"There'll always be bullies," he reasoned to a friend. "But we'll be older, so maybe they'll be better about it."
But Justin's start of ninth grade in 2009 began as a disappointment. In the halls of Anoka High School, he was bullied, called a "faggot" and shoved into lockers. Then, a couple of months into the school year, he was stunned to hear about Sam Johnson's suicide. Though Justin hadn't known her personally, he'd known of her, and of the way she'd been taunted for being butch. Justin tried to keep smiling. In his room at home, Justin made a brightly colored paper banner and taped it to his wall: "Love the life you live, live the life you love."
Brittany couldn't stop thinking about Sam, a reel that looped endlessly in her head. Sam dancing to one of their favorite metal bands, Drowning Pool. Sam dead in the tub with the back of her head blown off. Sam's ashes in an urn, her coffin empty at her wake.
She couldn't sleep. Her grades fell. Her daily harassment at school continued, but now without her best friend to help her cope. At home, Brittany played the good daughter, cleaning the house and performing her brother's chores unasked, all in a valiant attempt to maintain some family peace after the bank took their house, and both parents lost their jobs in quick succession. Then Brittany started cutting herself.
Just 11 days after Sam's death, on November 22nd, 2009, came yet another suicide: a Blaine High School student, 15-year-old Aaron Jurek – the district's third suicide in just three months. After Christmas break, an Andover High School senior, Nick Lockwood, became the district's fourth casualty: a boy who had never publicly identified as gay, but had nonetheless been teased as such. Suicide number five followed, that of recent Blaine High School grad Kevin Buchman, who had no apparent LGBT connection. Before the end of the school year there would be a sixth suicide, 15-year-old July Barrick of Champlin Park High School, who was also bullied for being perceived as gay, and who'd complained to her mother that classmates had started an "I Hate July Barrick" Facebook page. As mental-health counselors were hurriedly dispatched to each affected school, the district was blanketed by a sense of mourning and frightened shock.
"It has taken a collective toll," says Northdale Middle School psychologist Colleen Cashen. "Everyone has just been reeling – students, teachers. There's been just a profound sadness."
In the wake of Sam's suicide, Brittany couldn't seem to stop crying. She'd disappear for hours with her cellphone turned off, taking long walks by Elk Creek or hiding in a nearby cemetery. "Promise me you won't take your life," her father begged. "Promise you'll come to me before anything." Brittany couldn't promise. In March 2010, she was hospitalized for a week.
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.
Still screaming, Tammy ran to call 911. She didn't notice the cellphone on the floor below Justin's feet, containing his last words, a text in the wee hours:
:-( he had typed to a girlfriend.
I can come over
No I'm fine
Are you sure you'll be ok
No it's ok I'll be fine, I promise
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