Story updated at 9:04 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, to clarify a quote from a letter that Bruce Murray sent to another newspaper.
Heather Mann sat in her calculus class at Auburn and heard the boys ridicule “those homosexuals,” those people who would burn in hell, they said, who would feel the wrath of the world if they ever dared to love beyond the confines of a man and a woman.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
Mann, a junior in mechanical engineering, was wearing a rainbow pin on her shirt. She had been wearing it all year.
“I’d have to listen to them making horrible jokes about gay people, transgender people, saying slurs as if they were like any other word you can throw around,” Mann said.
She heard them every week. Either they had not noticed her rainbow pin, or they had and they were still spewing slurs, she said.
“Either way, I have to choose whether I want to sit quietly and listen or say something and have to deal with the aftermath for the rest of the semester,” Mann said.
She was silent all year and never said a word to them, because to be a bisexual woman in Alabama, she said, is “to be lost,” as if she were wading through swampy waters, knowing the next slur will jump out from mouths eager to tell her she’s abnormal, eager to spit insults that stick to her mind like wild rye grass, “‘cause this is the way it is,” she said — because this is Auburn.
“If you try to tell someone who doesn’t know anything about [the LGBTQ community] they’re just like, ‘Well, it’s just words. What’s the worst that could happen?’” Mann said. “But there’s this undercurrent of fear where you actually don’t know what’s going to happen, and so you just stay quiet to keep yourself safe.”
Those slurs were just coming from students. If they were coming from someone controlling her grades, Mann said, she doesn’t know what she would’ve done.
II. Bruce Murray
Bruce Murray, an associate professor in the College of Education, has been working at the University since 1996. Murray specializes in reading education and has tenure. A number of students, including some who have been in his class, have come to The Plainsman and said that they’re troubled by Murray’s posts on his once-public Facebook account, which was made private in the middle of the reporting of this story.
Murray confirmed to The Plainsman that the posts that are troubling to some students belong to his Facebook account.
The dozens of posts consist of memes that some students said are offensive and hurtful toward the LGBTQ community, articles from Breitbart — a far-right digital publisher — and general musings on homosexuality.
In one post published on Aug. 28, 2019, at 2:25 p.m., Murray posted a meme of a transgender woman with the caption “Today’s liberals are so dumb they think men can change into women. And so evil they will punish you for telling the truth.” Murray writes in the post that “The XY chromosomes in 37 trillion cells say that this guy is male. Who cares? Say the science deniers.”
In another post from two days earlier, Murray shared an article about Maebe Girl, a drag queen running for Congress in California, and called her a “gender-confused crossdresser.”
Over the summer, Murray said that all of President Donald Trump’s “bad tweets” wouldn’t be morally equivalent to the “single firing or non-hire of a person for being critical of the ‘LGBT’ agenda or a single obscene ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ corrupting the minds of little children.” On July 14, Murray posted a picture of a rainbow and said that it was “not a symbol we should cede to the homosexuals.” He goes on to state in the post that “God designed [the rainbow.] It has a meaning exactly the opposite of homosexualism.”
In letters to the editor published in the Opelika-Auburn News from 2003 to 2014, Murray has written that “calling homosexual commitment ceremonies ‘marriage’ is fraudulent and counterfactual."
Murray states in another Facebook post that “rainbow doesn’t mean inclusion. It means shut up.”
Lucas Copeland, who is the longest-serving member of Spectrum, Auburn’s gay-straight alliance organization, said he is repulsed that a professor at Auburn has such views.
“It’s homophobic. It’s transphobic. It’s simply despicable,” Copeland said. “For a college so adamant about praising diversity and claiming to be welcoming, this certainly contradicts that.”
Outside of Murray’s office in the Haley Center is a sheet of paper taped to the wall that reads, “I support viewpoint diversity.”
He told The Plainsman that calling a transgender woman a “gender-confused crossdresser” is not transphobic or hateful because “stating facts is not hateful.”
“Facts don’t threaten. Facts are just something you have to deal with,” he said.
Murray said he’s a Christian and that he believes being gay “is not a good choice,” because of his faith in Jesus.
