Mother of Gay Teen Suicide to Bachmann: Speak Out Against Bullying

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 19, 2011

The mother of a 15-year-old gay student who hanged himself last year wants her congresswoman to speak out against anti-gay bullying in the schools, reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. But Tammy Aaberg, mother of Justin Aaberg, who attended school in Minnesota's troubled Anoka-Hennepin district, might be in for a long wait.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district, where nine youths have killed themselves in the last two years, has a reputation as one of the most gay-hostile school districts in the country. What's more, Anoka-Hennepin lies in the congressional district of Michele Bachmann, whose anti-gay credentials are not merely a matter of having acquired the rhetoric of the homophobic right since becoming a player in the race for the Republican nomination in next year's presidential race.

Even as a state lawmaker, Bachmann worked against protections for GLBT youths in the state's schools, and pushed for an amendment to the state's constitution that would define marriage as a special right for heterosexuals only. Some have wondered whether Bachmann's work as a state lawmaker helped set the stage for the rash of youth suicides in a school district where gay teens -- and straights perceived as gay -- don't only have to fear bigotry from those of their own age. Indeed, a suit against the district was settled out of court two years ago after two teachers tag-teamed an 18-year-old boy with relentless anti-gay taunts and jokes. Those japes cost the district the healthy sum of $25,000 when the case was settled out of court.

Two new lawsuits, brought by a number of students who say that the district has failed to protect them from bullying, could end up costing the district far more -- a tough proposition in economic lean times. Even so, the district has, thus far, clung to its so-called "neutrality" policy regarding gays, a policy that critics say leaves teachers and administrators afraid to intervene even when bullying happens right in front of them.

In 2010, a nationwide rash of gay youth suicides left a trail of devastation stretching from California, where 13-year-old Seth Walsh hanged himself, to Greensburg, Indiana, where 15-year-old Billy Lucas took his life in a similar manner, to Houston, Texas, where 13-year-old Asher Brown put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, to the George Washington Bridge, which links New York City to New Jersey -- and from which 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student, leapt to his death. They, and too many others, had been targeted for bullying, harassment, intimidation, and even physical attacks because they were gay.

The problem of gay teens killing themselves much more frequently than heterosexual teens has long been documented. Studies show that, contrary to the view expressed by anti-gay religious rhetoric that says gays are innately unhappy and therefore disposed to engage in suicidal behavior, it's the social ostracism -- the taunts, the threats, the assaults, the exclusion -- that drives kids to kill themselves. But the problem remained out of sight of most Americans for decades, until the mainstream media took note. The "rash" gay teen suicides, critics noted, was not an anomaly at all. The only thing that had changed was the fact that now news services were reporting on it.

But anti-gay groups persisted in objecting to legal solutions and educational programs designed to reach out to teens, teach respect, and provide penalties for vicious behavior targeting gay kids and straight kids who had been labeled as such. Efforts to protect gay kids and educate potential bullies, the anti-gay groups claimed, would constitute an "imposition" of values that clashed with those of religious families -- if not an attempt by scheming gays to "recruit" innocent, heterosexual children and "turn" them gay.

One such group, the Parents Action League, made such claims earlier this month at a school board meeting, objecting to a proposal to eliminate the "neutrality" policy and presenting a petition to keep the policy intact, even in the wake of so many suicides and two current suits.

"Academic instruction is sacrificed when indoctrination of specific viewpoints come into the classroom," declared a representative of the group, Laurie Thompson, who presented a petition with just over one thousand signatures to keep the policy in place.

Against such deeply entrenched anti-gay sentiment stands Tammy Aaberg, a bereaved mother who wonders whether timely and effective intervention, rather than a "neutrality" policy, might have saved her gay son's life. Aaberg was one of a group of six people who delivered a petition to Bachmann's staff calling for the presidential hopeful to speak out against anti-gay bullying.

130,000 people from around the nation signed the petition. But the number, while impressive, may not be enough. It's a question of whether issuing such a condemnation of bullying would constitute a change of tune for Bachmann, who has said in the past that gays are enslaved by a "lifestyle" that is anything but truly "gay." Indeed, Bachmann told an audience in 2004 that "gay" is a Satanic misnomer when applied to men who love men and women who love women; Bachmann dismissed the possibility that GLBTs might actually be happy if left alone, telling her listeners that gays lead "unhappy" lives, and seeming to mean that unhappiness stems from being gay, rather than being punished for it.

Since starting her bid for the Republican nomination, Bachmann has been mostly silent about gays, but here and there glimpses of the old, fiery, anti-gay lawmakers still peek through. In a recent debate, Bachmann said that she would support an amendment to the United States Constitution to deny marriage rights to anyone who is not heterosexual -- practically in the same breath as a declaration that the matter of marriage equality is something best left for individual states to decide.

Then there's her husband, Marcus Bachmann, who told a Christian radio program last year that gays are "barbarians" who threaten America and need a dose of "discipline" to straighten them out.

Add to that questions about the uses to which state and federal money that the Bachmann's Christian counseling business might have gone. An ABC News segment broadcast video taken by an undercover gay activist. The young man, who posed as someone desperate to be "cured" of homosexuality, was assured that there are no gays -- just straights who either "choose" to flaunt "God's plan," or are suffering from sexual pathology.

Reputable health professionals disagree with both theses, advising that for gays sexual and romantic attraction to others of the same gender is natural and unchangeable, and warning that so-called "reparative therapy" can cause serious harm.

Bachmann's staff treated Tammy Aaberg and the others cordially, the newspaper said.

"Bachmann representative Becky Rogness issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying that Bachmann will review the petition and respond later," the Star-Tribune reported.

Aaberg is prepared for a long wait, if that's what it comes to. Even so, she told the newspaper, "I wanted to give her a chance to do the right thing."

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.