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A Response to the Boycotters of Above the Law

Above the Law is currently experiencing its first organized boycott. Surprisingly enough, it’s coming from readers who hate typos believe that ATL has shown insensitivity towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

UPDATE: We are pleased to report that, after some productive dialogue, the boycott appears to be over. Details below.

This came as something of a shock to us. Above the Law has several LGBT writers, and our parent company, Breaking Media, has multiple LGBT employees. If you read through our archives for LGBT issues and for marriage equality, you’ll come across coverage that is extremely supportive of and sensitive to the concerns of LGBT individuals.

So what are the boycotters upset about? Let’s find out….

As a gesture of goodwill, we invited a leader of the Above the Law boycott to send us a letter outlining the boycotters’ concerns. As an additional gesture of goodwill, we agreed to reprint the letter in ATL’s pages.

We have reprinted below (1) the letter and (2) a response from ATL’s editors. If you have not done so already, please read the original post, and make up your own mind.


Dear ATL Editors:

I’m writing to you in the hopes of resolving our boycott of Above the Law.

Last week, one of your editors, Elie Mystal, wrote a post titled Bullying Shouldn’t Be A Crime, No Matter How Many Kids Kill Themselves Because of It. Shortly after that post was written, a group of law students at schools across the country – many of us gay, and many of us straight – joined together via Facebook to boycott your website. We started with about twenty people, and are now ballooning into the triple digits, with approximately fifty new invitations going out each day.

We began boycotting NOT because of Mr. Mystal’s central thesis. Many of us may disagree with the idea that harassing gay students at school shouldn’t be a crime, but we recognize that rational minds may differ on that. And we certainly don’t disagree that LGBT children shouldn’t be killing themselves. The prime work of any individual who supports gay rights should be to convince gay children that they live in a world that will one day accept them, and that suicide is never the correct option. And we are not boycotting because we have a particular problem with Mr. Mystal as a person: he has usually been on the right side of gay issues.

Our boycott began because we, as readers of Above the Law, were shocked and deeply offended by the tone and approach Mr. Mystal took in characterizing the victims and circumstances of these unspeakably tragic suicides. Here are some specific phrases we were appalled to see in print on Above the Law:

(1) “You see, American children apparently have become so fragile…that schoolyard bullying is as likely to be settled in a court of law as it is behind a dumpster out back where boys used to handle their disagreements.”
(2) “I used to tell my mother that nobody ever died from embarrassment, but apparently I was wrong.”
(3) Referring to childhood tormentors as simply “mean kids.”
(4) Comparing the bullying in question to ‘The Karate Kid.’
(5) “I still have a plan for what happens when Lewis gets out of jail. Because that’s what men do. They defend themselves, or they make plans for defending themselves sometime in the future.”
(6) “It sets a terrible example for your children. It tells them that at the slightest provocation you’ll run to the system to help you out of trouble.”
(7) “Are we going to charge every little girl who says ‘that backpack is sooo last year’? Are we going to charge every boss who gives overly strong handshakes and talks loudly around weak men?”
(8) “Yes, parents: boys are going to make fun of the effeminate kid. They’re also going to make fun of the slow kid.”
(9) “We’re talking about tormentors, not torturers.”

What sickened us so much about these phrases? Partially, it’s the not-so-veiled implication that gay kids who run to their teachers or parents for help when a kid on the playground calls them a “fa**ot” are not ‘real men’ (or ‘real women’ in the case of lesbians, not to mention the case of transgender students – but the post makes constant reference to ‘boys’ handling disagreements and ‘weak men’ so I’ll stick with that theme). Partially, it’s the way that it communicates that telling an authority figure about bullying rather than breaking a bottle over someone’s head is a sissy’s response. And partially, it’s the overall tone of the post – if Mr. Mystal wanted to write that gay children shouldn’t kill themselves, then he should have participated in Dan Savage’s ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, or written a post titled…well, ‘LGBT Children: Please Don’t Kill Yourselves.’ That would have been an honorable and laudable thing to do. Instead, he places a large portion of the blame on those victims themselves: for not being ‘real men,’ for running to authority figures rather than bringing a knife to school to defend themselves on the playground as though it was a prison yard. That is something LGBT readers, and straight readers with a conscience, find themselves unable to tolerate.

But MOST IMPORTANTLY, we were offended because of the way Mr. Mystal characterizes the torture (yes, it was torture) that these children and so many other LGBT kids endured and continue to endure at school every day.

Calling someone a “fa**ot” is not the same as calling him “fat.” Harassing a child because of her sexual orientation is nothing like making fun of her backpack. What Mr. Mystal’s post missed, to a degree that caused LGBT readers revulsion, is that the torture that LGBT children face at school simply cannot be equated with tormenting “the fat kid, the thin kid, the kid with a bad haircut, the kid with the lisp, the kid who gets all the math problems right, the kid who gets all the math problems wrong, the kid with the ugly mom, hot mom, or two moms.”

For most LGBT individuals, ‘growing up gay’ is a unique kind of horror. Coming out is such a momentous decision precisely because of the torture and discrimination we know we are opening ourselves up to as a result. We are the only minority group whose parents are nothing like us – and often when we come out, we are rejected by those very people who are supposed to love us unconditionally. ‘Religious’ leaders daily pronounce that God hates us. In the end, we often rely on our friends, our peers, for support. Which is precisely why schoolyard harassment is so damaging – because at school we’re trapped, and the people we most hope can support us not only reject us, but make our lives a living hell.

If someone calls me ‘ugly,’ I may feel bad about myself. I may cut my hair differently, or I may disregard him as an idiot, or I may drink (a lot). Calling someone ugly is a terrible thing to do, which can cause long-lasting psychological damage on a child.

But if someone calls me a ‘fa**ot,’ the reaction is different. It cuts at something deep within me, something I cannot change. ‘Fa**ot’ conjures up images of Matthew Shepard; it makes me think about that group of animals in the Bronx who sadistically tortured a few gay people a couple of weeks ago. It reminds me that I’m not safe, that I’ve been rejected by yet another person because of who I am.

Should one kill themselves when someone calls them a ‘fa**ot’? Absolutely not. Because, in fact, it does get better – I’ve made it all the way to Harvard Law School, so I like to think I’m living proof of that. If Mr. Mystal’s post makes one LGBT child decide not to kill herself as a result of horrendous torment, then we boycotters will be grateful to him for the rest of time. But as LGBT people know – and as straight allies have come to realize – his post will not have that effect. It does what so many other writings on gay topics have done: it trivializes our experiences as children, treating childhood torture about the core aspect of our being as simple ‘schoolyard bullying.’ And that is the reason we are boycotting.

Many of us would love to return to Above the Law. Your site does terrific work, and has always been on the right side of LGBT issues. We would love to see your coverage of gay issues again, and to be able to put our energy into the ‘real’ LGBT-rights fights, rather than expending time boycotting a blog. But it is precisely because you have always been on the right side of gay issues that your tone in addressing those issues is so important. Because if one of ATL’s most prominent editors can’t discuss dead gay children with the respect they are due, what hope is there for the real ‘bad guys’?

I have not signed this letter. This isn’t about me building up contacts, or making a name for myself. I’m just a person who was deeply hurt by Mr. Mystal’s post, and found many other people who felt the same way. This is not an attempt to manufacture an issue – we were genuinely and deeply offended by Mr. Mystal’s entire approach. We would love it if Mr. Mystal would clarify precisely what he meant, without the insensitive language; however, we realize that probably won’t happen. Publishing this letter would be a good start, since it would show that ATL takes the concerns of its LGBT readers into account. It would go a long way toward ending a boycott.

I hope we can put this issue behind us quickly. Thank you for your time.


Thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt letter. We have reprinted it in Above the Law to raise awareness of the unacceptable bullying and tragic suicides of LGBT youth.

As we have explained to you in private correspondence, the post was not intended to belittle the problem of the bullying of LGBT youth, but actually to highlight it, and then to figure out the best way to address it. We stand by the substance of the post. To the extent that anyone was upset by the tone of the post, we apologize.

Please feel free to discuss these issues further in the comments. Thank you.

UPDATE: The author of the letter has written us as follows:

Thank you very much for posting a response to our letter. We really appreciate your apologizing for your previous language and for publishing our letter, which we hope adds to the dialogue about the horrific bullying that LGBT children face at school every day. As a result, I will be disbanding the formal boycott of ATL as of tonight. I of course can’t speak for everyone, but I will be returning as a reader of your site.

Again, we appreciate ATL’s commitment to its LGBT readers and their concerns. We look forward to ATL continuing its commitment to futhering LGBT equality.

We thank the letter writer, and we are glad to place this matter behind us.

Earlier: Bullying Shouldn’t Be A Crime, No Matter How Many Kids Kill Themselves Because of It

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