Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Uganda, a Glimpse of Life in America under a "President Santorum"

Ugandan Lawmakers Push Anti-Homosexuality Bill Again -- Supported by American Evangelicals and other U.S.-based Hate Groups

(See "Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches & Homophobia")

from The New York Times:

KAMPALA, Uganda — At first, it was a fiery contempt for homosexuality that led a Ugandan lawmaker to introduce a bill in 2009 that carried the death penalty for a “serial offender” of the “offense of homosexuality.”

The bill’s failure amid a blitz of international criticism was viewed by many as evidence of power politics, a poor nation bending to the will of rich nations that feed it hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

But this time around — the bill was reintroduced this month — it is a bitter and broad-based contempt for Western diplomacy that is also fueling its resurrection.

“If there was any condition to force the Western world to stop giving us money,” said David Bahati, the bill’s author, “I would like that.”

The Obama administration recently said it would use its foreign diplomatic tools, including aid, to promote equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain has threatened to cut aid for countries that do not accept homosexuality.

But African nations have reacted bitterly to the new dictates of engagement, saying they smack of neo-colonialism. In the case of Uganda, the grudge could even help breathe new life into the anti-homosexuality bill.

Antigovernment demonstrations sometimes turn violent and news about corruption scandals fills the tabloids here, but two things most people agree on is that homosexuality is not tolerated and that Westerners can be overbearing.

The United States says it remains “resolutely opposed” to the bill, and at the American Embassy in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, officials are actively engaged in lobbying Ugandan policy makers to oppose the bill, too.

“Our position is clear,” said Hilary Renner, a State Department spokeswoman.

The pressure has worked, to a certain degree. Some of the most contentious elements of the bill — the death penalty, and a clause ordering citizens to report known acts of homosexuality to the police within 24 hours — would be taken out, Mr. Bahati said in a recent interview. That could make the bill less explosive for lawmakers.

But the diplomatic tensions surrounding the bill also seem to be increasing its popularity.

“While covert behind-the-scenes donor pressure on the Ugandan government has been useful in the past,” said Dr. Rahul Rao, a lecturer at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy in London, “overt pressure can be extremely counterproductive.”

The government of President Yoweri Museveni, while distancing itself from the bill, defended the right for the bill to be debated in Uganda’s Parliament, saying in a recent statement that “cultural attitudes in Africa are very different to elsewhere.”

Kizza Besigye, an opposition leader who has courted the West, said Western pressure on the issue of homosexuality was “misplaced” and “even annoying.”

“There are more obvious, more prevalent and harmful violations of human rights that are glossed over,” Mr. Besigye said. “Their zeal over this matter makes us look at them with cynicism to say the least.”

When Mr. Bahati reintroduced the bill in Parliament, he did so to rounds of applause.

In this religious and traditional society, the tug of war between advocates and opponents of gay rights remains tense.

Days after the bill was reintroduced, a clandestine gay rights meeting at a hotel was broken up personally by Uganda’s minister of ethics.

“In the past they were stoned to death,” said the minister, Simon Lokodo. “In my own culture they are fired on by the firing squad, because that is a total perversion.”

Last year, a newspaper published a list of gay people in Uganda and urged readers and policy makers to “Hang Them.”

Much of Africa’s anti-homosexuality movement is supported by American evangelicals, the Rev. Kapya Kaoma of Zambia wrote in 2009, who are keen to export the American “culture war” to new ground. Indeed, American evangelical Christians played a role in stirring the anti-homosexual sentiment that culminated in the initial legislation in Uganda.

The few gay rights advocates in Uganda who work publicly on the issue have seen their own exposure — and support — widen, too. One received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award last year. The organization whose conference was shut down this month receives tens of thousands of dollars from the American Jewish World Service, according to the organization’s Web site. As for Mr. Bahati, orphaned at the age of 3 and until recently a relatively unknown politician, the past several years have been a roller-coaster-ride of emotions, from obscurity to fame and infamy. The American news media, he said, have shredded his reputation.

“They really worked out on the word ‘death,’ ” he said, referring to coverage of the bill’s death penalty provision. “We used to have friends in America, but most of them are now scared even to identify with us.”

It was in the United States, Mr. Bahati contended, that he first became close with a group of influential social conservatives, including politicians, known as The Fellowship, which would later become a base of inspiration and technical support for the anti-homosexuality bill.

Mr. Bahati said the idea for the bill first sprang from a conversation with members of The Fellowship in 2008, because it was “too late” in America to propose such legislation. Now, he said, he feels abandoned.

“In Africa we value friendship,” Mr. Bahati said. “But the West is different.”

Richard Carver, who said he served as president of The Fellowship until August 2011, said members of his group were actively involved in Uganda, including one with close ties to lawmakers. But Mr. Carver said the group never took an official position on the proposed legislation.

“This is a very large group,” said Mr. Carver, adding that “individuals can speak for themselves.”

Mr. Bahati contends that African nations like Uganda, by contrast, cannot speak for themselves — that reliance on international aid makes “unindependent.”

Nothing was more telling, he said, than Prime Minister Cameron’s threat to cut development aid to countries that refuse to accept homosexuality. As for the United States, the State Department has pledged at least $3 million to civil society organizations working on gay rights.

According to Mr. Bahati, his anti-homosexuality bill would upend that. A clause in the bill prohibits organizations that support gay rights from working in Uganda, potentially including the development arms of foreign governments.

“It becomes very easy,” Mr. Bahati said. “Their licenses will be revoked.”

A parliamentary committee has 45 days to debate the bill before sending it back to Parliament or asking for an extension. Mr. Bahati said that he was confident the bill would pass, but that if it did not, he had a Plan B: hope for a Republican victory in November.

“The good thing with the West is that we know that Obama can influence the world only up to 2016,” he said. “That’s a definite.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Tide of History Flows from Intolerance to Acceptance

There are so many good things emerging in Venango County, but, as home-base for a viciously anti-gay hate group, the American Family Association of Pennsylvania, which side of history will it be on when it comes to inclusion, fairness and equality for all?

The Many Faces of Marriage in America
The same shift that occurred in opinions about interracial marriage — from disapproval to approval — is happening in attitudes about same-sex marriage.

Los Angeles Times Editorial - Feb. 17, 2012

A quarter-century ago, 65% of Americans thought interracial marriage was unacceptable for themselves or for other people. Yet in the span of a generation, as intermarriage has become more common and the United States has grown more racially diverse, a dramatic change in attitudes has taken place. Today, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 87% of Americans say that the rise in interracial marriage has either been good for society or made no difference, while only 11% think it's a change for the worse.

That's the thing about the tide of history: It tends to flow from intolerance to acceptance. The same shift that occurred in opinions about interracial marriage is happening in attitudes about same-sex marriage. Just ask folks in Washington and New Jersey.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage on Monday, and on Thursday the New Jersey Assembly approved a similar measure. Voters in those states will probably have the final say; opponents are organizing a petition drive for a Washington ballot measure to ban gay marriage, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to veto his state's marriage bill and present the issue as a referendum instead. There's no telling what voters in either state will decide, but such occasional shoals matter less than the overall direction of the tide, and we know which way that's turning.

Surveys show a major generational divide in attitudes about gay marriage, with younger people widely favoring it while older people are generally opposed. As time passes, there's only one direction this trend can lead. And it's the same direction this country charted during the civil rights era, when anti-miscegenation laws were overturned amid a raucous outcry from conservatives who feared that interracial marriage would unravel our social fabric.

Through surveys like Pew's, we also know what will happen in the decades that follow the widespread legalization of same-sex marriage: An issue that divides Americans as intensely as any in our ongoing culture wars will simply cease to matter, as conservatives discover their own marriages are in no way devalued. Today, according to Pew, 63% of Americans say they "would be fine" if a family member opted to marry someone outside his or her racial or ethnic group, and the overall percentage of interracial marriages is soaring: It hit 15.1% nationwide in 2010 and is even higher in California, where the majority of such unions are between whites and Latinos.

Someday, we suspect, most Americans won't be bothered by the prospect of their sons or daughters marrying someone of the same sex. All it takes is time, and enough examples to demonstrate that the fears of marriage-equality opponents are baseless.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Traditional Family Values: Treating Kids Like Trash

Local News Investigates The ‘Hidden Crisis’:
Kids Put Out ‘Like Trash’ Just For Being Gay

There are approximately 1.6 million to 2.8 million homeless young people in the United States and a disproportionate number — 20 to 40 percent — are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. LGBT youth often run away from home because of family conflict and then “face overt discrimination when seeking alternative housing, which is compounded by institutionalized discrimination in federally funded programs.”

Last night, a local CBS affiliate in Miami, Florida offered an in-depth look into the crisis of LGBT youth homelessness and the children who are put out “like trash” by parents who refuse to accept them:

Studies show that 320,000 to 400,000 gay and transgender youth face homelessness each year and that many lose their homes at the young age of 13 or 14, as they come out to their parents. Fortunately, the Department of Health and Human Services is already providing “training and technical assistance to States and Indian Tribes on a wide variety of LGBTQ-related issues” and the Obama administration has released recommendations for providing the best possible care in shelters for homeless LGBT youth.

But still, more must be done. There are currently no federal programs specifically designed to meet the needs of gay and transgender homeless youth and federal grant awards for homeless youth services “are being awarded to providers without mandating that they not discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. As the Center for American Progress has recommended, President Obama should issue an executive order “recognizing both lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender homeless youth and homeless youth in general as special-needs populations, and protecting them from discrimination by federal grantees” and the federal government must begin developing programs “that help families from all communities support and nurture their gay and transgender children.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has also introduced the Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act, a bill “designed to help homeless youth rejoin their families and escape life on the streets.” The measure calls for a “demonstration project for improving family relationships and reducing homelessness for LGBT youth” and the development of programs “that improve family relationships and reduce homelessness for LGBT youth.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"My 7-Year-Old Son Is Gay, and I'm So Proud To Be His Mom"

A great example of true family values for all those trapped by the mendacious fear-mongering and anti-gay propaganda of Venango County-based Hate Group, the American Family Association of Pennsylvania.

by Amelia, on the Huffington Post:

Considering that my son has a longstanding crush on Glee's Blaine and regularly refers to him as "my boyfriend," I thought there was a fair chance that he would someday say, "I'm gay." But my kid is only 7 years old. I figured I had a few years before we crossed that threshold (if we ever did), probably when he was 14 or 15. I never thought it would happen this soon.

Six months ago "gay" wasn't even a word in my son's vocabulary. He has always known that some of our male friends are married to men and some of our female friends to women, and it is such a normal part of his life that he never needed a special word to describe them. When he did notice the word and asked what it meant, I told him that when boys want to marry boys and girls want to marry girls, we call that "gay." He didn't seem very interested and quickly went off to do something else more exciting than a vocabulary lesson with his mom.

Fast-forward a few months. I was on the phone with a relative who had just discovered that I was blogging on The Huffington Post and openly discussing my son's crush on Blaine. I was in another room alone (I thought), explaining, "We're not saying he's straight, and we're not saying he's gay. We're saying we love who he is," when my son's voice piped up behind me.

"Yes, I am," he said.

"Am what, baby?" I asked.

"Gay. I'm gay."

My world paused for a moment, and I saw the "geez, Mom, didn't you know that already?" look on my son's face.

I got off the phone and leaned down to eye level with him and rubbed my nose against his. "I love you so much."

"I know," he said, and ran off to play with his brothers.

Since that day, any time the word "gay" has come into conversation, he has happily announced to those around him, "I'm gay!" He says this very naturally and happily, the same way he announces other things that he likes about himself. Mention that a person is tall and he'll quickly add, "I'm tall!" If he hears the word "Legos," barely a second passes before he says, "Legos. I love Legos." Saying "I'm gay" is his way of telling people: this is something I like about myself.

It's amazing, but it's also shocking. How many people have a 7-year-old come out to them? A lot of people don't know how to react, and I don't blame them. Before my son, I'd never met a child who came out this young -- and we don't know anyone else who has. The mere idea of children having a sexual orientation makes people uncomfortable. It's something we don't think about (or just don't like to).

But here's the thing: straight children have nothing to announce. Straight is the assumption. No one bats an eye at a little girl with a Justin Bieber poster in her bedroom, or when little girls love playing wedding with little boys every chance they get. If our sexual orientation is simply part of who we are, why wouldn't it be there in our elementary years?

I've heard from countless adults who say they knew that they were gay as young as kindergarten but lacked the language to talk about it. And in most cases, they knew it was something wrong that they should hide. Because gay people are part of my son's everyday life, he has the vocabulary, and it has never occurred to him there is anything wrong with it.

On one occasion after an "I'm gay" announcement, I watched my husband reach out to ruffle our son's hair. "I know, buddy," my husband said to him. "And you're awesome, too." That's how we're handling it. We want him to know we hear him, and that he's wonderful. It feels like the right thing to do, and that's all we have to go by. We don't have any other examples.

We did take a few extra steps. Within a few days we had a quick talk with him about how some people don't like it when people are gay, explaining that those people are wrong. If he hears anyone says anything about being gay like it is something bad, he is to run and get us immediately. We had a brief conversation with his teachers: Our son is identifying as gay. We don't think there's anything wrong with that or with him. And this is the only acceptable opinion on the subject. All his teachers, while surprised, were on board. We learned that he hasn't used that word at school yet, so we'll cross that bridge when the time comes.

I don't think it will always be easy. We don't know what to expect. At this point we aren't looking for trouble, but at the same time we're preparing for it. We know we have a journey ahead of us, just like everyone does. And this is one part of the story of our son and our family.

Do I think this is the last word on his orientation? I don't know. He's 7. Maybe as he gets older he'll tell me something else, but it's just as likely that he won't. But really, that doesn't even matter. What matters is right now. And right now I have a young son who happily announces "I'm gay." And I'm so proud to be his mom.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Minn. School District Replaces Policy Blamed for Bullying of Gay Teens

By Associated Press, Published: February 13

COON RAPIDS, Minn. — The school board in Minnesota’s largest school district on Monday night approved a replacement for a policy that required teachers to stay neutral when sexual orientation comes up in class, a stance that some critics blamed for fostering bullying.

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board adopted the “Respectful Learning Environment” policy on a voice vote. Only board member Kathy Tingelstad voted no.

After hearing more than an hour of testimony from more than 20 people, board member Scott Wenzel said he believed the change will help the district and the community move forward.

Tingelstad told reporters afterward she didn’t appreciate all the outside pressure that has come down on the board over the issue in recent months.

The new policy commits the north suburban Twin Cities district to providing “a safe and respectful learning environment for all students.” It says that when contentious political, religious, social matters or economic issues come up — it does not specifically cite sexuality issues — teachers shouldn’t try to persuade students to adopt particular viewpoint. It calls for teachers to foster respectful exchanges of views. It also says in such discussions, staff should affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

The proposal was unveiled at a Jan. 23 school board meeting after an earlier revision attempt left all sides unsatisfied. The new policy takes effect immediately.

The district’s teachers union endorsed the policy change.

The district is the target of two lawsuits over the old policy, and the change may move them closer to settlement.

Critics said the old neutrality policy kept teachers from preventing bullying of students who are gay or perceived as gay. It had the support of some parents who believe homosexual conduct is immoral and told the board they don’t want their children taught otherwise.

The old policy had been under fire since six students in the district committed suicide in less than two years. A parent of one of the students who committed suicide says her son was bullied for being gay. Gay advocacy groups say some of the others students who killed themselves were also bullied.

The district has said its internal investigation found no evidence that bullying contributed to the deaths. But the district, which has 38,500 students, changed its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in October 2010 to clearly state that harassment or bullying of gay students wouldn’t be tolerated.

The district has about 38,500 students and 2,800 teachers.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau has scheduled the next round of settlement talks for March 1 and 2 in two lawsuits filed by students, former students and parents against the neutrality policy. Both sides have been keeping those discussions confidential, but the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are representing the plaintiffs, issued a statement applauding the policy change.

“Today is the first day in nearly 18 years that Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District no longer has a harmful policy that singles out lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. Although we would have preferred for the District to have repealed this stigmatizing policy without replacing it, we are pleased that the new policy expressly requires district staff to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, including LGBT students,” the statement said. “The repeal of this policy is an important first step, but the District must do much more to create a safe, welcoming, and respectful learning environment for all students, including LGBT and gender non-conforming students, and those perceived as such.”

A Story of Love -- Sound Familiar?

The Loving Story, a documentary film, tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving to examine the drama, the history, and the current state of marriage and tolerance in the United States.

There are few Supreme Court rulings that have had the impact that the Loving case had on our culture and politics. In 1967, the year of Loving v. Virginia, 16 states had laws against interracial marriage. Had Barack Obama’s white mother and black father lived in one of those states when they married in 1961, their marriage would have been a felony. Yet the culture of interracial marriage is slow to catch up with legal realities. The 2000 census found only 4.9% of US marriages were interracial.

White Supremacy groups are growing in the US – the very communities that perpetuated and maintained anti-miscegenation laws up to the 1967 Supreme Court ruling. While we’ve elected the first mixed-race President, we also recently witnessed a Louisiana Justice of the Peace refusing to marry a mixed-race couple. Anti-miscegenation sentiments are at the heart of racial segregation and apparently still alive today. The struggle for same-sex marriage has important civil rights parallels. Both address basic human rights.

The Loving Story rouses discussion and debate about interracial marriage and tolerance in the US. It brings together all groups with stakes in marriage equality to seek out commonalties and understanding. It examines the miscegenation crime the Lovings were accused of committing – its roots based in slavery and its lingering, pervasive impact. Freshly revealed,the Loving’s story inspires mixed race couples and their children to share their struggles and claim their unique identities.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Venango County Hate Group Out-of-Step with Public on Important Issues

Not surprisingly, Venango County-based Hate Group, the American Family Association of Pennsylvania, is completely out-of-step with public attitudes on many issues important to the health and well-being of all in the community.

Local leadership is needed, however, to counter the effects that the AFAofPA's demonizing propaganda has on vulnerable youth and families. And, that day cannot come too soon.

Poll Finds Support For
Contraceptive Policy and Gay Unions

by Marjorie Connelly for The New York Times:

Despite the deep divide between some religious leaders and government officials over contraceptives, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll found most voters support the new federal directive that health insurance plans provide coverage for birth control.

In addition, most voters said they favored some type of legal recognition for same-sex couples, at a time when the New Jersey Legislature is set to vote on gay marriage and after a federal appellate court ruled that Proposition 8’s ban on same-sex marriage in California was unconstitutional.

While same-sex marriage and coverage for contraceptives have generated significant debate this month, the poll suggests that voters do not place social issues high on their agenda. When asked to name one issue that presidential candidates should discuss, most voters, including Republicans who described themselves as primary voters, mentioned an economic problem, like unemployment or the budget deficit. Few said they wanted to hear the candidates talk about abortion or gay marriage, for example.

On contraceptive coverage, 65 percent of voters in the poll said they supported the Obama administration’s requirement that health insurance plans cover the cost of birth control, and 59 percent, said the health insurance plans of religiously affiliated employers should cover the cost of birth control.

In a compromise last week, President Obama said insurance companies could shoulder the costs required under the new federal health care law, but the Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious leaders continue to oppose the rule.

A majority of Catholic voters in the poll were at odds with the church’s official stance, agreeing with most other voters that religiously affiliated employers should offer health insurance that provides contraception. Jennifer Davison, 38, a Catholic from Lomita, Calif., agrees with the federal requirement. “My opinion is that it is a personal issue rather than a religious issue,” she said in a follow-up interview.

Unlike Catholics, white evangelical Christian voters were more divided, with half objecting to requiring the health insurance plans of religious employers to cover contraceptives; 43 percent supported it. “It is a religious issue with me,” said Jessica Isner, 22, an evangelical Christian from Elkins, W. Va. “I believe that providing birth control is O.K. if the hospital is not religiously affiliated.”

Gay marriage is another debate in which the Catholic laity disagrees with church doctrine. More than two-thirds of Catholic voters supported some sort of legal recognition of gay couples’ relationships: 44 percent favored marriage, and 25 percent preferred civil unions. Twenty-four percent said gay couples should receive no legal recognition.

Again, white evangelical Christian voters expressed more conservative views. A majority said there should not be legal recognition of a gay relationship, while 18 percent said they should be allowed to marry and 25 percent supported civil unions.

The nationwide telephone poll included 1,064 registered voters, of whom 226 were Catholic and 238 were white evangelical Christians. The margins of sampling error are plus or minus three percentage points for all voters, plus or minus seven points for Catholics, and plus or minus six points for white evangelical Christians.

Special Thanks to the American "Family" Association's One Million (acuallty 40,000) Anti-Gay Moms ... Seriously

by Scott Wooledge for the Huffington Post:

The LGBT community owes a great big thanks to the "One Million Moms" (actually, closer to 40,000) for launching the best LGBT-friendly public relations blitz the community has seen in ages, and battering Christian conservative's image in a way the LGBT community could never hope to do.

Not since Rick Perry's "Strong" has an anti-gay campaign played out so poorly for the instigator and so well for the target. This tiny subgroup of the hate group the American Family Association (which has a particularly ugly and viciously anti-gay state affiliate in Venango County, Pa.) recently declared war on arguably America's most popular and likable lesbian, Ellen DeGeneres. The group, reacting to the news that DeGeneres would serve as a new spokesperson for JCPenney department stores, sent out this alarm to "family values" conservatives nationwide:

DeGeneres is not a true representation of the type of families that shop at their store. The majority of JC Penney shoppers will be offended and choose to no longer shop there. The small percentage of customers they are attempting to satisfy will not offset their loss in sales.

JC Penney has made a poor decision and must correct their mistake fast to retain loyal customers and not turn away potential new, conservative shoppers with the company's new vision.


By jumping on the pro-gay bandwagon, JC Penney is attempting to gain a new target market and in the process will lose customers with traditional values that have been faithful to them over all these years.

The irony is rich in another part of their release: "Unless JC Penney decides to be neutral in the culture war then their brand transformation will be unsuccessful." JCPenney can only demonstrate their "neutrality" by firing Ellen for being gay? If that's neutral, what's gay-hostile?

In this move the One Million 40,000 Moms have demonstrated that these days, the term "traditional values," as defined by the religious right, is really just code for capricious, indiscriminate cruelty, bigotry, divisiveness, and cowardice. And America saw it as exactly that.

Now, one doesn't get named to the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of hate groups without constantly taking cheap and ugly shots at someone or something. And this latest poutage over yet another sign of the impending apocalypse (lesbians shilling t-shirts for a family department store!) could have gone mostly unnoticed by mainstream culture, as have their wars on Walgreens and Macy's.

But it it was the absolute absurdity of casting the innocuous, likable, almost painfully inoffensive DeGeneres as some sort of radical warrior in the deviant homosexuals' nefarious plan to destroy all things wholesome and American that really made America stop, take notice for just a moment and say, "WTF are these crazy people talking about?! Ellen? They hate Ellen? Really?! Ellen?!"

Now, admittedly, the One Million 40,000 Moms got a little help from GLAAD, who swiftly launched a "Stand Up for Ellen" campaign. This likely drew more attention to the story than the moms could have ever have hoped to draw themselves.

Though GLAAD's ostensible call to action was to persuade JCPenney not to fire Ellen, there may have been an ulterior motive. It's entirely possible that the crew at GLAAD didn't seriously worry about Ellen's continued employment with JCPenney. Ellen would be fine either way: she's rich, she's famous. But GLAAD's messaging picked up on the fact that what the moms were calling for, firing someone for being LGBT, is perfectly legal in most of the United States for those of us who aren't rich and famous already (despite polls showing 90 percent of Americans believe it is illegal). It was a "teachable moment" for America.

We certainly can thank the One Million 40,000 Moms for cooking up a scheme that had enormous amounts of Fail baked right into it from the start. I'm sure JCPenney knew Ellen was a lesbian when they hired her; it isn't a state secret. It's probably a safe bet they actually thought that through before they inked the deal.

Ellen's LGBT activism, like her humor, has always come with soft edges. It's hard to imagine in 2012 what a brave act it was for her to come out in 1997, when she was the star of a major network sitcom. But she was executing the simple act of activism that Harvey Milk tasked LGBT people to do two decades before: "come out." She told Diane Sawyer at the time, "For me, this has been the most freeing experience, because people can't hurt me anymore." And it was that act, by her -- and millions of others -- that inoculated her from this attack. There was a time no major sponsor would touch a gay star. But those days are long gone.

There never was any doubt that JCPenney would brush off the One Million 40,000 Moms. When JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson spoke to CBS News, he called it a "no-brainer" and dismissed that there was even a controversy to be debated. The Moms couldn't have looked smaller or more irrelevant when Johnson said, "[W]e stand squarely behind Ellen as our spokesperson, and that's a great thing. Because she shares the same values that we do in our company. Our company was founded 110 years ago on The Golden Rule, which is about treating people fair and square, just like you would like to be treated yourself."

We can also thank the One Million 40,000 Moms for not being as bright as the average high school bully. Even teenage high school bullies know that if you're going to pick on someone, pick on someone no one likes (because you'll get away with it a lot longer). And America wasn't going to let the One Million 40,000 Moms get away with this.

That is another immense level of Fail the One Million 40,000 Moms really should have seen coming. Just last year the New York Times reported that it isn't just the LGBT community that likes Ellen; America likes her. A lot. A whole lot. The Times described how Warner Brothers and NBC, in mapping out the future of daytime TV in 2010, conducted research into Ellen's market popularity. They knew they had a winner in Ellen, but still, her popularity as measured by a media research firm "startled" them: "The 52-year-old Ms. DeGeneres is seen as relaxed and relatable. Already, she is seen as more likable than Ms. Winfrey, according to the Q Scores Company, which measures consumer preferences." Moreover:

"When the Magid panelists were surveyed about their attitudes toward daytime hosts, Ms. DeGeneres was in a virtual tie with Ms. Winfrey, even though there is a ratings lag, according to Steve Ridge, president of the media strategy group for Magid.

"Ellen already has equity with daytime viewers, which is worth its weight in gold," he said.

Oh, one suspects the folks over at GLAAD might not have worried as much about Ellen's future with JCPenney as about seizing an opportunity to demonstrate to America just how very much the far right Christian conservative base really does hate gay people: "Look, America, you can be Ellen DeGeneres, the queen of nice comedy, and they still hate you and want you to be fired."

And in short while, the LGBT community rushed to Ellen's defense, but not just them. And we can thank the One Million 40,000 Moms for rallying people left, right, and center to the cause of defending Ellen and condemning this sort of divisive, hateful rhetoric.

Very popular radio host Howard Stern described himself as "outraged" at the One Million 40,000 Moms' action and threatened to organize a boycott of JCPenney if they caved. In a 12-minute rant he asked, "What do you want these [gay] people to do? Do you really want Ellen to go away? Do you want her to die? You want a public flogging of this woman?" Co-host Robin Quivers added, "You want her to force herself to be with a man to make you happy?" (That would be yes, yes, yes, and yes, please.)

Not ordinarily known for sensitivity, Stern and Quivers discuss at great length the plight of LGBT teens suffering at the hands of bullies. They mention Tyler Clementi and other teens driven to suicide, and lay the blame on groups like the Moms. Stern takes no prisoners, saying the president should just come out for marriage equality. And then in Stern's typically bombastic style, he goes full-on Godwin on the country's most notorious homophobes:

This Michele Bachman and Rick Santorum, they're the two worst people on the planet. They get up wherever they can, they still feel comfortable getting up in front of an audience in 2012, and fuckin' saying shit about gays, about how they shouldn't be getting married, they feel no qualm about putting out this kind of bigotry. Now, Hitler put this kind of shit out pre-World War II in Germany in beer halls, if the entire beer hall had gotten up and beaten they shit out of Hitler and kicked him in the face, you wouldn't have had World War II, and you wouldn't have had any problems.

