decided not to return to Oxford, fearing for her safety after the disappearance of another gay student, Jay Lee, several weeks ago. An Ole Miss student has been charged with murder in the case.
Tranh, who is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, said Ole Miss and Oxford seemed like a welcoming place — until Lee’s disappearance. She emailed university officials that the lack of information about the case, the fact that Lee’s body has not been found and the injustice to his family, friends and the gay community helped her decide to take online classes from home to complete her degree.
Mississippi Today said a total of 11 students, faculty and alumni have told the website that they fear for the gay community’s safety in Oxford. They also are concerned that gay or transgender citizens, “seeking safety from violence and harassment,” will conceal their sexuality or gender identity.
This is not an effort to downplay any safety concerns. If someone feels unsafe, they must take all necessary precautions. But it also is fair to ask this: If Ole Miss was a reasonably welcoming and tolerant place for gay and transgender students before Lee’s death, how much has this tragic case really changed that?
This also is not intended to downplay any harassment that gay and transgender people must endure in a conservative state like Mississippi — even on a college campus, where a few students are bound to have something derogatory to say about other people.
But another question is, how often have gay students been harassed or threatened in recent months or years? And have there been more of these instances lately than there used to be?
To repeat: If a person feels unsafe, he or she must decide how to protect themselves. It is worth noting, though, that gay and transgender people who fear for their safety could draw inspiration from the experiences of Black residents across the South in the 1950s and 1960s.
Things changed when enough Black residents chose no longer to walk away in fear, and got federal courts to defend their rights for elementary things like voting. They had to feel unsafe and in fear for their lives, but ultimately their efforts made the state a fairer place.
To cite the obvious example that is specific to Ole Miss, James Meredith, the university’s first Black student, did not back down after the 1962 riot. He defended his right to attend a public university despite being ignored and harassed by other students. It took a while, but the university and Mississippi have adjusted.
The Ole Miss of 2022 is nothing like it was 60 years ago. The fact that gay students live there openly is proof of that.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal