Was Straight Teen’s Death a Result of Homophobic Bullying?

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Mar 16, 2011

An Ohio teenager died from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound after suffering homophobic bullying at school, reported Akron newspaper the Beacon Journal in a story that picked up.

The story related how Nicholas Kelo, Jr., 13, of Rittman, Ohio, suffered at school after fellow students assumed that he was gay for setting aside football and taking up band once he reached high school.

The Beacon Journal article, published March 10, said that the teen's mother, Jacqueline Kelo, related that the bullying had been going on well before her son switched from football to band, but once her son made that choice, the bullying he suffered "spiraled out of control."

''It had been going on for years," the teen's grieving mother told the local press. ''We would talk [about the bullies] and he would say that they were not worth his time.''

Jacqueline's former husband, also named Nicholas, said that no one was certain whether his son had taken the gun out with an intention to use it on himself. ''He may have been bullied to the point that he felt like he needed to protect himself," said Nicholas Kelo, Sr.

However it happened, the teen had sustained a gunshot wound when his mother arrived home after work on the evening of Feb. 23. The Beacon Journal article said that Nicholas Jr. was "near death" when his mother found him.

Last year's spate of bullying-related suicides involving GLBT youths riveted the media's attention and awoke mainstream America to the fact that homophobic harassment in schools is a serious issue. It has long been known that GLBT youth are much more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts; a recent study even indicated that the stigma of labels like "gay" have more to do with suicidal behavior than the issue of whom teens actually desire or have sex with.

Just as bias-driven violent attacks sometimes result in heterosexual victims being killed or injured, anti-gay bullying can also wreak havoc on young victims who are heterosexual.

The solution, say advocates of anti-bullying policies, is to make schools safer for all by countering violence and harassment and teaching young people respect for all.

Anti-gay opponents of efforts to promote safer schools say that GLBT equality advocates are using the issue of bullying as cover to "promote homosexuality" to young people. Anti-gay extremists targeted even last week's anti-bullying summit at the White House as a strategy by gays to access youthful students.

One extremist, blogger Peter LaBarbera--who runs anti-gay site "Americans for Truth About Homosexuality"--termed a proposed federal law intended to combat bullying, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a "Trojan Horse," reported anti-gay religious site LifeSiteNews on March 10.

According to LaBarbera, the bill was a disguised attempt to "push politically correct agendas about homosexuality and 'transgenderism' in schools in the name of stopping bullying," the article said.

"Schools administrators and teachers must ensure a safe and protective learning environment for all students, but they can do so without injecting divisive 'sexual orientation' and radical 'transgender' politics into the classroom," claimed the anti-gay blogger. "There is a real danger that 'anti-bullying' policies will be used to curtail any speech in schools critical of homosexuality, and create curricula that discriminate against religious students who believe homosexual behavior is morally wrong."

The Beacon Journal said that 13-year-old Nicholas had been a brilliant young man who dabbled with inventing.

Nicholas attended Rittman High School, which has about 400 students. The article said that conversations carried out at a Facebook page dedicated to Nicholas talked about bullying at the school. The article also said that a number of parents of bullied students had approached the school, though to no avail.

''What we never realized until now is that we were not the only ones having problems," the teen's mother said. ''We never knew how widespread it was.''

"'As a school administrator," said Principal Brett Lanz, "you ask the same questions that everybody else asks: Are we doing enough? How more do we support students? The school becomes a filter for a lot of things these days."

"'We need to teach our young adults and children to care and be more compassionate about their fellow students," said Superintendent Jon Ritchie. "If we can create that kind of environment in the Rittman schools and in the Rittman community--I know this much--it will be a much better place to live and raise a family."

Jacqueline Kelo spoke of Ritchie with thoughtful consideration, telling the press, ''I honestly don't think he knew that it was this bad."

But Ms. Kelo's praise did not extend to L:GBT news site Queerty, which ran an aggregate story about the death of her son. The grieving mother accused Queerty of "plagiarism," and demanded that the story be removed from the site because, she wrote to Queerty, the site "wrongly accused my son of being gay." Added the teen's mother, "I am outraged and horrified."

Queerty published Ms. Kelo's letter, which also said that a test had found no gunpowder on the teen's hands, as would be expected had he been holding the gun when it discharged. "My son's death was a tragic accident the resulted from his frustration of repeated bullying, yes, but it goes back years and is related more to his intellectual gifts and abilities," she told Queerty.

"His actual sexuality is a moot point," Queerty responded, going on to add, "we all know perceived sexuality can be just as damaging to bullying victims as anything else." Queerty said that the story would remain on its site.

Ms. Kelo's words, and the publication's response, sparked controversy among readers. In the comments section for the article, readers took sides, some arguing that Queerty should take the story down out of respect for the grieving mother, and others interpreting her missive as carrying a homophobic charge.

Many readers focused on the loss of a bright young man. One wrote in to share an account of the bullying his own son had suffered.

"We live in a 'backwater' southern town and my son was being bullied unmercifully in the 9th grade," the comment related. "He told me he was bisexual and I told him that I was okay with him loving anyone, either sex."

The comment continued, "I knew he was being bullied and I went to the school several times and told the vice principle and prefect of discipline. But it became clear to me that there was very little they could do--they can't follow the kid around the school all day. And the real problem is that a large number of the parents of the kids are homophobic and they encourage homophobic behavior, and they even encourage anti-gay bullying.

"When my son started to become self destructive by cutting himself, I took him out of the 9th grade, right in the middle of the year," the comment added. "He is now a senior in college with a 4.0 in a difficult major, but he can't get a scholarship because he didn't complete high school (he easily pased [sic] the GED but, here, that's not the same).

"Trust me, homophobia is alive and well here."

A number of other sites reported on the story as well.

"Another young life lost to anti-gay bullying," began a March 14 article on Kelo, Jr., posted at LGBTQ Nation. "It is unknown whether Nick was gay or not, but that did not stop his bullies from their attacks," the article added.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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