“Matt’s Safe School Law,” and Michigan’s many phobias


What the hell is in the water in Michigan? Okay, not that I was heading there to vacation any time soon, to, you know, get away from things for a while, but seriously what the fuck is going on within that state these past few months?

Sorry Michigan; I’m feeling ranty.

1) First we have Andrew Shirvell, the blatant homophobic district attorney who used his personal online blog to target and completely bully University of Michigan’s openly gay student- body-president, and cutie, Chris Armstrong. Why? Shirvell is an awful piece of work. Why else? An anti-abortionist, conservative, religious fanatic Shirvell was convinced, one might say obsessed, with the idea that Armstrong was using his political position at the university to recruit and transform previously “normal” heterosexuals into gays.

Shirvell was so taken by his own fear of Armstrong’s gay-influence, he picketed outside of the young man’s house, harassed his friends and family, and continuously used the social media to publicly name Armstrong and accuse him of strong-arming unsuspecting youth to join him “in the cult that is homosexuality.” Using swastikas and calling Armstrong “unnatural,” it took months before Shirvell was finally asked to take a leave of absence (translation: he was fired) from the district attorney’s office, after Anderson Cooper, a CNN reporter, explained to him on national T.V. what the terms “cyberbully” and “bigot” meant. Shirvell seemed a tad confused.  Uh, even CNN got it!!

To be clear about the bizarre and disparate homophobia Shirvell spread, on his blog “Chris Armstrong Watch” Shirvell poetically stated for all to see: “Parents of University of Michigan freshman beware: the university’s first openly ‘gay’ student body president, Chris Armstrong, is actively recruiting your sons and daughters to join the homosexual ‘lifestyle.’

And to think this guy was a government appointed employee to the District Attorney’s office.

2) Next in Michigan we suffered through yet another year of the always confusingly transphobic Michigan womyn’s music festival, notorious for excluding transgendered and transexual women from their yearly summer celebration of, well, women.

Co-founded by Lisa Vogel, her sister Kristie, and Mary Kinding the festival has vehemently defended their “womyn born womyn” only policy, arguing that it is not transphobic at all. And Vogel continues to support her festival’s enforcement of the “no penises on the land” law 30 years later by suggesting that all women are entitled to a “woman only space” for seven days of the year. All women, that is, except for trans women. Huh?

To help me keep this all straight women like Sarah Palin (who coined such oxymorons as “the new conservative feminist movement,”  and who stands by her decree, without cracking a seal puppy-eyed smile, that the current “leftist” feminist movement is run by a “cackle of rads” who “highjacked” the term feminist in their devious plot to get women rights and stuff) is more than welcome at the Michigan womyn’s festival. As is Michelle Bachman who once stated at a Republican convention: “what a bizarre time we’re in, when a judge will say to little children that you can’t say the pledge of allegiance, but you must learn homosexuality is normal and you should try it.” Great. I’d love to share a shower with her at Mich fest. And so too is Shirley-Roper Phelps welcome whose offensive gems about queerness include “God Hates Fags” and “USA = Fag Nation.”

Okay, I’m not really picky about who I’d roast marshmellows with around a fire, but I sure as hell would rather be at a festival with women who weren’t going to roast me in my sleep, and who were actually caring, compassionate, and intelligent, not simply big-mouthed bigots with boobs.

Still,  I’m not saying that women like Palin, Bachman, or Phelps should not be permitted to go to Mich fest. Christ, the world might be a better place if these ladies loosened up a tad, ran topless in the woods, sang a few folk songs, and learned a thing or two about freedom of expression and sex. But what is apparent in these peoples’ understanding of sex, gender, and what it means to be a woman is that too many self-professed feminists, lesbian feminists too, are ignorant and transphobic.

Somehow, using the language of feminism and sporting it like a hot butch’s denim coat, Vogel and her supporters have selectively reenvisioned their way right out of open-minded, leftist, feminist thinking. Consequently, Vogel’s Mich-fest seems less about celebrating all things woman and more about gender exclusion, privilege, and hatred under the guise of carving out a space “for people who suffered a girlhood.”

But I suppose if Palin can call herself a feminist, Vogel and her supporters too can pretend they are “sisters in struggle” working to create a world where “we stand shoulder to shoulder as women, and as members of the greater queer community.” But if that’s the case, I’m choosing to eat hotdogs and drink beer with the queer feminists who understand that while we all live through different narratives and tensions, oppressions, successes and fears some queers have had, and continue to have, much harder struggles than I because of their lack of Vogel-privilege.

If I have a point at all it is that feminisms in 2011, of all varieties, can neither be alienating nor profess to include while excluding passively in the name of sisterhood. To say you support all women means exactly that. If Vogel needs a refresher course, or insists on continuing to fight for a “separate womyn-born womyn space” I have a few *choice* suggestions about where she can go.

3) Finally, Michigan has offered us the “Matt’s Safe School Law.”

14 year-old Matt Epling succumbed to suicide in 2002 after surviving months of  homophobic bullying from his classmates. On his last day of eighth grade he was publicly assaulted by older students and threatened endlessly online and absolutely nothing was done about it. The incident was dismissed as a normal, public “hazing.” 40 days later he took his own life, on the eve of his parent’s meeting with police to press formal charges against the kids who hurt their son. 

Prompting pro-queer supporters to rally for anti-homophobia training in all Michigan classrooms (spaces Gary Glenn, president of The American Family Association of Michigan, once referred to as “a Trojan horse for the homosexual agenda”) the “Matt’s Safe School Law” was amended last Wednesday.

Sounds promising right? Hold on. Once again, the language of equality and liberation is being touted here, but when we open Pandora’s box we find that this bill that proclaims to protect all kids against being bullied at school, in actual fact protects bullies. How so? The state’s Senate Republicans have “added” a clause into the anti-bullying legislation that actually permits homophobic bullying in the name of protecting “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Religious exemption for all bullies. This time using the terms “freedom of religion” to advocate hate and hurt, this new bill works to ensure homophobia continues in schools, and vanquishes any responsibility for this homophobia.

Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer has called her Republican colleagues unconstitutional, accusing them of attempting to create a space for “consequence-free bullying. “ Whitmer states:  as of today “bullying kids is okay if a student, parent, teacher or school employee can come up with a moral or religious reason for doing it.” Similarly Amy Sullivan of Time Magazine points to the ridiculousness of the exemption when she argues: “The same religious conservatives who applaud the religious exemption in Michigan’s anti-bullying bill would be appalled if it protected a Muslim student in Dearborn who defended bullying a Christian classmate by saying he considered her an infidel.”

So what is Michigan telling us lately? Well, to blame Michigan for any of this would be irresponsible. What is certainly clear is that although this state seems particularly visibly homophobic, transphobic, and just phobic, the fact that we are all complacent in maintaining cultural paradigms of oppression is made that much clearer now.  How are we to go about unlearning homophobia, or, in Jen Gilbert’s opinion, teach our kids how to stop homophobic and transphobic thinking from becoming commonplace in the classroom when the classrooms themselves foster and support it. Actually no, worse, cater to it, expect it, even want it?

What also really upsets me here is the momentum of frankness that conservatives and pseudofeminists feel entitled to in regards to other people’s lives and struggles.

One can almost hear in Lisa Vogel’s supposition that “since its inception, the Michigan Festival…always has been an event for women, and this continues to be defined as womyn born womyn” her silent wind-up: “let me be frank.” And the frankness in the Republican voices who actually stood there and argued that a bill meant to protect kids like Matt Epling from homophobia actually should be edited to protect homophobes from persecution makes me sick.

Here’s what I think about frankness: it’s a disgusting and privileged attribute that enables people to be mean. That’s it. There’s being honest, and there is being forthcoming, which are two different and useful ways of communicating. But when someone says to you, “let me be frank” they really mean: let me be a huge douche-bag , treat you like crap, and hide behind my words as though they were well-meaning. So, without being frank, I think that Michigan is a warning to us all that we need to get ahold of the persons in control of important public policies and reteach them about care and ethics before we’re left with a western world filled with frank idiots who can actually ruin people’s lives with a couple of votes.

About newdaynewmood

A Lonely lesbian trying to write about everyday life and everyday ways to negotiate the tough political issues therein.
This entry was posted in activism, bullying, queer politics, social justice, social politics, suicide and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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