First, the good news: Marriage equality is advancing. Gov. Christine Gregoire signed legislation this past Monday that will make Washington State the seventh in the nation to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. On the other side of the continent, the New Jersey legislature passed a gay marriage bill, only to have it vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Proponents of equality have until December 2013 to try to gather enough votes for an override. Meanwhile, the Maryland House of Delegates narrowly passed a marriage equality bill yesterday, which the Senate and the Governor are expected to approve.
So, it gets better, right? Well, yes and no. GLBT teens in non-affirming communities are still extremely vulnerable. They’re bearing the brunt of the right-wing backlash against the integration of gay and lesbian adults into mainstream institutions.
This month Rolling Stone published a must-read feature article about the teen suicide epidemic in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district, whose Congressional representative happens to be Mrs. Ex-Gay Therapy, Michele Bachmann. The district’s policy against discussing homosexuality prevents them from cracking down on anti-gay bullying, with fatal results. High school freshman Justin Aaberg’s story is one heartbreaking example:
…In April, Justin came home from school and found his mother at the top of the stairs, tending to the saltwater fish tank. “Mom,” he said tentatively, “a kid told me at school today I’m gonna go to hell because I’m gay.”
“That’s not true. God loves everybody,” his mom replied. “That kid needs to go home and read his Bible.”
Justin shrugged and smiled, then retreated to his room. It had been a hard day: the annual “Day of Truth” had been held at school, an evangelical event then-sponsored by the anti-gay ministry Exodus International, whose mission is to usher gays back to wholeness and “victory in Christ” by converting them to heterosexuality. Day of Truth has been a font of controversy that has bounced in and out of the courts; its legality was affirmed last March, when a federal appeals court ruled that two Naperville, Illinois, high school students’ Day of Truth T-shirts reading BE HAPPY, NOT GAY were protected by their First Amendment rights. (However, the event, now sponsored by Focus on the Family, has been renamed “Day of Dialogue.”) Local churches had been touting the program, and students had obediently shown up at Anoka High School wearing day of truth T-shirts, preaching in the halls about the sin of homosexuality. Justin wanted to brush them off, but was troubled by their proselytizing. Secretly, he had begun to worry that maybe he was an abomination, like the Bible said.
Justin was trying not to care what anyone else thought and be true to himself. He surrounded himself with a bevy of girlfriends who cherished him for his sweet, sunny disposition. He played cello in the orchestra, practicing for hours up in his room, where he’d covered one wall with mementos of good times: taped-up movie-ticket stubs, gum wrappers, Christmas cards. Justin had even briefly dated a boy, a 17-year-old he’d met online who attended a nearby high school. The relationship didn’t end well: The boyfriend had cheated on him, and compounding Justin’s hurt, his coming out had earned Justin hateful Facebook messages from other teens – some from those he didn’t even know – telling him he was a fag who didn’t deserve to live. At least his freshman year of high school was nearly done. Only three more years to go. He wondered how he would ever make it.
Though some members of the Anoka-Hennepin school board had been appalled by “No Homo Promo” since its passage 14 years earlier, it wasn’t until 2009 that the board brought the policy up for review, after a student named Alex Merritt filed a complaint with the state Department of Human Rights claiming he’d been gay-bashed by two of his teachers during high school; according to the complaint, the teachers had announced in front of students that Merritt, who is straight, “swings both ways,” speculated that he wore women’s clothing, and compared him to a Wisconsin man who had sex with a dead deer. The teachers denied the charges, but the school district paid $25,000 to settle the complaint. Soon representatives from the gay-rights group Outfront Minnesota began making inquiries at board meetings. “No Homo Promo” was starting to look like a risky policy.