He said he stands behind every post he’s made and that he will not apologize to those who are offended because he expects people to tolerate his views — just as he said he tolerates those who are gay.
When asked why his Facebook was recently made private, he said the following:
“One of the questions is that I’m up for promotion in tenure. And so I didn’t want it to be public that I maybe have some views that are not right in the mainstream right now.”
Murray was told that some students at Auburn found his remarks on Facebook to be extremely homophobic. Murray, however, said he doesn’t believe homophobia exists.
“Homophobia would be an irrational fear and hatred of homosexuality. I haven’t seen it,” Murray said.
He also said it’s “normal” to oppose the gay community because “we should dislike the things that destroy us, the things that injure us. Homosexuality, for example, injures by spreading a whole lot of sexual diseases.”
“We are designed as a species for sexual mating. Other kinds of mating relationships aren’t healthy,” Murray said.
He added that his point of view is grounded in “natural law.” Racist views shouldn’t be upheld as being diverse, but his views on the LGBTQ community should be seen as just another diverse viewpoint, he said.
Murray said he keeps his views out of the classroom, adding that if students feel threatened by his views, he hopes they wouldn’t have any retaliation against him. Murray is adamant that he “tolerates” students’ “sexual immorality.”
“I’m being diverse,” Murray said.
III. Mask of Tolerance
Mann said she doesn’t care if Murray believes his views don’t infiltrate the classroom.
“He claims that his beliefs don’t bleed over into the classroom, but if I knew that my professor believed such things, I wouldn’t want to participate. I wouldn’t want to draw attention to myself,” Mann said. “I’d hide and stay silent and have as little interaction with him as possible.”
She posed a hypothetical: If she was taking his class, and it was difficult, she wouldn’t feel comfortable going to his office hours, which would seriously hurt her grade, she said.
Copeland said he feels the same way.
“You could make the accusation, ‘This is his personal life, there’s no way this is going to affect him in the classroom,’ but I’m pretty sure we all have an inclination on where the opinion of our professors lie just in the language they use,” Copeland said. “I think I’m safe in assuming that this person is not putting up a mask of tolerance in the classroom when they are so vocal online.”
Amber Nicole, a junior and a member of Spectrum, said it’s especially painful to know the College of Education is employing a man who’s mentoring America’s future teachers.
“He’s excluding an entire community, which in itself is hindering ... several generations of teachers who have been taught underneath him,” Nicole said.
Copeland said he doesn’t understand how a college that places a significance on diversity, a college that is supposed to be welcoming of all types of people, accepting of all students, could allow a professor with “hateful rhetoric” to teach on the Plains.
“[Murray’s rhetoric regarding homosexuality] is hurtful because it denies the humanity of people who experience love differently than this man,” Copeland said. “It implies a pathology to people’s experiences and says ‘You’re sick, you’re wrong and I’m right.’”
Sara Rodrick, a senior in English literature who plans on working in higher education, said that as a queer student at Auburn, she is alarmed to know a professor with those views is in such close proximity to future educators.
“My thoughts on this are also complex because I want to say that the personal views of a teacher, at least in America, are often seen as something that should be separate from the classroom, but in my view, I think that’s impossible,” Rodrick said. “The professor’s, the teacher’s personal views are integral to how they treat their students.”
To have a professor that supports the LGBTQ community, not simply tolerates it, as Murray put it, matters, Rodrick said.
“If the ... College of Education is explicitly saying that they value diversity, I think that can often be a really empty and capacious word,” Rodrick said. “One that gets advertised, but doesn’t necessarily get reinforced.”
IV. Work To Be Done
In chapter 3, section 1 of the Auburn University Faculty Handbook, the academic freedom and responsibility of a professor is derived from the Statements of Principle from the American Association of University Professors, an organization dedicated to “academic freedom and shared governance.” The AAUP states that “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”
The Plainsman tried to reach AAUP for an interview, but the organization said it does not comment on individual cases.
The AAUP goes on to explain that when professors “speak or write on matters of public interest as well as matters related to professional duties and the functioning of the university, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”
David Virtue, a professor and department head of the College of Education, referred The Plainsman to the previously mentioned section of the Faculty Handbook when asked if he was disturbed by what some students said are homophobic and transphobic remarks by Murray on his Facebook page and in letters to the Opelika-Auburn News.
