Rash of Gay Suicides in Bachmann’s District: Her Homophobia at Fault?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday July 27, 2011

A study published earlier this year in the health journal Pediatrics showed that gay youth in conservative regions were up to five times more likely to engage in suicidal behavior than straight teens. One case in point is the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota -- which lies in the district represented by Congresswoman and anti-gay politician Michele Bachmann.

Nine students in the school district have killed themselves in the last two years, with a number of others having attempted suicide, noted a July 25 Mother Jones Magazine article. Teen suicide is so prevalent in the Anoka-Hennepin School District that health authorities in the state have labeled it a "suicide contagion area," Mother Jones reported.

Given the results of the Pediatrics study, and Bachmann's intense, high-profile attacks on GLBTs, including youth services such as gay-straight alliances in schools, the question lingers: To what extent has Bachmann's political career, first as a Minnesota state senator, then a U.S. Congresswoman, and now a contender for the 2012 Republican nomination, impacted at-risk gay youth?

"Bachmann, who began her political career as an education activist, has described gay rights as an 'earthquake issue,' and she and her allies have made public schools the front lines of their fight against the 'homosexual agenda,' " Mother Jones reported. "They have opposed efforts in the state to promote tolerance for gays and lesbians in the classroom, seeing such initiatives as a way of allowing gays to recruit impressionable youths into an unhealthy and un-Christian lifestyle."

But the health of some gay teens -- and straight teens perceived to be gay -- has suffered without support from peers and mentors, the article suggested, relating the story of Samantha Johnson, a teen in the Anoka-Hennepin District who sought to establish a GSA at her school, Anoka Middle School. The district delayed the implementation of a student-run support group, citing as its reason a lack of certainty about the legality of GSAs.

Meantime, Samantha, whose mother says was heterosexual, was being bullied about her looks and dress. Whether she wore her usual clothing or tried to appear more feminine, the article said, the other students harassed her relentlessly about being a lesbian. In the end, Samantha shot herself with a hunting rifle.

Warning signs had sent her mother to school authorities --but to no avail. The article noted said that Samantha's friends claimed most of the bullying took place out of the sight of school staff and security cameras, but even when staff caught sight of her being harassed they did nothing to stop it. Nor did the volleyball coach contact Samantha's mother when the teen, depressed, stopped showing up for practice.

"If I had known, I would have pulled her out of that school so quick," Samantha's mother said of the things taking place while her daughter was supposedly safe in class. But she was left in the dark by school officials.

"Samantha's death was among the first in a wave of suicides and attempted suicides that plagued this district for the next two years," the article reported. Some believe that a major contributing factor is a policy referred to locally as "no homo promo," the article said, a policy that had its beginnings in the mid-1990s.

"Back then, after several emotional school board meetings, the district essentially wiped gay people out of the school health curriculum," the article noted. "There could be no discussion of homosexuality, even with regard to HIV and AIDS, and the school board adopted a formal policy that stated school employees could not teach that homosexuality was a 'normal, valid lifestyle.' "

At a later date, the district amended that policy to a "neutral" policy that left staff and faculty unsure about what was allowed and what might get them fired. Could they intervene in bullying situations? Could they invite students who seemed troubled to talk openly if they suspected that sexuality was at the root of the problem?

"Both policies were put into place at the behest of conservative religious activists who have been among Bachmann's biggest supporters in the district," the article said. "They include the Minnesota Family Council (MFC), and its local affiliate, the Parents Action League, which has lobbied to put discredited 'reparative therapy' materials in schools."

So-called "reparative therapy" is a faith-based approach to the issue of homosexuality that assumes people are born heterosexual but then suffer some form of early life trauma that sends them onto the path -- or contributes to their making a "choice" -- of homosexuality. With counseling and prayer, proponents of reparative therapy claim, gays and lesbians can be "freed" from a "lifestyle" that proponents say is "sinful."

Mental health professionals disagree, and warn that reparative therapy can do far more harm than good, in part by setting up an expectation for "healing" in a context in which there is no pathological condition to begin with. A growing body of scientific evidence points to homosexuality as an innate, in-born aspect of gays and lesbians. As such, it is seen more constructively as part of the naturally occurring, and normal, variation of human sexuality, rather than a deviation from it.

But not according to Michele Bachmann, whose claims about gays over the course of her political career have been breathtaking -- and almost uniformly negative. Bachmann has made the claim that all gays have suffered abuse in their life, the implication being that abuse "made" them gay. She has also dismissed gays as living "sad" lives, and said that it is "of Satan" to regard homosexuality as an aspect of human diversity worthy of understanding and acceptance.

