Drink Beer Kill Queers Controversy

Drink Beer, Kill Queers!

In April of 1988, the University of Vermont was an uneasy place to be for members of the LGBTQA community as different fraternities brandished homophobic signs. This series of events started on April 7th 1988 and continued until the 28th. What follows is a breakdown of events from locally published materials (primarily The Cynic, The Burlington Free Press, and The Rutland Herald) revealing a period of intense homophobia at the University of Vermont.

On April 7th, 1988 Lambda Iota’s, a fraternity at the University of Vermont, had the phrase “Drink Beer, Kill Queers” taped to one of its party bus windows. Local residents complained to the mayor of Burlington, Bernie Sanders; however, before Sanders could call for its removal an anonymous individual had destroyed the sign. Ron Marra, the president of Lambda Iota, explained that after the bus was attacked the fraternity received a threat, by an anonymous caller. This individual threatened to firebomb their fraternity, which provoked Marra to post members of Lamda Iota around their building and bus. The general reaction from Marra, and the members of Lambda Iota, was anger because they believed that not only had their private property been attacked, but also their freedom of speech. Marra claimed that “Nothing was meant by it at first, but it did begin to mean something to the guys after the window was broken”, claiming that the word “queer” had no sexual connotation.(1)

Lambda Iota’s actions did not go unnoticed as Jason Mullin argues in his letter to the editor in the April 14th issue of The Cynic. Mullin expressed his outrage and disgust at the fraternity, disputing Marra’s claims that the sign was “small” and not easily visible. Furthermore, Mullin directly challenged Marra’s perception that the word “queer” was not meant to cause offense stating "You think nothing of offending ‘queers’, as you call them, but God forbid anyone should do something to offend your precious fraternity. In fact, you go as far to defend your bus with some naïve pledges holding baseball bats when a threat was made to ‘fire bomb’ the bus if it was not moved. Of course you would never think of moving it, instead you welcome the opportunity to attack someone with a baseball bat."(2) Mullin ends his letter stressing the need for fraternities to stop ignoring how their actions impact the community and disgrace the University of Vermont. Mullin’s letter perhaps seems hyperbolic; however, earlier on April 12th there was a second instance of homophobia propagated, this time at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.

According to The Cynic, on April 12th two gay students, Sarah Coy and John Woodward, decided not to attend a meeting at Sigma Phi Ellison, which was set up in order to address issues of homophobia within the universities’ fraternities. Coy and Woodward chose not to attend this meeting due to fact that on the fender of a car, located in the front of the house, it read “Kill Queers”. This sentiment made both Coy and Woodward fearful and decided that it would be dangerous to enter into the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. An unnamed fraternity member informed Coy that Sigma Phi Epsilon had spray-painted the car during a party, explaining that the statement did not seem bothered anyone. Andy Elias, president of Sigma Phi Epsilon, later explained that this car was a part of the Car Wrecking weekend and that “There was no direct connection or intent to threaten …We (the fraternity brothers) feel strongly that people can do whatever they want”.(3) The fraternity’s actions attracted attention from Keith Meiser, the Dean of Students, who disapproved of Sigma Phi Epsilon’s actions, but felt as if the universities policies for discrimination may not apply. Raising issues of the ability of how, and if, the University of Vermont could police the actions of its associated fraternities.

Sarah Coy and John Woodward also spoke out against the actions of Sigma Phi Epsilon in a letter to the editor in the April 14th edition of The Cynic. This letter was primarily directed to leaders of the university and members Greek life, expressing their frustration in light of the recent events. Declaring that “it was known in advance that we had been invited to come to address the group at Sigma Phi Epsilon, we felt it was irresponsible and possibly hostile action on the part of the brothers to allow the vehicle to remain in the Sigma Phi Epsilon parking lot…”.(4) Furthermore, they both expressed how they thought the actions of Sigma Phi Epsilon and Lambda Iota had damaged not only the campus’ queer community, but also Burlington and the rest of the university. Stressing how these actions reveal intolerance and violence within these social groups. Both Coy and Woodward are aware of the universities limitation to regulate the fraternities; however, they stress that UVM had recently hired a member of staff to “Coordinate Greek Affairs”. Stressing that they hope the university would enforce its non-discrimination policy and continue to support the civil rights of queer individuals on campus. It is important to note that in Out In The Mountains’s reprint of this letter that the editor added that both Coy and Woodward had received harassing phone calls due to its publication.