“The lawyers said, ‘You’d have a hard time defending it,'” remembers Scott Wenzel, a board member who for years had pushed colleagues to abolish the policy. “It was clear that it might risk a lawsuit.” But while board members agreed that such an overtly anti-gay policy needed to be scrapped, they also agreed that some guideline was needed to not only help teachers navigate a topic as inflammatory as homosexuality but to appease the area’s evangelical activists. So the legal department wrote a broad new course of action with language intended to give a respectful nod to the topic – but also an equal measure of respect to the anti-gay contingent. The new policy was circulated to staff without a word of introduction. (Parents were not alerted at all, unless they happened to be diligent online readers of board-meeting minutes.) And while “No Homo Promo” had at least been clear, the new Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy mostly just puzzled the teachers who’d be responsible for enforcing it. It read:
Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student-led discussions.
It quickly became known as the “neutrality” policy. No one could figure out what it meant. “What is ‘neutral’?” asks instructor Merrick-Lockett. “Teachers are constantly asking, ‘Do you think I could get in trouble for this? Could I get fired for that?’ So a lot of teachers sidestep it. They don’t want to deal with district backlash.”
English teachers worried they’d get in trouble for teaching books by gay authors, or books with gay characters. Social-studies teachers wondered what to do if a student wrote a term paper on gay rights, or how to address current events like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Health teachers were faced with the impossible task of teaching about AIDS awareness and safe sex without mentioning homosexuality. Many teachers decided once again to keep gay issues from the curriculum altogether, rather than chance saying something that could be interpreted as anything other than neutral.
“There has been widespread confusion,” says Anoka-Hennepin teachers’ union president Julie Blaha. “You ask five people how to interpret the policy and you get five different answers.” Silenced by fear, gay teachers became more vigilant than ever to avoid mention of their personal lives, and in closeting themselves, they inadvertently ensured that many students had no real-life gay role models. “I was told by teachers, ‘You have to be careful, it’s really not safe for you to come out,'” says the psychologist Cashen, who is a lesbian. “I felt like I couldn’t have a picture of my family on my desk.” When teacher Jefferson Fietek was outed in the community paper, which referred to him as an “open homosexual,” he didn’t feel he could address the situation with his students even as they passed the newspaper around, tittering. When one finally asked, “Are you gay?” he panicked. “I was terrified to answer that question,” Fietek says. “I thought, ‘If I violate the policy, what’s going to happen to me?'”
The silence of adults was deafening. At Blaine High School, says alum Justin Anderson, “I would hear people calling people ‘fags’ all the time without it being addressed. Teachers just didn’t respond.” In Andover High School, when 10th-grader Sam Pinilla was pushed to the ground by three kids calling him a “faggot,” he saw a teacher nearby who did nothing to stop the assault. At Anoka High School, a 10th-grade girl became so upset at being mocked as a “lesbo” and a “sinner” – in earshot of teachers – that she complained to an associate principal, who counseled her to “lay low”; the girl would later attempt suicide. At Anoka Middle School for the Arts, after Kyle Rooker was urinated upon from above in a boys’ bathroom stall, an associate principal told him, “It was probably water.” Jackson Middle School seventh-grader Dylon Frei was passed notes saying, “Get out of this town, fag”; when a teacher intercepted one such note, she simply threw it away.
“You feel horrible about yourself,” remembers Dylon. “Like, why do these kids hate me so much? And why won’t anybody help me?” The following year, after Dylon was hit in the head with a binder and called “fag,” the associate principal told Dylon that since there was no proof of the incident she could take no action. By contrast, Dylon and others saw how the same teachers who ignored anti-gay insults were quick to reprimand kids who uttered racial slurs. It further reinforced the message resonating throughout the district: Gay kids simply didn’t deserve protection.
“Justin?” Tammy Aaberg rapped on her son’s locked bedroom door again. It was past noon, and not a peep from inside, unusual for Justin.
“Justin?” She could hear her own voice rising as she pounded harder, suddenly overtaken by a wild terror she couldn’t name. “Justin!” she yelled. Tammy grabbed a screwdriver and loosened the doorknob. She pushed open the door. He was wearing his Anoka High School sweatpants and an old soccer shirt. His feet were dangling off the ground. Justin was hanging from the frame of his futon, which he’d taken out from under his mattress and stood upright in the corner of his room. Screaming, Tammy ran to hold him and recoiled at his cold skin. His limp body was grotesquely bloated – her baby – eyes closed, head lolling to the right, a dried smear of saliva trailing from the corner of his mouth. His cheeks were strafed with scratch marks, as though in his final moments he’d tried to claw his noose loose. He’d cinched the woven belt so tight that the mortician would have a hard time masking the imprint it left in the flesh above Justin’s collar.
Read the whole article here.
The Nashville Scene newspaper also reported this week on the connections between bullying, teen suicide, and a controversial Tennessee law that bans anti-discrimination protections for GLBT individuals:
…In the midst of statewide, even nationwide concern over the impact of bullying, LGBT advocates and activists point to a spate of well-publicized bills in Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature. These bills, they say, contribute to a culture of hostility toward gays and transgendered citizens — undermining their rights, restricting their restroom use, refusing to acknowledge their existence in the classroom…
…There is reason to worry. By the most recent statistics, Tennessee has the 17th highest age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. These findings arrive among a list of other grim stats.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2009 National School Climate Survey found that LGBT students in Tennessee report levels of verbal abuse higher than the national average. Ninety-eight percent of Tennessee high schoolers have heard a peer use the word “gay” in a derogatory fashion, compared with a national rate of 89 percent. Likewise, 68 percent of Tennessee students did not report bullying to school faculty, and 65 percent kept instances of bullying from their families.
Compounding matters, fewer than one in 10 Tennessee students attends a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying policy. In addition, only one in seven could access LGBT information via school computers — the subject of a 2009 ACLU lawsuit against Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and Knoxville Public Schools that was ultimately successful in overturning the policy. For these and other reasons, Chris Sanders, director of the LGBT advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project, thinks the change in attitudes he hopes for will come slowly.
“Unfortunately, it takes time for things to reach Tennessee,” Sanders says. “It’s not to say it won’t get better at some point, but right now, 2011-2012 — or you could say the time that coincides with the 107th General Assembly — it’s the worst it’s been since the marriage amendment went through the legislature. We’re back really to — I think the worst point in history for Tennessee’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in years.”
The irony, noted by Sanders and others, is that while conservative lawmakers dismiss equal rights legislation for gays on grounds that no group should be singled out for special treatment, they have had no compunctions whatsoever about punitive bills that specifically target LGBT citizens.
The most notorious example is HB600 — the blanket nullification of municipal anti-discrimination laws crafted by state Rep. Glen Casada, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam last year, and lobbied for in secret by powerful Christian conservative interests. A direct one-stroke obliteration of Metro Nashville’s LGBT workplace-protection ordinance, the law essentially gives employers free rein to fire or not hire individuals solely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identification.
That was the first salvo in what has become a culture-war blitzkrieg. There is state Rep. Joey Hensley’s HB 0229, the House version of Knoxville Sen. Stacey Campfield’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which bans any mention of sexuality other than the hetero-variety in K-8 sex education classes. There is HB 1153, which critics say codifies First Amendment protection for the very bullies who tormented Jacob Rogers and Phillip Parker. Most controversial — and LGBT advocates argue, most appalling — is HB 2279, which would make it a crime for a transgender person to use the restroom that best coincides with their gender identity.
As both of these articles point out, the causes of teen suicide are complex and varied. However, as far as I’m concerned, the bigots’ culpability doesn’t depend on whether all of these poor kids were gay or perceived as gay. Seeing that bullies run the adult world, from the legislature to the school board, is enough to drive any persecuted kid to despair. If they’re doing this to the gays, they’d do it to you too, because you’re fat or poor or female or Hispanic or…whatever. That’s the message that drowns out “it gets better” for boys like Justin Aaberg. What are we going to do about it?
One place to start: Donate to The Trevor Project, a GLBT suicide-prevention hotline.