A July 11 ABC News report profiled the reparative therapy allegedly offered at the Christian counseling clinics run by Bachmann and her husband, Marcus Bachmann. A staffer from Truth Wins Out, an organization dedicated to countering the "ex-gay" message that reparative therapy can "cure" gays, underwent several counseling sessions at Bachmann & Associates.

That staffer, Jonathan Becker, posed as a Christian man "struggling" with unwanted homosexual urges. Among other things, Becker heard that God had meant for him to be heterosexual.

A follow-up ABC News report on July 12 referred to reparative therapy as "discredited," and included an interview with Dr. Jack Drescher, who is the president for the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry.

"This is mostly faith healing," Drescher told ABC News. "There's a lot of technical language that sounds like mainstream psychology or mainstream psychiatry, but it's not." Drescher went on to add, "This is so far outside the mainstream it's practically on Mars."

Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, told EDGE something similar.

" 'Ex-gay' therapy is junk science used to justify a fundamentalist worldview," Besen wrote in an email to EDGE. "Anti-gay activists realize that they cannot beat back LGBT equality with religious arguments alone. So they try to win over mainstream voters by distorting real scientific studies or inventing fake science that appears to back their beliefs. So-called ex-gay therapy fits into this mold."

But the campaign to characterize homosexuality as some form of moral failing or illness can have drastically negative consequences for the very people to whom it purports to offer healing. Drescher warned that gays and lesbians who undergo the therapy "may feel more depressed, more anxious, some people may feel more suicidal because this treatment didn't work."

Young, Tormented, At Risk... and Blamed

Through all of this, the question persists: When anti-gay politicians promote a message that gays are incomplete, sick, and suffering, how does that message affect GLBT youth? When a school district adopts a "neutral" policy that essentially serves to erase the concerns, needs, and visibility of gay teens, does it also endanger the very existence of those teens, a group that medical research suggests may turn to suicide? When bullied gay youths see legal remedies protested on the grounds that those remedies might legitimize who they are, are they in essence being blamed for the torments they endure?

Anti-gay organizations such as the Minnesota Family Council do not seem to see attempts to reach out to gay teens in a supportive manner as anything other than an attempt to seduce heterosexual youth into a "lifestyle" centered on a form of sexual relationship that they assume to be wrong. That focus on sex -- and away from mental health concerns -- may have thrown countless youths into peril, and cost some teens their lives.

"Following the deaths and the publicity about bullying and anti-gay sentiments, the school district became inflamed with nasty infighting over whether promoting anti-bullying efforts was simply a cover for advancing the homosexual agenda in schools," the Mother Jones article noted.

Even in the thick of a rash of student suicides that rocked the nation -- a rash in which Anoka-Hennepin seemed to be an epicenter -- the real life needs of teens apparently took a back seat to political grand standing, with a new anti-gay group forming just last year to combat the Anoka Middle School GSA that eventually did take form.

The Minnesota Family Council-linked Parents Action League emerged with the eradication of Anoka Middle School's GSA as one of its primary objectives, the Mother Jones article reported. Meantime, the MFC persisted on a crusade to combat and roll back anti-bullying campaigns, evidently out of a fear that attempts to stop homophobic harassment would entail recruiting students into the ranks of homosexuality.

MFC leader Tom Prichard went on record in comments to newspaper the Minnesota Independent that said all that, and more. Pritchard, the Mother Jones article reported, told the newspaper that "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."

Since embarking on the campaign trail for the Republican 2012 nod, Bachmann has toned her anti-gay rhetoric down to the point of being mute on the issue of gays and related topics. But Mother Jones unearthed a telling remark that Bachmann made in 2006, during a debate among Minnesota lawmakers on anti-bullying legislation in which Bachmann stuck closely to a familiar litany of talking points -- a script long used by anti-gay activists to oppose and mischaracterize anti-bullying efforts in the name of resisting an imaginary "gay agenda."

"I think for all us our experience in public schools is there have always been bullies, always have been, always will be," Bachmann told her fellow state lawmakers. "I just don't know how we're ever going to get to point of zero tolerance and what does it mean?"

The then-state senator added, "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?"

The progression in ideas, as unrelated as they may be, is a carbon copy of similar, and similarly disjointed, arguments made by anti-gay activists. To wit: Protecting gays will lead, swiftly and automatically, to the silencing of those who oppose gays out of religious conviction. American masculinity will be diluted. Young men will become young women -- not because they are transgendered, but because the "gay agenda" will have succeeded in destroying the nation's moral fiber. Underlying all such rhetoric is the assumption that gays "choose" to be sexually and romantically attracted to others of the same gender, either for ideological purposes or because of general moral inferiority.

As a means of pushing back against this perceived threat, anti-gay Christian groups counter student initiatives such as "Day of Silence," with parents encouraged to pull their children out of school for the day and Christian students supplied with bullet points for debating the issue with GLBT teens and their supporters during a "Day of Truth."

The result: A stark dichotomy in which one side struggles for a voice, while the other claims that sexual "sinners" are destined for eternal damnation. That was the argument that another Anoka-Hennepin student, Justin Aaberg, was given, the Mother Jones article said, and according to Aaberg's mother the message that he was already consigned to hellfire for being gay was too much for him.

"That did something to his brain," the article quoted Justin's mother, Tammy Aaberg, as saying. Justin hanged himself in the midst of a rash of gay teen suicides that caught the media's attention and made the agonies of gay youth a national topic of debate.

"Only after his suicide did Tammy learn that the Parents Action League had reportedly worked with area churches to hand out T-shirts promoting the 'Day of Truth' to students at his high school (which is also Bachmann's alma mater)," Mother Jones reported. "The students were also instructed to 'preach to the gay kids,' Aaberg says." The Parents Action League declined to comment for the Mother Jones article.

Mother Jones also reported that "the anti-gay climate in the schools in Bachmann's district has been so extreme that it has attracted the attention of the Justice Department and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights," with hate group watchdog organization The Southern Poverty Law Center filing suit against the district over the neutrality policy. The article cited a number of students who have been harassed, bullied, and even physically attacked in the district's schools. Much of the bullying is homophobic in nature. The twist: Homophobic bullying, like homophobic hate crimes of all sorts, does not always target gays. Straights who are mistaken for gay are also targeted, and sometimes killed -- or, in the case of ongoing, intensive harassment at school, driven to suicide.

In the case of a heterosexual student named Alex Merritt, the homophobic harassment was not only targeted at a straight man, but also carried out by teachers, rather than students. Making the abuse worse was the manner in which two teachers reportedly tag-teamed the abuse they directed the Merritt.

The young man was reportedly subjected to public and humiliating comments made by teacher Diane Cleveland, who allegedly made jokes about the student's perceived sexuality in front of the class. Among other allegations, Cleveland reportedly remarked that the student had a "thing for older men" when Merritt handed in a report about Benjamin Franklin, and joked during a screening of a movie in which a bathing suit scene took place that the sight of a scantily clad young woman on screen would not mean anything to him. "It's OK if [Alex] watches this, because he isn't into that sort of thing anyway," Cleveland reportedly said, allegedly adding, "maybe if it was a guy."

"Would you like to have [another student] go with you so he can sit in the stall next to you and stomp his foot?" Cleveland alleged asked Merritt when the young man requested permission to go to the restroom. The other student named by Cleveland was reportedly also perceived as being gay.

Merritt reportedly had Cleveland's class just prior to lunch, after which he had a class with Walker Filson, the other instructor who allegedly subject Merritt to ongoing and public humiliation. Filson would reportedly pick up the day's torments where Cleveland left off. On one occasion, Filson allegedly told students searching for participants for a fashion show to "Take [Alex] because he enjoys wearing women's clothes."

Filson allegedly added, "He would love to be in the show."

A suit brought by Merritt's family cost the school district $25,000 when the case was settled out of court. The teachers involved faced mild disciplinary action.

The Mother Jones article excited commentary among chat participants at right-wing chat site Free Republic. The overall tenor of the conversation was not, however, one of compassion for those whose lives had been lost.

"Lunatic libs have now reduced themselves to accusing Michelle Bachmann of being personally responsible for nine specific teenage suicides in her district," one chat participant posted. "I guess they couldn't find a way to blame Bush," the same individual added.

"Man...the libs must be scared to death to write this kind of BS," wrote another. "You watch: If there is a tornado in a state where she's campaigning, the MSM will somehow make it her fault."

Some turned the "bully" label against figures on the left such as Sarah Silberman, Wanda Sykes, and Kathy Griffin.

"Leftists are the biggest bullies and the most intolerant people on the planet," posted one individual.

"Liberals -- afraid to look into their own souls for fear of the darkness they would see there," another posted.

Others suggested that suicide was a predictable outcome stemming from the very "pathology" of being gay to begin with.

"They weren't gay they were fellow humans, they were children!" posted one chat participant. "Confused about sexuality and relationships in a damnable modern culture that has tossed away the old guideposts.

"Of course they committed suicide, and they won't be the last," the posting added.

"Of course Michele Bachmann and her husband are responsible to teen suicides her district," contributed another. "These poor misguided kids didn't want to live in a world where gays would be executed, eliminated, or turned straight."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.