He goes on to say they should be "drummed out of the country," "spat upon," and "ignored, shunned, and treated as lunatics."

This language is unlikely to be adopted by any LGBT rights groups, like Human Rights Campaign, anytime soon -- and for good reason. But we can thank the One Million 40,000 Moms for prompting our straight ally Howard Stern for saying what responsible LGBT activists would not.

From the right, we can thank the One Million 40,000 Moms for recruiting the most unlikely of LGBT allies to come to DeGeneres' defense: Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. Bill's segment begins with a snarky introduction that draws America's attention to the inherent cowardice of the anti-gay movement, their reluctance to come out of the closet with their hate: "Now we tried to get one of the One Million Moms to come on the Factor tonight. But we could not. Apparently, all the million moms are busy tonight." Their cowardice was also reflected in their decision to delete their Facebook posting when the story became widely known. The group has made no media appearances to defend themselves or their actions.

O'Reilly chats instead with Fox News contributor Sandy Rios, who attempts to defend the One Million 40,000 Moms. But Bill-O isn't really having it; it's a very combative session, and Rios comes out looking pretty bad. Perhaps it's a libertarian streak in him, but his objections are placed in the Republican frame of free-market captialism; he essentially argues that JCPenney has the right to hire whoever they want, and the One Million 40,000 Moms are conducting a "witch hunt," and worse, "McCarthyism." He asks, "What is the difference between the McCarthy era of the '50s and the One Million Moms saying, 'Hey, JCPenney and all you other stores, don't you hire any gay people. Don't you dare'? What is the difference?" One Million 40,000 Moms? Something went really wrong with your plan when you prompted Fox News' highest-rated commentator to stick up for a lesbian and compare you to one of the most notorious names in American history, Senator Joe McCarthy.

Again, better O'Reilly should call these anti-gay bigots "McCartheyesque witch hunters" than the LGBT community. And we can thank the One Million 40,000 Moms for prompting him to do so. Surely a few Fox News viewers' heads exploded that evening.

The LGBT community themselves could never have planned an action that would prompt personalities as disparate as Howard Stern, Bill O'Reilly, Ron Johnson, and all the other voices, big and small, to chime in and express disgust and outrage at anti-gay bigotry and condemn yet another overreach of the religious right.

We can thank the One Million 40K Moms for that.

For too long the Christian right has presumed to speak on behalf of people who have "values." And for too long, too many people took them at their word that they represented "good Christian values." We can thank the One Million 40,000 Moms for tearing off the mask off that façade before a very wide audience.

Under the guise of "religious freedom," they assert their right to say God hates gays. However, in the case of Ellen, God seems to be smiling on her. She has a loving and lovely wife, extraordinary talent, a long, very distinguished career, and great wealth, and she has endeared herself to millions. So, since God has, thus far, failed to act on his scorn for Ellen, the One Million 40,000 Moms have taken it upon themselves to act on his behalf. They want to be sure God's punishment is meted out in this lifetime, where they can watch.

We can thank the One Million 40,000 Moms for kickstarting another round of conversation about what our "values" are. Ellen has long demonstrated in her career that "meanness" is not among hers. In an era that has increasingly rewarded comedians that belittle, degrade, and ridicule, Ellen never went there. Her brand is as a "nice" comedian, someone who makes you laugh but never at the expense of others. If Ellen takes a shot at anyone, it is at herself, a humble, self-effacing teasing that says, despite her fortune and fame, "I'm really not special."

Which makes her the perfect foil for that cabal of Americans who really do think they are special. The One Million 40,000 Moms think they are the ones who get to decide the best values for JCPenney, the country, and everyone.

Ellen herself eventually spoke on the controversy, and she got the opportunity to address the One Million 40,000 Mom's condemnation of her "values." She said, "Here are the values I stand for: I stand for honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you'd want to be treated, and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values. That's what I stand for." The studio audience cheered uproariously in agreement. They know she not only speaks but lives those values, like the time, just the previous week, when her show arranged a $100,000 donation to a struggling Pennsylvania school.

It's certainly presumptuous to say anyone "speaks for the LGBT community." But in that moment, I think it's safe to say that Ellen spoke very well for the LGBT community, and she made us, and every kind-hearted American, proud.

And the One Million 40,000 Moms? We can thank them for creating a national jump-the-shark moment for the protectors of "traditional values."

Someone Like You, Newt

During a commercial break at the 2012 Grammy Awards, pop singer Adele sang a new version of her Grammy-winning hit "Someone Like You" in honor of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dear Venango County: This Is What Moral and Political Leadership Looks Like

Bruised Ribs, Black Eyes and Buried Bodies: Anti-Gay Words Have Power

Real Men and Pink Suits

by Charles M. Blow for the New York Times:

Twitter claims another casualty.

This week, Roland Martin, a bombastic cultural and political commentator was suspended by CNN from his role as a political analyst on the network for Twitter messages published during the Super Bowl.

One message read: “If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him! #superbowl.” Another read: “Who the hell was that New England Patriot they just showed in a head to toe pink suit? Oh, he needs a visit from #teamwhipdatass.”

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said the messages advocated “violence against gay people” and asked CNN to fire Martin. CNN called the messages “regrettable and offensive” and suspended him “for the time being.” Martin issued an apology in which he said that he was just “joking about smacking someone.”

There is vigorous debate online about what Martin meant, about GLAAD’s reaction, and about CNN’s policy on who gets suspended or fired and for what kinds of statements.

Martin and GLAAD have signaled, over Twitter, that they plan to meet and discuss the matter. Maybe something positive will emerge from that.

But whether it does or not, I don’t want to let this incident pass without using it as a “teachable moment” for us all about the dangerous way in which we define manhood and masculinity. At the very least, Martin’s comments are corrosive on this front.

I follow Martin on Twitter. I know that he likes to joke and tease. I have even joked with him. So I can believe that, in his mind, he may have thought that these were just harmless jokes in which the violence was fictional and funny.

But in the real world — where bullying and violence against gays and lesbians, or even those assumed to be so, is all too real — “jokes” like his hold no humor. There are too many bruised ribs and black eyes and buried bodies for the targets of this violence to just lighten up and laugh.

We all have to understand that effects can operate independent of intent, that subconscious biases can move counter to conscious egalitarianism, and that malice need not be present within the individual to fuel the maliciousness of the society at large.

(This is not to say that Martin has been egalitarian on this front. In fact, a widely cited 2006 post on his Web site suggests otherwise. In it, he criticized the Rev. Al Sharpton for appealing to black churches “to become more accepting and embracing of homosexuality.” Martin wrote that gays and lesbians “are engaged, in the eyes of the church, in sinful behavior.” Furthermore, he said, “My wife, an ordained Baptist minister for 20 years, has counseled many men and women to walk away from the gay lifestyle, and to live a chaste life.” And he compared homosexuals to adulterers, disobedient children, alcoholics and thieves.)

Words have power. And power recklessly exerted has consequences. It’s not about being politically correct. It’s about being sensitive to the plight of those being singled out. We can’t ask the people taking the punches to also take the jokes.

And it’s about understanding that masculinity is wide enough and deep enough for all of us to fit in it. But society in general, and male culture in particular, is constantly working to render it narrow and shallow. We have shaved the idea of manhood down to an unrealistic definition that few can fit in it with the whole of who they are, not without severe constriction or self-denial.

The man that we mythologize in the backs of our minds is a cultural concoction, an unattainable ideal, a perfect specimen of muscles and fearlessness and daring. Square-jawed and well-rounded. Potent and passionate. Sensitive but not sentimental. And, above all else, unwaveringly heterosexual and without even a hint of softness.

A vast majority of men will never be able to be all these things all the time, but they shouldn’t be made to feel less than a man because of it.

And this narrowed manhood ideal has a truly damaging effect on boys.

In “Boy Culture: an Encyclopedia,” which was published in 2010, the editors point out: “Boys are men in training. As such, most strive to enact and replicate hegemonic masculinity so that they achieve status among male peers, and pre-emptively guard against accusations or perceptions that their masculinity is deficient.” The editors went on to quote a 2001 study in which a boy who does not measure up to dominant prescriptions of masculinity is “likely to be punished by his peers in ways which seek to strip him of his mantle of masculinity.”

In fact, a 2005 report entitled “From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America,” which was commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, found that a third of all teens said that they are often bullied, called names or harassed at their school because they are, or people think that they are, gay, lesbian or bisexual.

We have created this culture, and we can undo it.

Start with this fact: The truest measure of a man, indeed of a person, is not whom he lies down with but what he stands up for. If we must be judged, let it be in this way. And when we fall short, as we sometimes will, because humanity is fallible, let us greet each other with compassion and encouragement rather than ridicule and resentment.

Whatever was in Martin’s heart, what was in his Twitter messages wasn’t helpful. They may not lead directly to intimidation or violence, but they may add to a stream of negativity that feeds a culture in which intimidation and violence by some twisted minds is all too real. I don’t believe that Martin wanted that.

Let’s show the whole of mankind that men can indeed be kind, even to other men who dare to wear pink suits.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

LGBTI Rights: The Rhetoric and The Reality

In right-wing America, dominated by hate groups that pump out demonizing propaganda, like the Venango County-based American Family Association of Pennsylvania, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are an enemy to be feared, criminalized, exterminated.

