UMass Amherst says the timing is sheer coincidence.
But the fact that the athletic department’s first “Pride Day” will take place when the Liberty University football team is in town Oct. 8 is receiving some scrutiny.
Liberty is the Jerry Falwell-founded Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., that explicitly prohibits and imposes stiff punishments for statements and behaviors associated with LGBTQ+ lifestyles.
So the “Pride Day” messaging should resonate extra loud, given the football team visiting McGuirk Stadium that day.
“We’re comfortable with it,“ said UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford Thursday. “This is very important to us, and we are going to highlight and celebrate all the magnificent ways that our campus is diverse and is inclusive.
“We are very proud of that at the University of Massachusetts, and we’re very proud of being a leader in our community and being a leader in Western Mass. and being a leader throughout the Commonwealth.”
The plans for a Pride Day preceded the pandemic but were waylaid until this season, and UMass, because of scheduling complexities that arise from it being an independent football team, had only five home dates.
With dates already fixed for Homecoming, Military Appreciation Day, Hall of Fame Celebration, and Family Weekend, Pride Day got slotted into Oct. 8 along with Band Day. It was unintentional, according to the university, that Liberty was the opponent.
A spokesperson from Liberty did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Liberty’s Student Honor Code — “The Liberty Way” — makes no attempt to disguise the school’s intolerance of a wide array of behaviors. Besides premarital sex of any variety, “statements and behaviors that are associated with LGBT lifestyle are prohibited,” it reads. “For example, romantic displays of affection with a member of the same sex (e.g. hand-holding, kissing, dating, etc.) and actions confirming denial of biological birth sex (e.g. asking to be referred to by pronouns inconsistent with one’s birth sex, using restrooms and changing facilities reserved for persons other than one’s birth sex, etc.) are prohibited.”
Those who violate the honor code are subject to sanctions ranging from counseling, community service, fines, and expulsion.
In the school’s doctrinal statement, qualities of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, mercy, and justice are promoted along with upholding “chastity among the unmarried and the sanctity of marriage between one natural-born man and one natural-born woman.”
Examples of sinful acts include “denial of birth sex by self-identification with a different gender” and “romantic coupling among persons of the same sex.”
Working in conjunction with The Stonewall Center, UMass’s resource center for the LGBTQ+ community, the external operations staff of the athletic department has come up with a still-unfinalized list of Pride Day tributes. Among them will be honorary captains from Stonewall for the coin toss, videoboard announcements heralding campus and community LGBTQ+ resources, and coaches and bench personnel wearing apparel adorned with the Pride flag.
Leading up to the game, the department will hold student-athlete awareness and educational programming as well.
Bamford said the school’s intent is to make Pride Day an annual event, holding as much weight as any other themed football game, regardless of which opposing team is in town.
“I want folks to understand that from a university and an athletics department and a football standpoint, all the games that we play at home are important to what we’re doing at the University of Massachusetts and the ways that we highlight the contributions and celebrate our successes, celebrate our history,” said Bamford. “These are throughout all the themes, not just Pride Day. These are really important things that we weave into the game-day experience.”
Two former Liberty students are among the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the US Department of Education aimed to stop the department from granting exemptions to religious colleges that discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and still receive federal funding.
One former Liberty student, Lucas Wilson, identifies as a gay man who in his time at Liberty was struggling with his sexuality and wanted to become straight. On the “Religious Exemption Accountability Act, REAP” website about the lawsuit, Wilson said school-provided therapy provoked “repression, deep-seated shame, self-hatred.”
He also attended a “conversion therapy” session.
“This ‘opportunity’ is provided by Liberty as an alternative to disciplinary action,” wrote Wilson. “Queer students should be protected from the discrimination that I experienced at Liberty. No university that offers conversion therapy or treats LGBTQIA+ students the way Liberty University does should receive government funding.”
Mackenzie McCann, another plaintiff, lasted one semester at Liberty.
“Students at Liberty behave in homophobic and anti-queer ways because they know that they can do so with relative impunity,” wrote McCann. “Liberty’s culture enables such conduct and makes students feel like Liberty is backing them.”