Producing Big Gay News for the last couple years has been a rewarding experience both personally and professionally. I’ve learned a great deal about the diversity of issues facing our community, as well as how the mainstream media characterize (and all too often mischaracterize) us. I’ve come to learn something about the life cycle of a news story in the age of social networking and new media. The echo chamber of the Internet is often a noisy place.
In August, we learned about the case of Alex Merritt, a Minnesota high school student who, according to an investigation by the Anoka-Hennepin School District, repeatedly was harassed by students and two teachers because they thought he was gay. In one instance, a teacher allegedly told students he had a “thing for older men,” after learning he was doing a report about Benjamin Franklin. Another teacher allegedly told students Merritt “enjoys wearing women’s clothes.”
The district ultimately found that Merritt had been the object of a hostile and abusive classroom environment. It disciplined at least one of the teachers, and following a finding by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, agreed to pay the student’s family $25,000 to settle the matter. Merritt transferred schools, graduated, and went on this summer to join the US Army.
When the story first became public, many in our community were outraged, others saddened. The cynical among us were quick to point out how little has changed, while the hopeful held the case up as yet another chance to address harassment and bullying in our schools. Surely, most of us, on some level, could identify with Merritt.
The story continued to amble across the media landscape, with bloggers and podcasters parsing the details, and questioning the school’s response. Several community members started a Facebook group. They attended the district’s board meeting to voice their frustration, and call for the teachers to be disciplined further or fired. OutFront Minnesota even offered to help the district with training—which it refused. The district again apologized, but maintained it responded appropriately to the situation.
Then, we learned that the teachers accused of harassment, Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson, both strongly denied the allegations against them. Indeed, they, along with some of their students, now suggest Merritt’s claims are simply retribution for an unsubstantiated rumor that he once threatened to bring a gun to school. They would have us believe that he single-handedly made up the entire case, enlisting his fellow classmates in the deception.
This latest round of allegations and counterallegations has led to a new wave of heated debate on the Internet. Multiple Facebook groups have been set up, championing both Merritt and the teachers. Conversations in the groups ranges from the intellectual to the patently profane. Bloggers from both sides of the political spectrum have weighed in, using the story to further their own particular worldview. Most of it, in my estimation, amounts to a whole lot of unhelpful noise.
So much so, I think it behooves us to stop and take a moment to remember what we already know.
An investigation by the Anoka-Hennepin School District found that a student under their supervision repeatedly was harassed by two of his teachers. The punishment deemed appropriate was a brief reassignment to “[reflect] on equality and diversity in the classroom. He was belittled, and made to feel unsafe in the classroom.” He was bullied not just by his peers, but by the very people employed to protect him, and provide him with a safe, nurturing environment to learn.
Even if Cleveland and Filson somehow were found not to have harassed Merritt, the fact remains that curbing anti-GLBT harassment in the Anoka-Hennepin School District does not appear to be a priority. Does anyone honestly believe that a teacher who repeatedly harassed a student because of race or gender would be allowed to keep his or her job?
The story of Alex Merritt, regardless of its idiosyncrasies and even its ultimate outcome, nevertheless has given us the chance to see more clearly the reality for victims of antigay bullying. It’s a reality, we’re reminded, where GLBT and questioning youth are four times more likely to commit suicide. It would be easy and cliché to say we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go. That’s true, perhaps, but even as a teen in the late 1980s, I only had to worry about bullies my own age.