The reality, however, is quite different, as summed up in this description of the Open Society Institute's LGBTI Rights Initiative:

Throughout the world lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people are the target of human rights violations. They are killed, tortured, raped, and sexually assaulted simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. More than 80 countries consider consensual, adult homosexual relationships criminal behavior. Penalties include lengthy jail sentences, torture, and forced psychiatric treatment. In at least seven countries, individuals can be executed for homosexual conduct.

Even in countries that do not criminalize homosexual conduct, hate violence remains prevalent. Other serious human rights violations against LGBTI people include invasions of privacy; arbitrary detention; and discrimination in employment, family rights, housing, education, and health care. Additionally, when LGBTI people try to organize to assert recognition of their basic human rights, their rights to freedom of expression and assembly are frequently denied, and they often face both government and nonstate violence and harassment.

Despite these challenges and the pervasive discrimination that exists, more and more LGBTI people are engaging in a vibrant and growing global social movement to advance their rights. However, while these rights groups now exist in every region of the world, they continue to face major obstacles including social stigma, lack of recognition by broader civil society communities, and limited resources.

The Open Society Foundations seek to empower LGBTI communities to promote and defend their human rights. The LGBTI Rights Initiative will provide funding to local rights groups and regional networks in the developing world. It will also support global advocacy initiatives that advance LGBTI rights and complement efforts at the local level.

Why Young People Are Fleeing Conservative Evangelicalism

And Why Change Is Possible, Even in Venango County, Pa., Home Base for the Viciously Anti-Gay Hate Group Known as the American Family Association of Pennsylvania!

By Eleanor J. Bader on Alternet:

The results of a five-year study of the Millennial Generation—people born between 1982 and 1993—are in. Thanks to the Barna Group, a 28-year-old, California-based, Christian research firm, we now know that conservative evangelical churches are losing formerly–affiliated “young creatives:” Actors, artists, biologists, designers, mathematicians, medical students, musicians, and writers.

Some leave because they oppose the church’s doctrinal stance. Others are turned off by its hostility to science, and still others reject the limitations placed on permissible sexual activity. The report cites the tension felt by young adults who find it difficult—if not impossible—to remain “sexually pure,” especially since most heterosexuals don’t marry until their mid-to-late twenties. “Young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers,” Barna concludes. What’s more, the report admits that Millennials see the evangelical church as an exclusive club, open only to those who adhere to every rule. This runs counter to values that rank high on the Millennial playlist—among them, open-mindedness, tolerance, and support for diversity.

These findings, of course, don’t necessarily mean that young evangelicals are becoming progressively engaged, but they do suggest that an opening exists for prochoice, feminist, and pro-LGBTQ activists to touch the hearts and minds of Generation Y. Angela Ferrell-Zabala, director of Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, a project of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, says that former Evangelicals are hungry for information about alternative faith and lifestyle options. “Technology has given Millennials access to philosophies and people from all over, and they tend to think in ways that are bigger than where they came from or how they were raised,“ she begins.” At the same time, “young folks are not necessarily throwing in the towel on their faith. They’re working to reconcile the pieces of their lives, asking, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is my place in the world?’“

The relationship between seemingly disparate issues, or intersectionality, holds great appeal to Millennials, Ferrell Zabala continues. “When we speak about reproductive justice we’re speaking about the whole person--being able to access jobs and higher education as well as contraception. When we talk about voter suppression or immigration, the conversation leads back to the choices a person is able to make.” And regardless of whether Millennials ultimately join a mainline Protestant church or live as atheists or agnostics, Ferrell-Zabala is adamant that the desire to respect others and be respected is of utmost importance to them.

That said, it is often difficult for ex-evangelicals to break away from family and childhood friends. Carol Hornbeck, an Indianapolis-based Marriage and Family therapist, stresses that when an individual’s worldview begins to unravel they typically feel unsettled. “People’s ideas usually begin to shift when a personal experience runs counter to their expectations,” she begins. “This may be because they’ve learned that a trusted friend or colleague is gay or has had an abortion. As long as the issue is at arm’s length, they can hate it, but it changes the paradigm when it’s your next-door neighbor or your friend’s sister. When the person is one step removed from your inner circle, it’s hard to be judgmental or condemning.”

But it may still be unsettling. “If the young person continues to want a connection to Christianity, he or she will need to find a church that welcomes uncertainty,” Hornbeck concludes.

Writer/activist Brittany Shoot grew up in Anderson, Indiana, the headquarters of the Church of God, in a deeply religious evangelical family. Her move away from the church was gradual. “When I was a child I was told that someone I cared about was HIV-positive. I somehow learned that he was gay and had contracted the virus through sex. There was such shame around the diagnosis. I knew that I shouldn’t tell anyone he was sick because they might shun me. Even as a kid I thought, ‘something is wrong here.’” Later, when Shoot was in high school, a friend disclosed his homosexuality. “You didn’t come out in the Christian culture we lived in,” she says. “He didn’t feel safe; we also knew that no church in the area would love and protect him.”

Now 29, Shoot no longer attends services but frequently writes about religion, feminism, and sexuality. Although she is critical of evangelism, she is also protective of people of faith. “In progressive circles it’s common to trash talk religion. This is damaging,” she says. “Most people who’ve moved away from evangelism still have family members who are religious. Those outside the community need to be sensitive and not make churchgoing people their target.”

Activists should also be open to questions about sexuality, Shoot says. “Despite Internet access, kids raised in the church were told, ‘don’t do anything until marriage,’ so when they finally get to a place where they can talk freely, they need it to be judgment free. Don’t hate on the girl who doesn’t know what a vibrator is or who knows next to nothing about reproduction.”

Writer/activist Mandy Van Deven agrees. Van Deven grew up in small-town Georgia where schools taught nothing but abstinence. “When you grow up in communities where sex outside of marriage is stigmatized, you see the effects of not having access to comprehensive sex education or reproductive health services—high rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections.”

While outsiders can certainly organize in these locales, Van Deven puts the onus for outreach on former evangelicals. “It’s helpful for the people who have already started to sway to the reproductive justice end of the continuum to preach to those who haven’t yet made the leap,” she says. “They know better than others what it takes to reconcile a more liberal ideology with the conservatism of their upbringing.”

Whether or not former evangelicals will do this remains uncertain. Nonetheless, the Barna report implies that once Millennials abandon evangelism, the barriers to progressive change can begin to crumble. Stay tuned for developments.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, freelance writer and activist from Brooklyn, NY. She is also the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, St. Martin's Press, 2001.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Today We Are More American"

by Liz Goodwin for The Lookout on Yahoo:

Court Overturns Prop. 8 in California, Says State Can’t Ban Gay Marriage

The 9th Circuit Court in California struck down the state's voter-passed ban on gay marriage, ruling 2-1 that it violates the rights of gay Californians.

"Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples," Judge Reinhardt wrote in the decision. The Court concludes that the law violates the 14th Amendment rights of gay couples to equal protection under the law. Gay marriage will still not be allowed in the state, leaving time for Prop 8 defenders to challenge the decision.

The Circuit Court backed up District Judge Judge Vaughn Walker, who ruled in August of 2010 that the state of California has no "rational basis" to single out gay men and women as ineligible for marriage. The group fighting for Proposition 8, which passed in 2008 after thousands of gay couples had already married, appealed Walker's decision arguing that it should be vacated because Walker is gay and has a long-time same-sex partner. The 9th Circuit Court judges denied this motion.

Walker's sweeping 2010 decision was called a "grand slam" by gay rights advocates, who hoped it would convince the Supreme Court to decide that states cannot outlaw gay marriage. But Reinhardt was explicit in his decision that his court's decision is "narrow" and only relates to California, not to the entire nation. In California, gay people had the right to marry for several months before it was taken away from them by a majority of voters. This amounts to a violation of equal protection because a right was specifically taken away from a minority group, Reinhardt writes. But this argument would not apply to gay people in other states. "It's a strong decision but it is not the ringing endorsement of broader marriage equality that some might have hoped for," Hunter College professor and gay rights advocate Kenneth Sherrill said.

Ted Olson, the former U.S. Solicitor General under George W. Bush who represents the plaintiffs, said at a press conference that the decision is the first step to ending discrimination. "Today we are more American because of this decision," he said.

The pro-Prop. 8 camp has said it will appeal the decision. The group can now ask that all 11 members of the 9th Circuit hear their case, instead of just the panel of three who decided against them on Tuesday. "Today's ruling finally clears the field for an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, where we are confident we will be victorious," the Save Prop 8 campaign said in a statement.

The Freedom to Marry

from The Advocate:

When two of the most prominent spokesmen for their sides of the marriage equality fight sat down on Monday for a 10-minute debate over what's happening in New Jersey, you knew it would be worth watching.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, set about dismantling the "torrent of talking points" that Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, unloaded during the televised discussion on Up Close With Diana Williams.

When Brown insisted gay rights activists in New Jersey were trying to "redefine marriage" with a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, Wolfson shot back that, "Marriage is not defined by who is denied it."

And when Brown claimed that "democracy doesn't count here" because Wolfson opposes a proposal by Gov. Chris Christie to put same-sex marriage up for a statewide debate and vote, it was answered with a civics lesson on American values:

"I disagree with Mr. Brown's explanation of how the United States is supposed to function," Wolfson said on New York's WABC-7. "Here in the United States, we actually believe there are basic rights, basic freedoms, that are protected for everybody under the Constitution. And it's exactly what we don't do is have a big debate about whether you should have freedom of religion, or whether I should have freedom of speech, or whether you should have the freedom to marry. We are all Americans, and we are all entitled to basic rights and protections. And we don't put that up to an up-or-down vote."