The University of Vermont had to address this issue of Lambda Iota swiftly as it became known of their repeated use of the phrase “drink beer, kill queers” during the weekend of April 22, 1988. Both The Burlington Free Press (April 26th, 1988) and The Rutland Herald (April 27th, 1988) reported that Lambda Iota held a party in which guests’ hands were stamped with the same homophobic phrase “drink beer, kill queers”. As reported, this was the second time that Lambda Iota had used the phrase in less than a month. Sarah Coy spoke to The Burlington Free Press stating, “I think it really forces people to see that we’re talking about a very real problem, not just an isolated incident…. It puts a lot of pressure on the administration to take strong, firm action”.(6) Lisa Falcone, UVM Coordinator of Greek Affairs, commented that, “If you have a child who does something wrong and then does it again, you take it more seriously”.(5) Despite the severity of the situation the University of Vermont revealed significant limitations when it came to censuring Lambda Iota’s because legally they cannot punish individuals over the age of 18. Furthermore according to The Burlington Free Press that the phrase “drink beer, kill queers,” was in plain sight on April 23, taped to a fuse box in the foyer of the Lambda Iota.

On April 28th, the University of Vermont made the decision to place Lambda Iota on a two-year probation, requiring them to fulfill a of 19 requirements that must be met in order to remain associated with the university. This list according to The Rutland Herald, included sensitivity trainings and identifying the individuals who painted their party bus with the phrase “drink beer, kill queers”. Director Patrick Brown explained in The Rutland Herald, “the sanctions levied against Sigma Phi Epsilon were less severe because only one infraction took place and because the fraternity acted quickly to correct the action by writing a letter of apology last week”.(7) In this letter published in The Cynic in which Lambda Iota apologized this scandal declaring that it damaged the reputation of fraternity, explaining that a few misguided brothers were to blame. Reinforcing Browns claim that, “Looking at the response other fraternities have had… I would not characterized that as a phenomenon that is sweeping through Greek chapters”.(7) Suggesting that this outbreak of homophobia was a rarity brought on by a few misguided students.

Despite Patrick Brown’s declaration on May 18th 1988, The Burlington Free Press ran an article entitled “Intolerance On Campus”. The nameless author claims that sexism and homophobia will continue, despite the University of Vermont’s actions. Arguing, “What the young men will learn, we suspect, is that their fun is not suitable for public display. Relegating sexism and homophobia to the privacy of the locker room submerges the problem. It doesn’t civilize the instinct that women are objects and homosexuals are ‘queers’”.(8) Reflecting that both the University of Vermont and Middlebury College both had serious cases of sexism or homophobia this year within different associated fraternities. The unnamed writer seems perhaps most disturbed by the lack of empathy expressed by these young men as they denied any intent to discriminate or offend. Asking, “How can students at two of the nation’s top colleges see a doll and some scrawled words as so much cloth and paint, of no symbolic import at all?”.(8) Stressing the need for students to be educated in these matters, in order to teach students sensitivity and the importance of respecting individuals.

Work Cited

1-Hammond, Marybeth. "Bus's Slogan Offends Community Members." The Cynic, April 7, 1988.

2-Mullin, Jason. “Lambda Ignores Rights and Concerns of Others.” The Cynic, April 14, 1988.

3-Karen, Giles, “More ‘Kill Queers; slogans raise fears and controversy.” The Cynic, April 14th, 1988.

4-Coy, Sarah and Woodward, John E. “Sig Ep’s Violent Attitude and Homophobia Warrants Action.” The Cynic, April 14, 1988.

5-Associated Press. “Anti-Gay Slogan Recurs at UVM”. The Rutland Herald. April 27, 1988.

6-Shulevitz, Judith. “Frat Used Anti-Gay Phrase at Party, UVM Officials Say.” The Burlington Free Press, April 26th, 1988.

7-Bookchin, Debbie. “UVM Disciplines Fraternities For Use of Anti-Gay Slogans.” The Rutland Herald, April 28, 1988.

8-“Intolerance on Campus.” The Burlington Free Press, May 18th, 1988.