[Editor’s note: Last week Queerty published an article about the dismissal of Ohio State University marching band director Jonathan Waters due to alleged homophobic hazing rituals that he knew about and failed to prevent. A former member of the band has written the following essay in defense of Waters.]
First and foremost I am a proud alumnus of The Ohio State University Marching Band, and no one will ever be able to take that away from me. Plainly, I believe that the recently released investigative report on OSUMB has done more harm than good. It is my opinion that the report is inaccurate, painting an incomplete and misleading portrait of OSUMB culture and its students. The report, unfortunately, lacks a robust perspective representing the opinions, thoughts, and feelings of thousands of current and former students in the band.
The portrait that it painted is laced with fallacies, subjectivity and has caused irreversible damage to thousands of people. The board of trustees has lacked the foresight to see the consequences of your actions and have created a world-wide slanderous campaign that will effect every single members personal lives and careers. I am concerned about the impact of the actions of the university.
I feel personally labeled as a homophobe, alcoholic, pervert, degenerate, abusive, bigot, and sexual deviant among other things as a result of this report. I earned two bachelors degrees in anthropology and history from Ohio state with minors in Jewish studies and music in four and a half years, and graduated Cum Laude. I also worked at least 20 hours a week while attending school alongside participating in the marching band. I have always worked hard for what I believe in and take nothing for granted. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a member of The Best Damn Band In The Land and worked my entire life to do so. When I had the privilege of seeing the band in person for the first time in 1998 my life was changed profoundly.
For ten years I never lost sight of that goal and when it came time to apply for colleges my only choice was ever Ohio State. However, Ohio State did not choose me. I received my letter of deferment to a branch campus in the early spring and I was devastated. When I thought I had lost all hope, it was Jon Waters who gave me the encouragement to try again and let my application and letters of recommendation be sent to a committee for reconsideration. I waited with bated breath until I received news that the decision had been overturned and I was one step closer to realizing my dream. I trained relentlessly to be in the best physical and mental shape I had been in my entire life in preparation for tryouts. When the day came and my name was read on the list that I had made the band, I wept. And as we left the room to meet our new family there was a man standing in the doorway holding a cell phone and he handed it to me. Jon had called my mother for me so I could tell her that the goal I worked towards for nearly a decade had been realized. As I hung up the phone I began to cry – I embraced Jon and he was the first to welcome me to the band family.
From day one that is what this organization has been to me; these people are my family. You spend countless hours working and rehearsing together and when you finally have free time you spend it with the same people because they’re the ones you love. They’re your future husbands, wives, groomsmen, bridesmaids, godparents, and life long best friends.
Some reporters and journalists have been quick to point out homophobic and sexist tendencies, most often referring to lyrics in the songbook. I entered in to what some think is a traditionally male-oriented instrument – snare drum. My first year in band both of my squad leaders were females. My second year in band both of my squad leaders were females. These women are elected to their positions through a democratic vote of the row’s members and an ensuing interview process with the staff. These women were undoubtedly some of the strongest and fiercest people I had ever met and they were treated as equals and leaders among their peers. These songbooks, which are made to seem like an item that every band member carries on them at all times, were seemingly non-existent in my tenure and I was not even aware of their existence until my third year in band. Seeing countless articles and comments online calling me homophobic and sexist are disgusting and I personally feel violated. Some of my best friends are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. I proudly shared the field with all of them, and have shared my home with an openly gay male whom I call one of my best friends. To me and many others the band has always been a community of acceptance and tolerance. We all understood that the moment you put on that uniform and step on the field, no one knows or cares about your sexual orientation and likely can’t even tell if you’re male or female.
In regards to some of these first-year names, the list mentioned in the report contained names that could be construed as vulgar and offensive without consent of those parties. It did not include any of the hundreds of other nick names in existence that are fun, respectable, and loved. For instance, my nickname was Quasimodo and my trick was to “ring the bell” when “Hells Bells” was played in the stadium on third downs. There was not one single time where I was forced in any way to do this, and it was merely a creative suggestion that I found fun and loved to do. As a fan at football games last year, I would still participate proudly while wearing a jersey with the name “Quasi” on the back.
In my five years in the marching band, not once did I ever feel that I was in an unsafe environment. My tenure in the band came in a time of transition and change. The band that I joined and the band that I left were different and these changes were the direct result of actions that Jon Waters and the rest of the band staff had taken. Many of these changes caused opposition from the students but staff remained firm. To some members of the band – especially those who were more resistant to change – referred to Jon as the “fun police”. This was because Jon worked tirelessly as an advocate for respect of students and had little tolerance for negative or disrespectful behavior.
I was elected to the position of Assistant Squad Leader during Mr. Waters’ inaugural season as director. During that season, we saw many changes instituted to the way things had previously been run in an effort to create a safe, productive, and inclusive environment for all members and there are two instances that stand out in my mind, both of which are mentioned in the investigative report.
The first is in regards to one of the rookie nicknames known as “Dr. Faggot.” I believe it is a safe assumption to make that the staff and many other members of the band know about this name because the person was referred to simply as “Dr. F.” Personally, I had no idea that this is what stood for and never thought twice about it, until someone uttered what it was aloud. The directing staff caught wind of this and I can very vividly remember swift action being taken and us spending long hours in squad leader meetings to address issues like this as constructively as possible. Jon would often ask the question “Do we need this?” so we could view these situations objectively, and make the change that was so desperately needed. We did need to change, and we did change.
There are instances of Midnight Ramp mentioned as well, which chronicle its details along with a particular incident involving alcohol poisoning. This event during my first few years of band would take place late at night, was entirely unsupervised and solely student led. This left time for students of age to over-consume alcohol thus leading to this persons poising. After this occurred, staff took measures to ensure the safety of each and every student who willingly participated creating an event that lasted several hours before hand and immediately segued into Midnight Ramp. This policy, instituted by the directing staff, curbed both issues of alcohol consumption and student safety, as well as providing on hand support for anyone who wished to not participate. The event was entirely voluntary and several people did not join nor was anyone coerced into joining. Also, I specifically remember there being police on hand as well for support to ensure the safety of everyone involved as well as many gates inside the stadium being open. This was far from the druken sex-fest that the report, along with every single media outlet covering this investigation, is making it turn out to be.
As I recall this is incredibly similar to an act that students participate in every year, though not officially sanctioned by the university, in which administration has taken steps to not stop it but make it a safe place for consenting adults. I am of course referring to the Mirror Lake Jump which takes place every year. Where thousands of intoxicated students are scantily clad in bathing suits and underwear jump into a freezing cold lake in the middle of winter, for the sake of tradition. I consistently felt less safe at this event than I ever did during any midnight ramp. During midnight ramp there is no chance of hypothermia and you are surrounded by 225 of your closest friends and family rather than complete strangers. Is Mirror Lake only acceptable because you simply stop 50,000 students from participating and the fact that it’s made public? Why is something like this not considered over-sexualized (because underwear is no different than a bathing suit, you just wear it all the time) and it is littered with alcohol (which our staff was able to get rid of). Also, women are legally allowed to be topless in the city of Columbus – anyone who has been to Comfest before can attest to this.
As I’m sure you are aware by now from the hundreds, if not thousands, of letters you have received imploring you to reinstate Mr. Jon Waters to the helm of the band, you must realize that he has been your biggest ally in change. The band was clearly on a track for success both from it’s public persona, but internally. Changes were being made and every single one was for the benefit of the students. As any single cultural anthropologist at this university can tell you that you cannot change a culture overnight. Things deeply ingrained take time, and I implore you to allow a little more time for him to finish the job he so clearly started. It’s time for you to ask yourself the question “Do we need this?” and for you to come to the right conclusion.
I carry with me a picture that I have kept with me for over a decade as inspiration. It’s from the game I mentioned earlier from 1998 of a personal hero of mine. This picture is of myself and Jon Waters when I was 8 years old — it’s from the OSU vs. M*ch*g*n game when he dotted the i. Without him, I would not be where I am today nor the man I’ve come to be.