Saturday, February 4, 2012

One Town's War on Gay Teens

This article from Rolling Stone magazine provides a bone-chillingly accurate depiction of life for too many LGBTQ youth in towns large and small across the country.

It also serves as a warning to adults in Venango County who have been cowed into deafening silence on anti-LGBT bullying, harassment, and discrimination in local school districts, particularly the Franklin Area School District, by Diane Gramley (left) and the American Family Association of Pennsylvania, an evil and viciously anti-gay hate group that calls Venango County its home.

If this does not serve as a wake-up call, it's hard to imagine what will.

One Town's War on Gay Teens
In Michele Bachmann's home district, evangelicals have created an extreme anti-gay climate. After a rash of suicides, the kids are fighting back.

by Sabrina Rubin Erdely for Rolling Stone:

Every morning, Brittany Geldert stepped off the bus and bolted through the double doors of Fred Moore Middle School, her nerves already on high alert, bracing for the inevitable.


Pretending not to hear, Brittany would walk briskly to her locker, past the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who loitered in menacing packs.


Like many 13-year-olds, Brittany knew seventh grade was a living hell. But what she didn't know was that she was caught in the crossfire of a culture war being waged by local evangelicals inspired by their high-profile congressional representative Michele Bachmann, who graduated from Anoka High School and, until recently, was a member of one of the most conservative churches in the area. When Christian activists who considered gays an abomination forced a measure through the school board forbidding the discussion of homosexuality in the district's public schools, kids like Brittany were unknowingly thrust into the heart of a clash that was about to become intertwined with tragedy.

(Michele Bachmann's Holy War)

Brittany didn't look like most girls in blue-collar Anoka, Minnesota, a former logging town on the Rum River, a conventional place that takes pride in its annual Halloween parade – it bills itself the "Halloween Capital of the World." Brittany was a low-voiced, stocky girl who dressed in baggy jeans and her dad's Marine Corps sweatshirts. By age 13, she'd been taunted as a "cunt" and "cock muncher" long before such words had made much sense. When she told administrators about the abuse, they were strangely unresponsive, even though bullying was a subject often discussed in school-board meetings. The district maintained a comprehensive five-page anti-bullying policy, and held diversity trainings on racial and gender sensitivity. Yet when it came to Brittany's harassment, school officials usually told her to ignore it, always glossing over the sexually charged insults. Like the time Brittany had complained about being called a "fat dyke": The school's principal, looking pained, had suggested Brittany prepare herself for the next round of teasing with snappy comebacks – "I can lose the weight, but you're stuck with your ugly face" – never acknowledging she had been called a "dyke." As though that part was OK. As though the fact that Brittany was bisexual made her fair game.

So maybe she was a fat dyke, Brittany thought morosely; maybe she deserved the teasing. She would have been shocked to know the truth behind the adults' inaction: No one would come to her aid for fear of violating the districtwide policy requiring school personnel to stay "neutral" on issues of homosexuality. All Brittany knew was that she was on her own, vulnerable and ashamed, and needed to find her best friend, Samantha, fast.

Like Brittany, eighth-grader Samantha Johnson was a husky tomboy too, outgoing with a big smile and a silly streak to match Brittany's own. Sam was also bullied for her look – short hair, dark clothing, lack of girly affect – but she merrily shrugged off the abuse. When Sam's volleyball teammates' taunting got rough – barring her from the girls' locker room, yelling, "You're a guy!" – she simply stopped going to practice. After school, Sam would encourage Brittany to join her in privately mocking their tormentors, and the girls would parade around Brittany's house speaking in Valley Girl squeals, wearing bras over their shirts, collapsing in laughter. They'd become as close as sisters in the year since Sam had moved from North Dakota following her parents' divorce, and Sam had quickly become Brittany's beacon. Sam was even helping to start a Gay Straight Alliance club, as a safe haven for misfits like them, although the club's progress was stalled by the school district that, among other things, was queasy about the club's flagrant use of the word "gay." Religious conservatives have called GSAs "sex clubs," and sure enough, the local religious right loudly objected to them. "This is an assault on moral standards," read one recent letter to the community paper. "Let's stop this dangerous nonsense before it's too late and more young boys and girls are encouraged to 'come out' and practice their 'gayness' right in their own school's homosexual club."

Brittany admired Sam's courage, and tried to mimic her insouciance and stoicism. So Brittany was bewildered when one day in November 2009, on the school bus home, a sixth-grade boy slid in next to her and asked quaveringly, "Did you hear Sam said she's going to kill herself?"

Brittany considered the question. No way. How many times had she seen Sam roll her eyes and announce, "Ugh, I'm gonna kill myself" over some insignificant thing? "Don't worry, you'll see Sam tomorrow," Brittany reassured her friend as they got off the bus. But as she trudged toward her house, she couldn't stop turning it over in her mind. A boy in the district had already committed suicide just days into the school year – TJ Hayes, a 16-year-old at Blaine High School – so she knew such things were possible. But Sam Johnson? Brittany tried to keep the thought at bay. Finally, she confided in her mother.

"This isn't something you kid about, Brittany," her mom scolded, snatching the kitchen cordless and taking it down the hall to call the Johnsons. A minute later she returned, her face a mask of shock and terror. "Honey, I'm so sorry. We're too late," she said tonelessly as Brittany's knees buckled; 13-year-old Sam had climbed into the bathtub after school and shot herself in the mouth with her own hunting rifle. No one at school had seen her suicide coming.

No one saw the rest of them coming, either.

Sam's death lit the fuse of a suicide epidemic that would take the lives of nine local students in under two years, a rate so high that child psychologist Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the Minnesota-based Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, declared the Anoka-Hennepin school district the site of a "suicide cluster," adding that the crisis might hold an element of contagion; suicidal thoughts had become catchy, like a lethal virus. "Here you had a large number of suicides that are really closely connected, all within one school district, in a small amount of time," explains Reidenberg. "Kids started to feel that the normal response to stress was to take your life."

There was another common thread: Four of the nine dead were either gay or perceived as such by other kids, and were reportedly bullied. The tragedies come at a national moment when bullying is on everyone's lips, and a devastating number of gay teens across the country are in the news for killing themselves. Suicide rates among gay and lesbian kids are frighteningly high, with attempt rates four times that of their straight counterparts; studies show that one-third of all gay youth have attempted suicide at some point (versus 13 percent of hetero kids), and that internalized homophobia contributes to suicide risk.

Against this supercharged backdrop, the Anoka-Hennepin school district finds itself in the spotlight not only for the sheer number of suicides but because it is accused of having contributed to the death toll by cultivating an extreme anti-gay climate. "LGBTQ students don't feel safe at school," says Anoka Middle School for the Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek, using the acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning. "They're made to feel ashamed of who they are. They're bullied. And there's no one to stand up for them, because teachers are afraid of being fired."

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have filed a lawsuit on behalf of five students, alleging the school district's policies on gays are not only discriminatory, but also foster an environment of unchecked anti-gay bullying. The Department of Justice has begun a civil rights investigation as well. The Anoka-Hennepin school district declined to comment on any specific incidences but denies any discrimination, maintaining that its broad anti-bullying policy is meant to protect all students. "We are not a homophobic district, and to be vilified for this is very frustrating," says superintendent Dennis Carlson, who blames right-wingers and gay activists for choosing the area as a battleground, describing the district as the victim in this fracas. "People are using kids as pawns in this political debate," he says. "I find that abhorrent."

Ironically, that's exactly the charge that students, teachers and grieving parents are hurling at the school district. "Samantha got caught up in a political battle that I didn't know about," says Sam Johnson's mother, Michele. "And you know whose fault it is? The people who make their living off of saying they're going to take care of our kids."

Located a half-hour north of Minneapolis, the 13 sprawling towns that make up the Anoka-Hennepin school district – Minnesota's largest, with 39,000 kids – seems an unlikely place for such a battle. It's a soothingly flat, 172-square-mile expanse sliced by the Mississippi River, where woodlands abruptly give way to strip malls and then fall back to placid woodlands again, and the landscape is dotted with churches. The district, which spans two counties, is so geographically huge as to be a sort of cross section of America itself, with its small minority population clustered at its southern tip, white suburban sprawl in its center and sparsely populated farmland in the north. It also offers a snapshot of America in economic crisis: In an area where just 20 percent of adults have college educations, the recession hit hard, and foreclosures and unemployment have become the norm.

For years, the area has also bred a deep strain of religious conservatism. At churches like First Baptist Church of Anoka, parishioners believe that homosexuality is a form of mental illness caused by family dysfunction, childhood trauma and exposure to pornography – a perversion curable through intensive therapy. It's a point of view shared by their congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who has called homosexuality a form of "sexual dysfunction" that amounts to "personal enslavement." In 1993, Bachmann, a proponent of school prayer and creationism, co-founded the New Heights charter school in the town of Stillwater, only to flee the board amid an outcry that the school was promoting a religious curriculum. Bachmann also is affiliated with the ultraright Minnesota Family Council, headlining a fundraiser for them last spring alongside Newt Gingrich.

Though Bachmann doesn't live within Anoka-Hennepin's boundaries anymore, she has a dowdier doppelgänger there in the form of anti-gay crusader Barb Anderson. A bespectacled grandmother with lemony-blond hair she curls in severely toward her face, Anderson is a former district Spanish teacher and a longtime researcher for the MFC who's been fighting gay influence in local schools for two decades, ever since she discovered that her nephew's health class was teaching homosexuality as normal. "That really got me on a journey," she said in a radio interview. When the Anoka-Hennepin district's sex-ed curriculum came up for re-evaluation in 1994, Anderson and four like-minded parents managed to get on the review committee. They argued that any form of gay tolerance in school is actually an insidious means of promoting homosexuality – that openly discussing the matter would encourage kids to try it, turning straight kids gay.

"Open your eyes, people," Anderson recently wrote to the local newspaper. "What if a 15-year-old is seduced into homosexual behavior and then contracts AIDS?" Her agenda mimics that of Focus on the Family, the national evangelical Christian organization founded by James Dobson; Family Councils, though technically independent of Focus on the Family, work on the state level to accomplish Focus' core goals, including promoting prayer in public spaces, "defending marriage" by lobbying for anti-gay legislation, and fighting gay tolerance in public schools under the guise of preserving parental authority – reasoning that government-mandated acceptance of gays undermines the traditional values taught in Christian homes.

At the close of the seven-month-long sex-ed review, Anderson and her colleagues wrote a memo to the Anoka-Hennepin school board, concluding, "The majority of parents do not wish to have there [sic] children taught that the gay lifestyle is a normal acceptable alternative." Surprisingly, the six-member board voted to adopt the measure by a four-to-two majority, even borrowing the memo's language to fashion the resulting districtwide policy, which pronounced that within the health curriculum, "homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle."

The policy became unofficially known as "No Homo Promo" and passed unannounced to parents and unpublished in the policy handbooks; most teachers were told about it by their principals. Teachers say it had a chilling effect and they became concerned about mentioning gays in any context. Discussion of homosexuality gradually disappeared from classes. "If you can't talk about it in any context, which is how teachers interpret district policies, kids internalize that to mean that being gay must be so shameful and wrong," says Anoka High School teacher Mary Jo Merrick-Lockett. "And that has created a climate of fear and repression and harassment."

Suicide is a complex phenomenon; there's never any one pat reason to explain why anyone kills themselves. Michele Johnson acknowledges that her daughter, Sam, likely had many issues that combined to push her over the edge, but feels strongly that bullying was one of those factors. "I'm sure that Samantha's decision to take her life had a lot to do with what was going on in school," Johnson says tearfully. "I'm sure things weren't perfect in other areas, but nothing was as bad as what was going on in that school."

The summer before Justin Aaberg started at Anoka High School, his mother asked, "So, are you sure you're gay?"

Justin, a slim, shy 14-year-old who carefully swept his blond bangs to the side like his namesake, Bieber, studied his mom's face. "I'm pretty sure I'm gay," he answered softly, then abruptly changed his mind. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait!" he shouted – out of character for the quiet boy – "I'm positive. I am gay," Justin proclaimed.

"OK." Tammy Aaberg nodded. "So. Just because you can't get him pregnant doesn't mean you don't use protection." She proceeded to lecture her son about safe sex while Justin turned bright red and beamed. Embarrassing as it was to get a sex talk from his mom, her easy affirmation of Justin's orientation seemed like a promising sign as he stood on the brink of high school. Justin was more than ready to turn the corner on the horrors of middle school – especially on his just-finished eighth-grade year, when Justin had come out as gay to a few friends, yet word had instantly spread, making him a pariah. In the hall one day, a popular jock had grabbed Justin by the balls and squeezed, sneering, "You like that, don't you?" That assault had so humiliated and frightened Justin that he'd burst out crying, but he never reported any of his harassment. The last thing he wanted to do was draw more attention to his sexuality. Plus, he didn't want his parents worrying. Justin's folks were already overwhelmed with stresses of their own: Swamped with debt, they'd declared bankruptcy and lost their home to foreclosure. So Justin had kept his problems to himself; he felt hopeful things would get better in high school, where kids were bound to be more mature.

"There'll always be bullies," he reasoned to a friend. "But we'll be older, so maybe they'll be better about it."

But Justin's start of ninth grade in 2009 began as a disappointment. In the halls of Anoka High School, he was bullied, called a "faggot" and shoved into lockers. Then, a couple of months into the school year, he was stunned to hear about Sam Johnson's suicide. Though Justin hadn't known her personally, he'd known of her, and of the way she'd been taunted for being butch. Justin tried to keep smiling. In his room at home, Justin made a brightly colored paper banner and taped it to his wall: "Love the life you live, live the life you love."

Brittany couldn't stop thinking about Sam, a reel that looped endlessly in her head. Sam dancing to one of their favorite metal bands, Drowning Pool. Sam dead in the tub with the back of her head blown off. Sam's ashes in an urn, her coffin empty at her wake.

She couldn't sleep. Her grades fell. Her daily harassment at school continued, but now without her best friend to help her cope. At home, Brittany played the good daughter, cleaning the house and performing her brother's chores unasked, all in a valiant attempt to maintain some family peace after the bank took their house, and both parents lost their jobs in quick succession. Then Brittany started cutting herself.

Just 11 days after Sam's death, on November 22nd, 2009, came yet another suicide: a Blaine High School student, 15-year-old Aaron Jurek – the district's third suicide in just three months. After Christmas break, an Andover High School senior, Nick Lockwood, became the district's fourth casualty: a boy who had never publicly identified as gay, but had nonetheless been teased as such. Suicide number five followed, that of recent Blaine High School grad Kevin Buchman, who had no apparent LGBT connection. Before the end of the school year there would be a sixth suicide, 15-year-old July Barrick of Champlin Park High School, who was also bullied for being perceived as gay, and who'd complained to her mother that classmates had started an "I Hate July Barrick" Facebook page. As mental-health counselors were hurriedly dispatched to each affected school, the district was blanketed by a sense of mourning and frightened shock.

"It has taken a collective toll," says Northdale Middle School psychologist Colleen Cashen. "Everyone has just been reeling – students, teachers. There's been just a profound sadness."

In the wake of Sam's suicide, Brittany couldn't seem to stop crying. She'd disappear for hours with her cellphone turned off, taking long walks by Elk Creek or hiding in a nearby cemetery. "Promise me you won't take your life," her father begged. "Promise you'll come to me before anything." Brittany couldn't promise. In March 2010, she was hospitalized for a week.

In April, Justin came home from school and found his mother at the top of the stairs, tending to the saltwater fish tank. "Mom," he said tentatively, "a kid told me at school today I'm gonna go to hell because I'm gay."

"That's not true. God loves everybody," his mom replied. "That kid needs to go home and read his Bible."

Justin shrugged and smiled, then retreated to his room. It had been a hard day: the annual "Day of Truth" had been held at school, an evangelical event then-sponsored by the anti-gay ministry Exodus International, whose mission is to usher gays back to wholeness and "victory in Christ" by converting them to heterosexuality. Day of Truth has been a font of controversy that has bounced in and out of the courts; its legality was affirmed last March, when a federal appeals court ruled that two Naperville, Illinois, high school students' Day of Truth T-shirts reading BE HAPPY, NOT GAY were protected by their First Amendment rights. (However, the event, now sponsored by Focus on the Family, has been renamed "Day of Dialogue.") Local churches had been touting the program, and students had obediently shown up at Anoka High School wearing day of truth T-shirts, preaching in the halls about the sin of homosexuality. Justin wanted to brush them off, but was troubled by their proselytizing. Secretly, he had begun to worry that maybe he was an abomination, like the Bible said.

Justin was trying not to care what anyone else thought and be true to himself. He surrounded himself with a bevy of girlfriends who cherished him for his sweet, sunny disposition. He played cello in the orchestra, practicing for hours up in his room, where he'd covered one wall with mementos of good times: taped-up movie-ticket stubs, gum wrappers, Christmas cards. Justin had even briefly dated a boy, a 17-year-old he'd met online who attended a nearby high school. The relationship didn't end well: The boyfriend had cheated on him, and compounding Justin's hurt, his coming out had earned Justin hateful Facebook messages from other teens – some from those he didn't even know – telling him he was a fag who didn't deserve to live. At least his freshman year of high school was nearly done. Only three more years to go. He wondered how he would ever make it.

Though some members of the Anoka-Hennepin school board had been appalled by "No Homo Promo" since its passage 14 years earlier, it wasn't until 2009 that the board brought the policy up for review, after a student named Alex Merritt filed a complaint with the state Department of Human Rights claiming he'd been gay-bashed by two of his teachers during high school; according to the complaint, the teachers had announced in front of students that Merritt, who is straight, "swings both ways," speculated that he wore women's clothing, and compared him to a Wisconsin man who had sex with a dead deer. The teachers denied the charges, but the school district paid $25,000 to settle the complaint. Soon representatives from the gay-rights group Outfront Minnesota began making inquiries at board meetings. "No Homo Promo" was starting to look like a risky policy.

"The lawyers said, 'You'd have a hard time defending it,'" remembers Scott Wenzel, a board member who for years had pushed colleagues to abolish the policy. "It was clear that it might risk a lawsuit." But while board members agreed that such an overtly anti-gay policy needed to be scrapped, they also agreed that some guideline was needed to not only help teachers navigate a topic as inflammatory as homosexuality but to appease the area's evangelical activists. So the legal department wrote a broad new course of action with language intended to give a respectful nod to the topic – but also an equal measure of respect to the anti-gay contingent. The new policy was circulated to staff without a word of introduction. (Parents were not alerted at all, unless they happened to be diligent online readers of board-meeting minutes.) And while "No Homo Promo" had at least been clear, the new Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy mostly just puzzled the teachers who'd be responsible for enforcing it. It read:

Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student-led discussions.

