Imagine a legislative district with such a high rate of teen suicides that state public health officials have named the area a “suicide contagion area.” One where the Departments of Justice and the Education’s Office of Civil Rights are investigating allegations of anti-gay bullying. The 6th District of Minnesota is such a legislative district, with nine teen suicides in the past two years.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing the Anoka-Hennepin County School District over its discriminatory “neutrality” policy, which the group views as a potential violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution. In a letter to the district superintendent in May, SPLC wrote: “The gag policy bears no rational relationship to any legitimate governmental purpose. On the contrary, the history surrounding the policy’s enactment clearly shows that the policy was adopted solely in deference to some community members’ disapproval of, and animus toward, a particular class of citizens—LGBT people. The law is clear that mere animus toward an unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental purpose.”
According to the SPLC, school officials ignored complaints from the students. One of the plaintiffs eventually dropped out of school and later attempted suicide, and another, who had reported anti-LGBT harassment for two years, was told by the school district to find another school because they couldn’t protect him. A third student claims that while he was violently assaulted and called a “faggot” in the hallway, a teacher stood by and watched without intervening. After he reported the incident, the school official blamed him for provoking the attack.
A year ago, Fifteen-year-old Justin Aaberg hanged himself in his bedroom last summer. Samantha Johnson went home from school, put on old clothes, lay down in the bathtub, and put a hunting rifle in her mouth. Other students—TJ, Aaron, Nick, Kevin, July, Jordan, and Cole—also killed themselves. Of these nine teens, some were gay or perceived to be gay, and school officials knew that several were bullied.
No one knows if Samantha was gay. New to the district from a much smaller school, she was chubby, wore sweats, kept her hair short, and played sports. As one of the group who tried to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, she may have been looking for safety from bullying that at least one school staff member witnessed but failed to stop. Theater teacher Jefferson Fietek agreed to be the GSA adviser, but the school district kept fighting its formation. Samantha was dead by the time that he decided to hold a meeting without the school’s permission. Since January, seven of Fietek’s students at Anoka Middle School have been hospitalized for attempting or threatening suicide.
Since the mid-1990s, Samantha’s school district has had a policy known as “no homo promo” which makes LGBTQ people invisible in the school health curriculum—not even a mention of HIV and AIDS. School employees could not teach that homosexuality was a “normal, valid lifestyle.”
The U.S. representative for this district is Michele Bachmann, currently a Republican presidential candidate. Describing gay rights as an “earthquake issue,” she and her supporters have launched and continued a fight against the “homosexual agenda,” opposing all efforts to allow tolerance for LGBTQ teens in the classroom.
After these suicides, students in Anoka-Hennepin schools participated in the Day of Silence, organized by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, which encourages kids to remain silent for the day in recognition of the effect of anti-gay bullying and harassment. Religious activists fought against this move toward tolerance by its “Day of Truth,” championed by the “ex-gay ministry” Exodus International. Students were encouraged talk to their classmates about homosexuality from a Christian perspective.
Even after the escalation of the suicide and attempted suicide rates, the anti-gay rhetoric continued. The Parents Action League worked with area churches to hand out T-shirts promoting the “Day of Truth” to students at Bachmann’s alma mater. The students were also told to “preach to the gay kids.”
Although Bachmann is on the record as opposing anti-bullying legislation, she has told state lawmakers: “I think for all us our experience in public schools is there have always been bullies, always have been, always will be. I just don’t know how we’re ever going to get to point of zero tolerance and what does it mean?…What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression? Will it mean that what form of behavior will there be—will we be expecting boys to be girls?”
Justin’s mother asked for help from her legislators. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has introduced federal legislation requiring school districts to protect LGBT students; Bachmann has not responded to her constituent. Bachmann’s silence about these deaths has been deafening.
Bachmann’s husband, who receives federal funding, operates a Christian mental health clinic that counsels people to “pray away the gay.” Before she entered politics, Bachmann was the educational adviser to the MFC-affiliated Minnesota Family Institute, and headlined a fundraising dinner for MFC this past spring. The MFC has waged a seven-year battle to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that will be on the state ballot in 2012 and have helped create a vitriolic climate filled with anti-gay rhetoric that is harmful to at-risk kids.
Tom Prichard, the head of the MFC, said that the suicides were not the product of anti-gay bulling but rather “homosexual indoctrination.” Prichard said students like Samantha died because they adopted an “unhealthy lifestyle” and that “homosexual activists” were manipulating the suicides to further advance their agenda in the school district. Bachmann ally Bradlee Dean, the head of the heavy-metal ministry You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, said, “The homosexuals are now blaming [the schools’] stance as the reason that young homosexuals are committing suicide because of the schools’ intolerance to the lifestyle of homosexuality.”
No one can ever know what part Bachmann’s anti-gay activism played in these suicides and attempted suicides. She needs to know, however, that any legislator’s strong belief that homosexuality is a sickness and should be eradicated is a great danger and a threat to people’s well-being because it creates a climate in which people feel that their only escape is death.