“I won’t comment on personal matters related to my faculty,” Virtue said.
Virtue said the College of Education “needs to be a place where we can come together and talk about what it means to be supportive of students wherever they come from, whatever identities they bring to the classroom.”
“If we’re coming at it from very different perspectives, [I hope] that we can feel safe getting those ideas and debating those ideas and not people or parties, but rather ideas,” Virtue said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
The dean of the College of Education was on sick leave last week and could not be reached for comment in time for publication, but Theresa McCormick, the associate dean of the College of Education, said she had never seen Murray’s Facebook page prior to being contacted by The Plainsman.
“These are disturbing. I would be offended by them,” McCormick said, looking at printed sheets with screenshots of Murray’s posts. “But he has the freedom of speech. I’m also a believer in our rights, and if he’s bringing this into the classroom, then that’s where I would come in as the person over academic affairs.”
McCormick said no student has ever come to her and filed a complaint against Murray.
“His personal beliefs are really no concern of mine, as they are any other faculty member,” McCormick said.
Last year, Auburn received the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s highest rating for free speech. Auburn is one of 38 universities — 28 of which are in the South — nationwide to receive the rating.
Murray said he’s done nothing to warrant any sort of reprimand.
“I have not violated any policy. I haven’t harassed anyone,” Murray said. “I’ve stated points of views that may be contrary to some of the prevailing views in the University.”
Copeland said he contends that Murray’s view on the LGBTQ community is one that should be of concern to everyone in the University.
In Auburn University’s policy that regards prohibited harassment of students, it states that “Any form of discrimination or harassment related to a student’s race, color, sex (which includes sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression), religion, national origin, age or disability (protected classes) is a violation of University policy.”
“What [Murray’s] saying is his political identity should be protected — but his political identity is one that marginalizes and denies people’s innate identities, and I think that’s where it’s hateful,” Copeland said.
Auburn University sent the following statement after reviewing screenshots of Murray’s posts sent by The Plainsman:
“Auburn supports the constitutional right and institutional value of free speech. At the same time, we don’t condone speech that is exclusionary or disrespectful to specific individuals or groups as we strive to prepare students for life and leadership in a global economy and multicultural world.”
Murray’s view on homosexual immorality, McCormick said, “doesn’t support the appreciation of diversity,” but that’s not enough to remove a tenured professor. Students would have to file a grievance with Title IX, she said.
“I’m sorry that we have faculty members that would post inappropriate, offensive things,” McCormick said. “I doubt he’s the only one.”
V. 21 Dead
On Jan. 6, 2019, 31-year-old Dana Martin, a black transgender woman, was shot and killed beside a roadside ditch while she was in her car, according to The Montgomery Advertiser. The first alleged transgender homicide of 2019 in the U.S. happened around 50 miles from Auburn in Montgomery, Alabama.
In 2018, Human Rights Campaign tracked 26 transgender deaths in the United States, the majority being black transgender women. Copeland said that when he sees these statistics, when he hears how transphobia has buried another body, killed another person for daring to be who they are, he thinks that the pain of that fact should rest heavy on those who propagate hate. Human Rights Campaign has thus far tracked 21 transgender or gender non-conforming people who were “fatally shot or killed by other violent means.”
Lyra Burke, a transgender student at Auburn, said it is a constant fight to protect herself from hate on campus.
“I haven’t had any personal bad experiences with teachers or students on campus, but I’ve had to put a whole lot of effort to do that,” Burke said.
She must be loud, she must intimidate; not to cause a scene, but because it is a defense mechanism, because she cannot succumb to their stares and let them win control over her body.
“That’s just because of the climate on campus,” she said. “It’s work that I shouldn’t have to do.”
If she had a professor like Murray, the effort to protect herself would double, she said, because of Murray’s forthright objection to the transgender community, forthright objection to her.
Shanquella Jones, a graduate student in the College of Education, said that though she’s never had Murray as a professor, she’s “disappointed and upset” about his rhetoric regarding the LGBTQ community.
