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One Town's War on Gay Teens

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Seeking relief from bullying, Brittany transferred to Jackson Middle School. Her very first day of eighth grade, eight boys crowded around her on the bus home. "Hey, Brittany, I heard your friend Sam shot herself," one began.

"Did you see her blow her brains out?"

"Did you pull the trigger for her?"

"What did it look like?"

"Was there brain all over the wall?"

"You should do it too. You should go blow your head off."

Sobbing, Brittany ran from the bus stop and into her mother's arms. Her mom called Jackson's guidance office to report the incident, but as before, nothing ever seemed to come of their complaints. Not after the Gelderts' Halloween lawn decorations were destroyed, and the boys on the bus asked, "How was the mess last night?" Not after Brittany told the associate principal about the mob of kids who pushed her down the hall and nearly into a trash can. Her name became Dyke, Queer, Faggot, Guy, Freak, Transvestite, Bitch, Cunt, Slut, Whore, Skank, Prostitute, Hooker. Brittany felt worn to a nub, exhausted from scanning for threat, stripped of emotional armor. In her journal, she wrote, "Brittany is dead."

As Brittany vainly cried out for help, the school board was busy trying to figure out how to continue tactfully ignoring the existence of LGBT kids like her. Justin Aaberg's suicide, Anoka-Hennepin's seventh, had sent the district into damage-control mode. "Everything changed after Justin," remembers teacher Fietek. "The rage at his funeral, students were storming up to me saying, 'Why the hell did the school let this happen? They let it happen to Sam and they let it happen to Justin!'" Individual teachers quietly began taking small risks, overstepping the bounds of neutrality to offer solace to gay students in crisis. "My job is just a job; these children are losing their lives," says Fietek. "The story I hear repeatedly is 'Nobody else is like me, nobody else is going through what I'm going through.' That's the lie they've been fed, but they're buying into it based on the fear we have about open and honest conversations about sexual orientation."

LGBT students were stunned to be told for the first time about the existence of the neutrality policy that had been responsible for their teachers' behavior. But no one was more outraged to hear of it than Tammy Aaberg. Six weeks after her son's death, Aaberg became the first to publicly confront the Anoka-Hennepin school board about the link between the policy, anti-gay bullying and suicide. She demanded the policy be revoked. "What about my parental rights to have my gay son go to school and learn without being bullied?" Aaberg asked, weeping, as the board stared back impassively from behind a raised dais.

Anti-gay backlash was instant. Minnesota Family Council president Tom Prichard blogged that Justin's suicide could only be blamed upon one thing: his gayness. "Youth who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk [of suicide], because they've embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle," Prichard wrote. Anoka-Hennepin conservatives formally organized into the Parents Action League, declaring opposition to the "radical homosexual" agenda in schools. Its stated goals, advertised on its website, included promoting Day of Truth, providing resources for students "seeking to leave the homosexual lifestyle," supporting the neutrality policy and targeting "pro-gay activist teachers who fail to abide by district policies."

Asked on a radio program whether the anti-gay agenda of her ilk bore any responsibility for the bullying and suicides, Barb Anderson, co-author of the original "No Homo Promo," held fast to her principles, blaming pro-gay groups for the tragedies. She explained that such "child corruption" agencies allow "quote-unquote gay kids" to wrongly feel legitimized. "And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death," Anderson said. She added that if LGBT kids weren't encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn't be in a position to be bullied.

Yet while everyone in the district was buzzing about the neutrality policy, the board simply refused to discuss it, not even when students began appearing before them to detail their experiences with LGBT harassment. "The board stated quite clearly that they were standing behind that policy and were not willing to take another look," recalls board member Wenzel. Further insulating itself from reality, the district launched an investigation into the suicides and unsurprisingly, absolved itself of any responsibility. "Based on all the information we've been able to gather," read a statement from the superintendent's office, "none of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying or harassment."

Just to be on the safe side, however, the district held PowerPoint presentations in a handful of schools to train teachers how to defend gay students from harassment while also remaining neutral on homosexuality. One slide instructed teachers that if they hear gay slurs – say, the word "fag" – the best response is a tepid "That language is unacceptable in this school." ("If a more authoritative response is needed," the slide added, the teacher could continue with the stilted, almost apologetic explanation, "In this school we are required to welcome all people and to make them feel safe.") But teachers were, of course, reminded to never show "personal support for GLBT people" in the classroom.

Teachers left the training sessions more confused than ever about how to interpret the rules. And the board, it turned out, was equally confused. When a local advocacy group, Gay Equity Team, met with the school board, the vice-chair thought the policy applied only to health classes, while the chair asserted it applied to all curricula; and when the district legal counsel commented that some discussions about homosexuality were allowed, yet another board member expressed surprise, saying he thought any discussion on the topic was forbidden. "How can the district ever train on a policy they do not understand themselves?" GET officials asked in a follow-up letter. "Is there any doubt that teachers and staff are confused? The board is confused!"

With the adults thus distracted by endless policy discussions, the entire district became a place of dread for students. Every time a loudspeaker crackled in class, kids braced themselves for the feared preamble, "We've had a tragic loss." Students spoke in hushed tones; some wept openly in the halls. "It had that feeling of a horror movie – everyone was talking about death," says one 16-year-old student who broke down at Anoka High School one day and was carted off to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal ideation. Over the course of the 2010-2011 school year, 700 students were evaluated for serious mental-health issues, including hospitalizations for depression and suicide attempts. Kids flooded school counselors' offices, which reported an explosion of children engaging in dangerous behaviors like cutting or asphyxiating each other in the "choking game."

Amid the pandemonium, the district's eighth suicide landed like a bomb: Cole Wilson, an Anoka High School senior with no apparent LGBT connection. The news was frightening, but also horrifyingly familiar. "People were dying one after another," remembers former district student Katie MacDonald, 16, who struggled with suicidal thoughts. "Every time you said goodbye to a friend, you felt like, 'Is this the last time I'm going to see you?'"

As a late-afternoon storm beats against the windows, 15-year-old Brittany Geldert sits in her living room. Her layered auburn hair falls into her face. Her ears are lined with piercings; her nail polish is black. "They said I had anger, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, an eating disorder," she recites, speaking of the month she spent at a psychiatric hospital last year, at the end of eighth grade. "Mentally being degraded like that, I translated that to 'I don't deserve to be happy,'" she says, barely holding back tears, as both parents look on with wet eyes. "Like I deserved the punishment – I've been earning the punishment I've been getting."

She's fighting hard to rebuild her decimated sense of self. It's a far darker self than before, a guarded, distant teenager who bears little resemblance to the openhearted young girl she was not long ago. But Brittany is also finding a reserve of strength she never realized she had, having stepped up as one of five plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuit against her school district. The road to the federal lawsuit was paved shortly after Justin Aaberg's suicide, when a district teacher contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center to report the anti-gay climate, and the startling proportion of LGBT-related suicide victims. After months of fact-finding, lawyers built a case based on the harrowing stories of anti-gay harassment in order to legally dispute Anoka-Hennepin's neutrality policy. The lawsuit accuses the district of violating the kids' constitutional rights to equal access to education. In addition to making financial demands, the lawsuit seeks to repeal the neutrality policy, implement LGBT-sensitivity training for students and staff, and provide guidance for teachers on how to respond to anti-gay bullying.

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