% IssueDate = "07/01/02" IssueCategory = "Interview" %>
The Florida 'Plantation' College & the Politics of Homophobia
Less than a week after closing the successful production of The Laramie Project, Robert Hatch, assistant professor in charge of the theater department at Brevard Community College, found out his services no longer are needed.
Pam Harbaugh-" BCC fires director of theater program"-Florida Today, March 22
In adolescence, I was brutalized by my peers, because I was a sissy (i.e. sensitive and creative). This is some of the greatest pain I've ever known. I didn't feel like I could talk to anyone about it, especially my family, because I was so ashamed. Since I was expected to be perfect (an impossibility for anyone), I developed an incredible case of low self-esteem and acted out big time - experimenting with drugs and an overall troublemaker.
I knew from the time I was about three years old, that I wanted to be in show business. This turned out to be my salvation. On stage, I could express my pain (and joy) with no repercussions whatsoever. I ended up getting my BFA in Acting and founding a professional theatre company in Tampa and then returning to school, where I received an MFA in Directing.
Raj Ayyar: How did a creative, talented soul like yourself wash up at Brevard Community College (BCC), at this godforsaken Southern sand dune wilderness, cut off from the markers and anchors of culture?
Robert Hatch: I was living in Chicago at the time and going through a horrible time - I'd been laid off my job, broken off with my boyfriend, and eventually landed in a psychiatric hospital. The experience in the hospital, believe it or not, was amazing. It was a gay ward and though it was extremely intense, I don't believe I've ever felt so supported.
Then one day, Jeanine Henry, who I'd been to grad school with called me and said she was teaching theatre at BCC and needed to take a year off to take care of her newborn. Would I be interested in coming down and teaching for a year?
Talk about serendipity. I instantly said yes, packed up my stuff and moved to Brevard County. Coincidentally, Brevard was where I had spent the painful years of my adolescence. I do believe in fate - a master plan, I do, I do, I do.
Robert Hatch: You're probably right. I never thought of myself as a rebel, but I do have artistic vision from which I will not deviate. I think the administration at BCC was disturbed by the fact that I was "out of the box". I still don't understand why this threatens people, especially in a college, for God's sake, which is supposed to be an institution of enlightenment.
Raj Ayyar: As a gay teacher, did you find yourself targeted by fundamentalists of all ilk, homophobic parents, college administrators and so forth? Or, did you create a niche for yourself that worked well till the controversy over The Laramie Project?
Robert Hatch: I am so happy to say that I was never the target of any homophobia - ever. The students, faculty and staff all knew that I'm gay and they were warm and accepting. I will always be grateful for that, because I didn't expect it. Through all of this mess, I have found my faith in people restored in a way it never was before.
Raj Ayyar: Can you tell us more about your involvement with The Laramie Project?
Raj Ayyar: Moises Kaufman, the author of the Project is quoted as saying that "a particular event (can) bring various ideologies and beliefs prevailing in a culture into sharp focus. At these junctures, the event becomes a lightning rod of sorts." Do you see the brutal hate crime against Matthew Shepard as such a 'juncture' for our cultures here in the U.S.?
Robert Hatch: Absolutely. There are hate crimes occurring every day. Why did this story capture the attention of the world. Sometimes it just happens that way. It's as if our collective, spiritual conscious says, "Okay, it's time to really time to look at this".
Raj Ayyar: Re-visiting that incident which ruptured gay self-confidence about marching confidently toward civil rights and acceptance, I am still haunted by the butchery of youthful innocence, the crucifixion-style murder and the spate of Religious Reich hatred surrounding Matthew Shepard's death. Any comments?
Robert Hatch: Well, as a quote on the book says - The Laramie Project is about the depths of hatred to which we can sink and the heights of compassion and love which we are capable of.
Raj Ayyar: Now, the play does present multiple perspectives from Laramie, Wyoming in the context of Matthew Shepard. As such, it is hardly a simplistic 'commercial' for a gay lifestyle or for "promotion" of homosexuality. However, did the BCC college administration choose to frame it as just such a commercial?
Robert Hatch: No one ever said anything like that to me, but I'm SURE there is a great amount of truth in that. Narrow-minded people hear the word "gay", or even the word "fuck" and their minds snap shut. It's so sad to me that some people could not experience the awesome beauty and power of The Laramie Project.
Raj Ayyar: How did you feel as a talented, popular drama teacher when the college announced that it would not renew your contract?
Robert Hatch: I was shocked, but not really surprised.
Raj Ayyar: Do you have any suggestions for educating students, educators and parents about homophobia? Is it possible to make inroads into the system sufficiently to do this? After all, brave initial strides have been taken by African-Americans, feminists and others in the direction of a more diverse, multi-cultural curriculum. How does one persuade the little fish pond of one's own educational institution first and then the larger culture to start examining and going beyond homophobia?
Robert Hatch: Have you ever noticed how the arts are always the first ones that address issues such as these. I'm so proud to be in my profession. We all have to play our parts in whatever way we can. I do it through theatre, others through activism. I really don't consider myself a political person. But I think the purpose of theatre is to illuminate the human experience.
Raj Ayyar: Do you think one major stumbling block (fortified by cant about 'family values', different fundamentalisms etc.) is what Gayle Rubin famously called 'compulsory heterosexuality?' In other words, the problem may not be 'mere' heterosexuality, particularly a heterosexuality that struggles valiantly against its own prejudices, but an institutionally mandated driven heterosexism that forces everyone into a universal grid of acceptable, appropriate or 'normal' behavior. What do you think?
Robert Hatch: Well, I agree. We live in a patriarchal society that is scared shitless of "differences" of any kind - especially when it comes to sex. People are always quoting the Bible - well, I couldn't care less what the Bible says. I'm a spiritual person, and I believe in God, but I don't believe that the Bible is the word of god, though it is a great work of literature and has some beautiful wisdom. I think it's an arrogant assumption of our society that everyone should believe in the Bible. I try very hard to respect ALL spiritual paths.
Raj Ayyar: Given these dynamics of 'compulsory heterosexuality', is there a 'monsterfication' of the 'out' gay teacher in the U.S. and elsewhere today? Is the gay male teacher in particular stereotyped and often scapegoated as inevitably promiscuous, perhaps pedophilic, prone to harassing the young and impressionable and 'promoting' gayness?
Robert Hatch: I think that element is still there, but things have gotten better, especially in the last 15 years or so. But we still have a long way to go, that's for sure.
Raj Ayyar: What are your future prospects, Robert? I'd hate to think of someone as talented as you scarred by BCC's ill-advised action. Do you have any plans that you would care to share with our readers?
Robert Hatch: If I knew, I'd be happy to share, but I'm still up the air right now. I want to teach, I love teaching. So, I'm sending out resumes and hoping a door will open for me. It has before.
Raj Ayyar: Is there anything else that you would like to communicate to readers of Gay Today?
Robert Hatch: Keep the faith. That's my mantra these days. I lost my job because of a handful of frightened, morally corrupt people. But what I will ultimately take away from this whole experience is the hundreds of people who saw the show and came up to us after the show with tears in their eyes, thanking us for doing the show.
And the outpouring of love, outrage and support from students, community members and, indeed, people from all over the country - well, that is quite possibly the beautiful and humbling experience of my life. If I had it all to do over, I'd do exactly the same thing.