“We can’t control what comes out of his mouth, but still, the students he has or will have from that community won’t feel comfortable asking him questions or meeting with him for assignments,” Jones said.
Paige Coll, who graduated from Auburn University’s College of Education last year, currently works in the Atlanta public school system. She never had Murray as a professor, but she said the professors she did have were “inclusive and welcoming.”
“The College of Education still has ways to go before they are truly a place for 21st-century educators to practice 21st-century pedagogy. If Auburn wants to accomplish this, they need to remove the bad apples from the curriculum and teaching department,” she said in a statement. “In an environment where students feel unwelcome or oppressed, they are more likely to become disengaged in the content and/or skip class.
Coll said the modern-day public school system deserves professors who are engaged and enthusiastic — not prejudiced.
“No student should have to lose their passion for teaching because of feeling prejudiced by their professor,” she said. “I am also concerned that the [College of Education] would preach inclusivity, but continue to employ someone who is supposed to influence students. An influence fueled by homophobia and misogyny could continue to contribute to Alabama educators’ lack of progressive values in education, especially in rural school districts.”
If Alabama’s education system wants to move out of the dark ages, Coll said, its universities need to ensure they are employing professors “who practice and encourage 21st-century thinking.”
Murray said Coll is being “remarkably intolerant.”
VI. Control Your Poison, Babe, Roses Have Thorns, They Say
Unlike Birmingham and Montevallo, the City of Auburn does not include sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class within its non-discrimination ordinances. This means that right now, in Auburn, a person can be kicked out of their residence for being gay, can be fired for being transgender, can be denied a promotion for being lesbian.
According to a 2017 study from the UCLA School of Law, approximately 73,400 workers in Alabama are LGBT. The study found that 24% of LGBT workers in the state reported workplace discrimination and that 38% experienced harassment. The study also found that 71% of the public supports LGBT workplace protections. In Auburn, however, no such protection exists, leaving the City of Auburn and the University on lists comprised of the worst places to live in the country for LGBTQ people and students.
It’s ironic, Copeland said, that someone who’s lesbian can be fired one day in Alabama for loving a woman, and yet Murray can have homophobic views and still teach at a public university.
“It makes you think, doesn’t it?” Copeland said.
At a recent Spectrum meeting in the Student Center, Lady Gaga blared through speakers intended for classroom discussions and meetings with monotone lecturers. There were around two dozen students, all swaying and laughing at friends’ dance moves. Mann, the student who once wore her rainbow pin in fear when she was in calculus class, was now complimenting someone else’s rainbow socks.
“Just dance, gonna be okay … Control your poison, babe, roses have thorns, they say.”
They talked about first dates, about how the fall was bringing romance in the air and tests on the desks. They talked about their struggles, but only for a little bit, because for an hour, a tiny little hour of the week, it was time to catch up, time to dance before the meeting and compliment cute pink hats and listen to how a friend felt dizzy with nerves when he talked to this cute guy.
“And dance, gonna be okay … Just dance, spin that record babe.”
Copeland led the meeting, and at the end, they all went to Mellow Mushroom and brought the music downtown.
“It’s pretty great, these meetings,” Copeland said. “It’s all love.”
Rodrick said she’d like to see Murray’s removal from the University.
“The professor is directing the curriculum and shaping it,” Rodrick said. “Their views matter and those views go to inform how they will treat you in the classroom … how your students will talk to each other and talk to you as a professor.”
Copeland said Murray serves as a case study for the University.
“It’s not a coincidence, I think, that this individual works at Auburn. I think they were attracted to the politics and the culture of this school,” Copeland said. “This man is not a coincidence. He is a symptom of Auburn culture — of the Auburn Family.”
*Correction: In a previous version of this story, there was a paragraph stating that Murray had written in a letter to the Opelika-Auburn News that when “jubilant homosexuals celebrated the decision” of same-sex marriage equality in New York, they were “losers.”
Murray did not say that "jubilant homosexuals" are losers. He said that unmarried men, unmarried women and children are the losers when marriage is "arbitrarily redefined." The Plainsman regrets the error.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman