Sunday, May 1, 2011

In Justin's Name

Originally Posted on September 29, 2010

Justin Aaberg was 15 years old when he ended his life. One must ask why would a young man do such an act.

Aaberg came out when he was 13 to his parents. He seemed like a normal boy, but he was a gay man wanting to be out and proud in his suburban Anoka County, Minnesota community.

To put this perspective, the community Aaberg lived in is part of the Sixth Congressional District – represented by Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Her supporters completely agree with one thing: GLBT people should not be equal in citizenship than the status quo (i.e, the majority of people in her district).

This fervor for homophobia extended to Aaberg’s peers. This young man was bullied because he was gay – and nothing more. Aaberg bore the brunt of bullying by his peers while gaining traction at Anoka High School. He suffered more than enough to end his life. His pain was too much to bear.

Yet, Aaberg was shy, but very intelligent and highly talented. Still, we ask why did he take his life? Why succumb to the prevailing hatred and ignorance in his community? Why did the school district and community allow conditions to become unsafe for GLBT students?

He wasn’t alone. In five recently reported suicides of students throughout the district, three of them were suspected because of issues dealing with sexual orientation. The pattern being debated was whether there was not enough protection for these students district-wide. When the Anoka-Hennepin School District refused to draft a specific policy in preventing bullying of students of sexual orientation, Aaberg’s mother, Tammy, took up the cause ensuring they take the steps in doing so.

Twenty years ago, many communities had gay youth programs created outside the school system. Where I was coming out – in the San Francisco Bay Area – there was a gay youth program in every county from San Francisco to deep in suburbia. In contrast, various communities had a centered approach to serving gay youth, such as SMYAL in Washington, DC and District 202 in the Minneapolis, both well known and innovative in their programming. It was a groundswell of places where gay youth was served and helped through even the toughest of coming out experiences.

What happened since then? The gradual acceptance of GLBT culture, for starters. Gay-Straight student alliances began to augment gay youth groups sponsored by community centers and other non-profit organizations. Not to mention the proliferation of the Internet for both good and bad.

As much as we’ve come a long way from the days of my youth in the San Fernando Valley – in not knowing what it takes to be gay under the age of 18 – young people such as Justin Aaberg reminds us that we still have a long way to go.

And, the Aaberg situation was not the only case affecting the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Alex Merritt stood up and accused the district and his school of bullying by not only his peers – but also by faculty members as well. What makes this case odd was that Merritt is heterosexual. The fact that the same temper of bullying affecting Merritt, Aaberg and other students in this district exists is disturbing considering both the prevailing political and social climates of the community.

A lot has to be done to change the course in conservative communities, so our GLBT youth can live harmoniously alongside everyone else in the neighborhood, at the schoolyard and around town. It not only takes my fellow GLBT community – it takes everyone to make this change, including the powers to be and the status quo that keeps on voting them in.

This is why we came to the VFW Hall in Coon Rapids for a spaghetti feed a couple of Sundays ago.  This is why Tammy Aaberg invited us to share this meal. This is also why some of us went to a picnic by the Mississippi River last Sunday. This is why a lot of us are still angry that this death could have been prevented if proper safeguards on school campuses were in place. We know his family loved Justin for who he is. This had been chronicled in the local press now that Tammy is determined to fight for GLBT youth in her son’s name.

In the early 1990s, I remember listening to Mary Griffith recalling the story of the misunderstanding she had for her son, who also took his own life. Griffith used Bobby’s suicide as an education for the once-conservative suburban enclave I used to live and organize in.

This is now Tammy’s turn. It is her turn to have her school district improve conditions for GLBT students in their schools. Believe me, she will need our support in this fight.

In places such as Anoka County, it will take a paradigm shift. A shift towards understanding the needs of all student populations by Justin’s teachers, school staff, educational administrators, the local school board, fellow students and the community itself. Granted, not everyone in Anoka County should be profiled as extremely conservative, as there are diverse communities within the district’s boundaries – including GLBT people.

Still, it takes a community to do what is right for these students. All of us who care about ensuring the future of this generation of GLBT youth must facilitate this shift, not just in the Anoka-Hennepin School District – but elsewhere across North America where GLBT (and other) students are at risk from bullying and the lack of support for them to have a healthy life at school.

We must do this in Justin’s name.

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