by Jessica Carreras
PORTAGE, Mich. – The Portage teen who was beaten up earlier this month for being gay has elicited quite a response from the LGBT community – and inspired many, too.
According to the Kalamazoo Gazette, Steven Harmon, 15, was hanging out at a local Chuck E. Cheese with a 17-year-old girl who is a friend of his on the night of Aug. 13 when two boys, ages 15 and 16, began harassing them, calling them anti-gay slurs such as “faggot” and “dyke.”
After leaving the establishment, Harmon and his friend were approached by the two boys again in the parking lot of the apartment complex where the girl lives. The boys continued with the name-calling and began to punch Harmon in the face and head until his friend stopped them and the boys ran away.
The reason for their animosity? Harmon had just come out the week before as gay, and his friend was a lesbian.
“From reviewing the report, it would appear the suspects may have targeted him because of his sexual orientation,” Lt. Tom Palenick of the Portage Police Department told the Gazette. “Our department chose the most serious crime that we could charge them with under the circumstances and the most serious charge was issued by the prosecutor’s office.”
Harmon’s mother, Lynette Rocha, vowed to have the boys prosecuted for hate crimes against her son – but is unable to do so because current Michigan hate crimes law only covers gender, race, color, religion and national origin.
Harmon suffered a skull fracture, bruising and a black eye from the assault, but Rocha maintains that it could have been much worse: her son could have been killed. “This is going to stop,” she told Portage news channel WWMT. “If his friend wasn’t there it could have put him into a coma or killed him.”
Both boys have been arrested and charged as juveniles with aggravated assault, according to Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Fink. The older boy pleaded guilty to the charge on Aug. 18, while the other has not yet entered a plea. The former is being held in the county juvenile home until his Sept. 14 hearing.
On the victim’s side, Harmon – who begins as a freshman at the local high school next month – is staying strong and speaking out about the incident. “They did not break my spirit,” he said on WWMT. “I’m still standing today and I’m still who I am.”
Likewise, the LGBT community in Kalamazoo and beyond is standing in support of the teen.
“We were shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the recent attack … ,” said Kalamazoo Alliance for Equality Chair Josh Vandeburgh. “We hope to work with the police and justice system to ensure this case comes to an appropriate resolution.”
KAFE, which works for LGBT equality in the area, added that the incident is just one of many that stresses the need for protection from discrimination and assault based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. “While we are appalled something like this could take place in our community,” Vandeburgh said, “incidents like these highlight the ongoing need for community education regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in order to make the greater Kalamazoo area a safe and inclusive place to live, work and play.”
“We were just blown out of the water that Kalamazoo is here moving forward on equality and just 20 miles away in the suburb of Portage, a 15-year-old was beaten up,” commented Project Light Executive Director Adam Taylor. “He could have easily been murdered.”
Project Light is a west Michigan-based organization formed by Taylor to educate the community about the risks of depression and suicide for LGBT teens – and to help those who are struggling with either. The non-profit contends that gay, lesbian and transgender teens are twice as likely to contemplate, attempt or commit suicide, and that many of their negative feelings begin with bullying at school.
This, said Taylor, was also the case with Harmon. “From what I heard from friends, the bullying had started in school but had not been addressed,” Taylor said. “It was like, ‘Hey, break it up’ and that was it. It continued after school and it’s a prime example, once again, of why we need anti-bullying bills.”
Like comprehensive hate crimes legislation, Michigan also currently has no bill on the books that protects students from bullying by their peers. LGBT advocates and allied groups have pushed both bills for years, but neither has been passed into law.
Currently, anti-bullying legislation, known as Matt’s Safe Schools Bill, remains stagnant in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Hate crimes legislation remains in a similar state in Michigan.
Federal hate crimes legislation that would protect LGBT people, the Matthew Shepard Act, stands poised to be passed into law in September. The House of Representatives passed the bill in April, while the Senate passed it as an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill in July. Congress must reconcile the differences in each version of the bill before they are sent to President Barack Obama, presumably in September when Congress goes back into session. Obama has indicated that he will sign a hate crimes bill that comes to his desk.
Back in west Michigan, Taylor said he was just happy to hear that Harmon’s response was not to back down, but to speak up about what happened to him. “I think it’s very admirable that he was able to (speak out),” he said. “Instead of getting beaten down and staying down and letting it defeat him, he’s getting back up. That’s incredibly admirable.”
What can you do?
Want to help Steven Harmon and others like him who are assaulted or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression?
Call your Senators and Representatives and encourage them to vote “yes” on both local and federal hate crimes legislation, and local anti-bullying legislation. To find your local elected officials, and to check the status of local laws that affect LGBT people, go to http://www.hrc.org/your_community/index.htm.