When reality isn’t magical for youth

Feb. 13, 2014 @ 12:53 PM

Jon, one of my former law students, recently told me with sadness in his voice, “I can’t believe he is only 11 years old.” Jon was referring to Zebulon Middle School student Michael Morones, who tried to hang himself on Jan. 23. 

In my “Sexual Identity and the Law” class, when we read cases related to the struggles of  lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people, the faces are largely anonymous.  But Jon has been to Michael’s bedside, so Michael is no longer anonymous to him.  If Michael survives, he faces an uncertain future.  Michael is a fan of the cartoon series “My Little Pony,” known for its magical emphasis on messages of friendship, tolerance and respect. It is marketed more towards young girls.  His parents believe he was bullied at school because of his fondness for the series. Jon’s consulting firm is working with the family to handle the outpouring of support they have been receiving. After talking with Jon, I realize how much the class I teach has informed my perspectives in this area.

When we discuss the case of Nabozny v. Podlesny (7th Circuit 1996), it is hard to imagine those facts happening today:  Jamie Nabozny was a Wisconsin teenager who was brutally teased and physically abused at school because he was gay.  The parties ended up in the school office. There the assistant principal rationalized the bullying behavior saying that “boys will be boys.”  She told Nabozny that if he was “going to be so openly gay,” he should “expect” such behavior from others. Nabozny attempted suicide at least twice.  After he withdrew, he sued his former high school.  Ultimately, it was determined that the school administration violated Nabozny’s Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law by discriminating against him based on his gender and/or sexual orientation.  When the case went to trial, the jury found in favor of Nabozny, who won a large settlement from the school system.

A young person who acts in ways that vary from traditional gender stereotypes (“gender expression”) can be subject to bullying.  The Gill Foundation defines gender expression as “the ways in which we each manifest masculinity or femininity.”  Awareness of bullying and prevention efforts have increased since Nabonzy was a student, but problems persist. Bullying in today’s classrooms is sometimes less overt, but bullying is possibly more dangerous when it is more subtle and invidious. Thus, many young people hesitate to express themselves, fearing repercussions.

Even if people disagree about the necessity of discrimination laws that cover LGBT or gender expression classifications, we have hundreds of thousands of people who fall under these classifications living in our country. Many of these are youth.  Michael appeared to be a happy young boy; how sad that he felt the need to try to end his life. How awful if intense ridicule, shaming and judgment by his peers contributed to this. 

Protecting young people from systematic shaming and ridicule should be a priority of society as a whole and teachers and school administrators have a special responsibility to look out for all children, not just “traditional” children.  I hope that Zebulon Middle School has made counselors available to talk to Michael’s fellow students. Dealing with a suicide attempt is hard, and young people who are trying to understand may need to talk to professionals about this.  Perhaps the school can engage Jamie Nabozny to speak at the school; as an advocate for safe schools, Nabozny now travels around the country to publicize the negative effects of bullying.  Zebulon Middle School students should hear that Michael is just a regular eleven year old kid who expresses himself in a different way.

I hope that Jon and all of my former students work to make our society a better place, a place where a child like Michael Morones can live and go about his day in peace.  It will take all of us to make this happen. Michael deserves to live in a world where acceptance of differences is the norm – not some kind of magical fantasy.

Lydia Lavelle is an assistant professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law and the mayor of Carrboro.