OSU’s Marching Band Is a Homophobic, Sexist Mess

The marching Buckeyes have a big problem.

Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

The Ohio State University Marching Band is pretty high-profile as marching bands go. In recent months their catchy halftime show drill patterns—imitating everything from Michael Jackson dance moves to classic video games—have drawn attention from social media and the press, including Slate’s own Brow Beat. If that weren’t enough, they were even featured in one of Apple’s stylish iPad commercials earlier this year.

As a veteran and fan of the marching arts, I was thrilled to see the OSUMB generating some wider interest in the genre—which is why it broke my heart to read news that the band’s director, Jonathan Waters, was fired this week as a first disciplinary blow against what appears to be a deeply ingrained, creepily sexualized culture of misogyny and homophobia among staff and student musicians alike. The Columbus Dispatch has the details:

Ohio State fired Waters, 38, after a university investigation found a cascade of evidence that students in the band routinely harassed one another––often directed from older students to newcomers––and that Waters ignored complaints about those traditions.

University investigators found that Waters knew of several traditions and allowed them to continue. The report also found that he mishandled a report that one band member sexually assaulted another: Waters tried to discipline the female victim along with the male student, but Ohio State reversed the decision.

Waters and his attorney claim that he “tried as hard as he could within the constraints imposed upon him to change that culture,” but internal documents and testimony collected by the investigation suggest that the director didn’t try hard enough. The report tells of hazing traditions which saw band members pressured into practicing in their underwear and being asked to perform “tricks” of a highly sexualized nature: One woman was made to fake orgasming while sitting on various male band members’ laps, including her brother’s. Additionally, new members were asked to take a “Rookie Midterm,” which included dozens of offensive questions, including the troubling task of answering “How many gay guys are in band? How many lesbians? Name them and their row.” And that bit of trivia pales in comparison to lyrics discovered in an internal band songbook, where titles like “Proud to be a Homosexual” and “He’s a Sweet Gay Fag” were disturbingly common.

Over at Outsports, Jim Buzinski writes that the gross homophobia shocked him: “I would have assumed band would be welcoming place. I have been amazed by comments I have seen where some readers say this is all good, clean fun. Sorry, anytime people sing about “fags” is never fun or acceptable.”

As someone who made it through high school in no small part thanks to the safe haven my school’s band program offered to a pretty clearly (if not yet openly) gay kid, I have to echo his dismay. In regions and schools where macho sports culture reigns supreme, band should be one of the places queer and otherwise “alternative” kids can find a little succor. Band rooms should be sanctuaries. Working together for the good of “the show” afforded me an opportunity to explore my musical creativity and more theatrical impulses (including the occasional spray of hair glitter) free from the kind of gender policing common elsewhere in life. While the legal aspects of the Ohio story will be sorted out in time, the most dispiriting aspect of this story for this band geek is learning that, at OSU, the band room may be just as hostile as the world outside.