About Matt

4 Jan

After he committed suicide in 2002, Matt Epling became the poster child for anti-bullying–more specifically, anti-gay-bullying–after he was hazed by high school upperclassman, who pelted him with eggs and taunted him for being gay.

Fast forward to the end of 2011, when Matt’s parent’s, right before celebrating the passing of an amended (see yesterday’s post) “Matt’s Safe School Law” posted this on their website [all typos reproduced from the original text]:

Attention All Media/ Reporters:  New Fact no one has ever checked Matt was not Gay

I have seen numerous articles, new reports over the last week and many have had inaccurate information and in some cases have noted that Matt was gay to seemingly justify the action taken upon him by his attackers as ‘an anti-gay crime”.  This is wrong and unethical.  Matt was not gay, nor does it matter, or would it have matter as a parent.  Matt was our son there is nothing that would have changed our love for Matt.  Matt was assaulted for being who he was, a bright, caring, outgoing young man with a world of promise ahead of him.  Others thought it was perfectly okay to assault their fellow classmates and targeted Matt and dashed his outlook. No one should be a target for any reason. Now Matt and our family have been re-victimized by the media for not simply checking facts. The basic rule of journalism; check your facts and then check them again.  Please post your corrections as soon as possible to protect Matt from further victimization

Matt’s family thanks you (http://www.freewebs.com/mattepling/)

Certainly, Matt may have been gay unbeknownst to his family. Matt may also have been questioning, asexual or not any particular orientation yet. After all, he had just graduated from middle school.

Whatever Matt’s sexuality, his family’s statement underscores a truth about harassment and bullying among adolescents: it’s not just a gay issue.  According to two national organizations dedicated to creating equitable and safe learning communities:

  • 25% of students report harassment or bullying because of actual or perceived appearance, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, religion or disability (WestEd, 2002)
  • 65% of 13-18 yr olds report harassment or assault (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; 2005)

While the statistics vary, the resonant fact remains that way too many kids experience identity bias, in the form of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. And apparently, identity is in the eye of the attacker: both of these comprehensive studies indicate that appearingto be Latino, nerdy or gay is enough to provoke harassment.

I’d take it a step further and hazard that students don’t even have to “appear” to be gay to become the target of homophobic slurs. This particular brand of harassment carries unique weight among adolescents, who are collectively trying to figure out their sexuality while looking cool and blending in with their peer group. Calling someone out for not conforming to normative attractions, affections or engagement is an easy, proven way to embarrass or denigrate them, regardless of their appearance or behavior.

So it turns out that refusing to tolerate homophobia doesn’t just protect LGBTTQQ kids: it protects all kids. 

Here, I’d propose a “both, and”: that while we continue to advocate for the rights and particular needs of LGBTTQQ kids, we also actively strive to include all kids in whatever strides we make, so that no kid has to declare an identity in order to matter.

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