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The fight to protect LGBTQ youth

Published Feb 21, 2011 6:25 PM

In Michigan there is currently a struggle over whether or not to pass “anti-bullying” legislation. To define its opponents as “bigoted extremists” would be an understatement. Who could possibly stand in the way of protecting a child from assault, harassment and intimidation?

Michigan is one of only five states that do not have some sort of legislation that mandates local school districts to adopt a model anti-bullying policy. Physical violence, harassment, intimidation, and verbal, written and graphic gestures — including those that are electronically transmitted — fall under the umbrella of bullying. While the word “bullying” is itself a euphemism for the violent and hate-motivated terror that has led to a spate of widely publicized youth suicides, the push for anti-bullying legislation has spawned a progressive movement uniting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities with teachers and their unions and parent survivors of “bullycide.”

Named for Matt Epling, who took his life at the age of 14 after being repeatedly tortured by his classmates, “Matt’s Law” has been introduced and reintroduced in the Michigan Legislature over the past 10 years. A version passed by the House in 2006 defined bullying as abuse “that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression; or a mental, physical, or sensory disability or impairment; or by any other distinguishing characteristic.” Under the Model Policy, school boards must institute “appropriate remedial actions for a student or staff member who commits one or more acts of harassment or bullying [which] may range from positive behavioral interventions up to and including suspension or expulsion, in the case of a student, or suspension or termination in the case of an employee.” (www.michigan.gov)

The Republican-dominated state Senate has repeatedly blocked passage. The bill’s most vocal opponent has been Gary Glenn of the American Family Association’s state chapter, who objects to protecting LGBTQ youth. “Public school officials have a legal duty not to put children at risk by in any way legitimizing or encouraging homosexual behavior,” this bigot stated in 2007, “a practice scientifically proven to result in a dramatically higher incidence of domestic violence, mental illness, illegal drug use, promiscuity, life-threatening disease, and premature death.” (Michigan Messenger)

The LGBTQ movement is split over whether to support a compromise bill eliminating “enumeration” of the various well-documented hate motives, referring instead to acts “motivated by animus or by an actual perceived characteristic.” Some activists believe that the substitute language would still give targeted youth a measure of protection; others demand enumeration, citing studies showing that harassment and physical abuse of LGBTQ students are less frequent when their oppression is spelled out. Hundreds representing both viewpoints came out for a Jan. 26 public hearing sponsored by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, joining in outrage at the failure to pass any kind of legislation protecting youth not only from anti-LGBTQ bigotry, but also from racist, sexist and anti-disability bigotry.

Glenn remains opposed even to the tame version of Matt’s Law. In 2009 he argued that “ ‘characteristics’ language does not define bullying. It defines one of innumerable motivations for bullying. Of all possible motivations for bullying, what makes that one so special that it’s the only one cited by the legislation?” He favors a version that merely defines bullying as “bad.” (Michigan Messenger, March 2, 2009)

Some conservative bigots have taken an even more extreme position, opposing any anti-bullying legislation. In Minnesota, where progressive voices are calling for the strengthening of that state’s weak law, unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor Tom Emmer stated last year that “it’s up to the parents ... how they handle that situation. ... I don’t want the government doing that for us.” (Minnesota Independent, Sept. 8) Others are parroting the old racist “states rights” line, using Michigan’s “home rule” law to encourage local communities to oppose state mandates designed to protect youth.

Safe schools are a right!

According to The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s 2009 School Climate Survey, 84.6 percent of LGBTQ students had been verbally harassed, 40.1 percent physically harassed, and 18.8 percent physically assaulted; LGBTQ youth were reportedly bullied at a rate four times that of non-LGBTQ youth. They had the second-highest rate of reported abuse overall. Frequent attacks also occur against youth of color, girls, immigrants, religious minorities and disabled youth. A majority of youth overall experienced some kind of so-called bullying; the number one bullying motive cited was “appearance.”

Emboldened by Tea Party advances, the religious right is willing to shove young people into the lion’s den for the crime of being different.

The torment all these precious children and youth face under a patriarchal and racist, capitalistic system — where those deemed “beautiful” are exploited to sell products and those deemed “ugly” are ridiculed for profit by the entertainment industry — is criminal. These brutal statistics are another reason to fight for a world where no child will go to school in fear or commit “bullycide” to escape a life of ridicule and terror.

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