On Wednesday, 250 educators and students from Laramie, Wyoming opened the 10th Matthew Shepard Symposium for Social Justice by watching the film Straightlaced? How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up. Before the screening, a reporter asked me how today's climate has changed since Matthew's brutal murder in 1998. "It's deceptive," I said. "We see gay characters on TV regularly now, but after spending five years interviewing teenagers about their experiences with gender-based stereotypes, I've learned that popular culture doesn't necessarily translate into school climates improving around this issue."
When the film ended, I turned on my computer to check the news. I couldn't believe what I saw. A federal lawsuit had just been filed by the parents of Eric Mohat, a 17-year old student from Ohio who had committed suicide after being repeatedly harassed with anti-gay epithets such as "fag" and "homo." They are not asking for money, but want to know why administrators didn't intervene after witnessing his harassment, and why some teachers even joined in. After telling his mother, "I get picked on every day... I can't do this anymore," he locked himself in his room and shot himself. Shockingly, four others from his school have also committed suicide because of unabated bullying.
Eric didn't identify as gay, but it didn't matter. His good grades and involvement with art meant he veered away from what 'masculinity' allowed him to be, and his peers (and allegedly some teachers) sent him constant reminders with homophobic taunts and teasing. One student even told Eric in class, "Why don't you go home and shoot yourself, no one will miss you." With another young, promising life cut short, I revisited my earlier interview: How have times really changed since Matthew Shepard was left to die on a fence?
My work with Groundspark's educational outreach program, The Respect For All Project, taught me that the fear of being called 'gay' is constantly on the minds of youth across the country. "It is generally the ultimate insult," said one student, "a powerful tool for controlling someone," said another. As these teenagers jumped at the chance to finally discuss the big elephant in today's classrooms, it became clear that anti-gay taunts were being hurled at the slightest gender non-conformity: Wearing scarves, learning yoga, showing emotion, and participating in class were all transgressions. Eric's tragic experience is happening in thousands of schools, to millions of youth. He may have felt like an outcast, but was unfortunately he was the norm.
We began screening Straightlaced in classrooms with profound results. Hearing peers share common experiences opened a dialogue on a topic that teens previously felt unsafe to discuss, thus creating much needed change. I wondered what Eric would be doing today if his teachers would have stood up for him, challenged the stereotypes they heard, and incorporated a curriculum that challenges oppression and develops empathy, instead of moving desks around so students couldn't physically hit Eric without speaking a word on the underlying issues. Obviously, this strategy did not create a solution to the problem.
Matthew Shepard's murderers, like Eric's tormentors, were lashing out against an unknown fear that nobody ever encouraged them to understand, and their actions sent a powerful message to the entire country about the dangers of non-conformity. While it's comforting to think we've progressed over time, the same pressures that led to Matthew's murder are still being experienced in a pervasive and systemic way by teenagers today. I know it takes courage to stand up to these pressures, so I challenge every educator in this country to listen to the calls of Eric's parents, of the youth in Straightlaced, of every teen who knows what Eric went through, and break the silence about the hidden lessons youth are getting about being themselves. The lives of your students may depend on it.
Debra Chasnoff is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and the Executive Director of Groundspark, a non-profit organization creating visionary films and educational campaigns that move individuals and communities to take action for a more just world.