It quickly became known as the "neutrality" policy. No one could figure out what it meant. "What is 'neutral'?" asks instructor Merrick-Lockett. "Teachers are constantly asking, 'Do you think I could get in trouble for this? Could I get fired for that?' So a lot of teachers sidestep it. They don't want to deal with district backlash."

English teachers worried they'd get in trouble for teaching books by gay authors, or books with gay characters. Social-studies teachers wondered what to do if a student wrote a term paper on gay rights, or how to address current events like "don't ask, don't tell." Health teachers were faced with the impossible task of teaching about AIDS awareness and safe sex without mentioning homosexuality. Many teachers decided once again to keep gay issues from the curriculum altogether, rather than chance saying something that could be interpreted as anything other than neutral.

"There has been widespread confusion," says Anoka-Hennepin teachers' union president Julie Blaha. "You ask five people how to interpret the policy and you get five different answers." Silenced by fear, gay teachers became more vigilant than ever to avoid mention of their personal lives, and in closeting themselves, they inadvertently ensured that many students had no real-life gay role models. "I was told by teachers, 'You have to be careful, it's really not safe for you to come out,'" says the psychologist Cashen, who is a lesbian. "I felt like I couldn't have a picture of my family on my desk." When teacher Jefferson Fietek was outed in the community paper, which referred to him as an "open homosexual," he didn't feel he could address the situation with his students even as they passed the newspaper around, tittering. When one finally asked, "Are you gay?" he panicked. "I was terrified to answer that question," Fietek says. "I thought, 'If I violate the policy, what's going to happen to me?'"

The silence of adults was deafening. At Blaine High School, says alum Justin Anderson, "I would hear people calling people 'fags' all the time without it being addressed. Teachers just didn't respond." In Andover High School, when 10th-grader Sam Pinilla was pushed to the ground by three kids calling him a "faggot," he saw a teacher nearby who did nothing to stop the assault. At Anoka High School, a 10th-grade girl became so upset at being mocked as a "lesbo" and a "sinner" – in earshot of teachers – that she complained to an associate principal, who counseled her to "lay low"; the girl would later attempt suicide. At Anoka Middle School for the Arts, after Kyle Rooker was urinated upon from above in a boys' bathroom stall, an associate principal told him, "It was probably water." Jackson Middle School seventh-grader Dylon Frei was passed notes saying, "Get out of this town, fag"; when a teacher intercepted one such note, she simply threw it away.

"You feel horrible about yourself," remembers Dylon. "Like, why do these kids hate me so much? And why won't anybody help me?" The following year, after Dylon was hit in the head with a binder and called "fag," the associate principal told Dylon that since there was no proof of the incident she could take no action. By contrast, Dylon and others saw how the same teachers who ignored anti-gay insults were quick to reprimand kids who uttered racial slurs. It further reinforced the message resonating throughout the district: Gay kids simply didn't deserve protection.

"Justin?" Tammy Aaberg rapped on her son's locked bedroom door again. It was past noon, and not a peep from inside, unusual for Justin.

"Justin?" She could hear her own voice rising as she pounded harder, suddenly overtaken by a wild terror she couldn't name. "Justin!" she yelled. Tammy grabbed a screwdriver and loosened the doorknob. She pushed open the door. He was wearing his Anoka High School sweatpants and an old soccer shirt. His feet were dangling off the ground. Justin was hanging from the frame of his futon, which he'd taken out from under his mattress and stood upright in the corner of his room. Screaming, Tammy ran to hold him and recoiled at his cold skin. His limp body was grotesquely bloated – her baby – eyes closed, head lolling to the right, a dried smear of saliva trailing from the corner of his mouth. His cheeks were strafed with scratch marks, as though in his final moments he'd tried to claw his noose loose. He'd cinched the woven belt so tight that the mortician would have a hard time masking the imprint it left in the flesh above Justin's collar.

Still screaming, Tammy ran to call 911. She didn't notice the cellphone on the floor below Justin's feet, containing his last words, a text in the wee hours:

:-( he had typed to a girlfriend.

What's wrong


I can come over

No I'm fine

Are you sure you'll be ok

No it's ok I'll be fine, I promise

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.

The school district hasn't been anxious for a legal brawl, and the two parties have been in settlement talks practically since the papers were filed. Yet the district still stubbornly clung to the neutrality policy until, at a mid-December school-board meeting, it proposed finally eliminating the policy – claiming the move has nothing to do with the discrimination lawsuit – and, bizarrely, replacing it with the Controversial Topics Curriculum Policy, which requires teachers to not reveal their personal opinions when discussing "controversial topics." The proposal was loudly rejected both by conservatives, who blasted the board for retreating ("The gay activists now have it all," proclaimed one Parents Action League member) and by LGBT advocates, who understood "controversial topics" to mean gays. Faced with such overwhelming disapproval, the board withdrew its proposed policy in January – and suggested a new policy in its place: the Respectful Learning Environment Curriculum Policy, which the board is expected to swiftly approve.

The school district insists it has been portrayed unfairly. Superintendent Carlson points out it has been working hard to address the mental-health needs of its students by hiring more counselors and staff – everything, it seems, but admit that its policy has created problems for its LGBT community. "We understand that gay kids are bullied and harassed on a daily basis," and that that can lead to suicide, Carlson says. "But that was not the case here. If you're looking for a cause, look in the area of mental health." In that sense, the district is in step with PAL. "How could not discussing homosexuality in the public-school classrooms cause a teen to take his or her own life?" PAL asked Rolling Stone in an e-mail, calling the idea "absurd," going on to say, "Because homosexual activists have hijacked and exploited teen suicides for their moral and political utility, much of society seems not to be looking closely and openly at all the possible causes of the tragedies," including mental illness. Arguably, however, it is members of PAL who have hijacked this entire discussion from the very start: Though they've claimed to represent the "majority" opinion on gay issues, and say they have 1,200 supporters, one PAL parent reported that they have less than two dozen members.

Teachers' union president Blaha, who calls the district's behavior throughout this ordeal "irrational," speculates that the district's stupefying denial is a reaction to the terrible notion that they might have played a part in children's suffering, or even their deaths: "I think your mind just reels in the face of that stress and that horror. They just lost their way."

That denial reaches right up to the pinnacle of the local political food chain: Michele Bachmann, who stayed silent on the suicide cluster in her congressional district for months – until Justin's mom, Tammy Aaberg, forced her to comment. In September, while Bachmann was running for the GOP presidential nomination, Aaberg delivered a petition of 141,000 signatures to Bachmann's office, asking her to address the Anoka-Hennepin suicides and publicly denounce anti-gay bullying. Bachmann has publicly stated her opposition to anti-bullying legislation, asking in a 2006 state Senate committee hearing, "What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression?... Will we be expecting boys to be girls?" Bachmann responded to the petition with a generic letter to constituents telling them that "bullying is wrong," and "all human lives have undeniable value." Tammy Aaberg found out about the letter secondhand. "I never got a letter," says Tammy, seated in the finished basement of the Aabergs' new home in Champlin; the family couldn't bear to remain in the old house where Justin hanged himself. "My kid died in her district. And I'm the one that presented the dang petition!" In a closed room a few feet away are Justin's remaining possessions: his cello, in a closet; his soccer equipment, still packed in his Adidas bag. Tammy's suffering hasn't ended. In mid-December, her nine-year-old son was hospitalized for suicidal tendencies; he'd tried to drown himself in the bathtub, wanting to see his big brother again.

Justin's suicide has left Tammy on a mission, transforming her into an LGBT activist and a den mother for gay teens, intent upon turning her own tragedy into others' salvation. She knows too well the price of indifference, or hostility, or denial. Because there's one group of kids who can't afford to live in denial, a group for whom the usual raw teenage struggles over identity, peer acceptance and controlling one's own impulsivity are matters of extreme urgency – quite possibly matters of life or death.

Which brings us to Anoka Middle School for the Arts' first Gay Straight Alliance meeting of the school year, where 19 kids seated on the linoleum floor try to explain to me what the GSA has meant to them. "It's a place of freedom, where I can just be myself," a preppy boy in basketball shorts says. This GSA, Sam Johnson's legacy, held its first meeting shortly after her death under the tutelage of teacher Fietek, and has been a crucial place for LGBT kids and their friends to find support and learn coping skills. Though still a source of local controversy, there is now a student-initiated GSA in every Anoka-Hennepin middle and high school. As three advisers look on, the kids gush about how affirming the club is – and how necessary, in light of how unsafe they continue to feel at school. "I'll still get bullied to the point where–" begins a skinny eighth-grade girl, then takes a breath. "I actually had to go to the hospital for suicide," she continues, looking at the floor. "I just recently stopped cutting because of bullying."

I ask for a show of hands: How many of you feel safe at school? Of the 19 kids assembled, two raise their hands. The feeling of insecurity continues to reverberate particularly through the Anoka-Hennepin middle schools these days, in the wake of the district's ninth suicide. In May, Northdale Middle School's Jordan Yenor, a 14-year-old with no evident LGBT connection, took his life. Psychologist Cashen says that at Northdale Middle alone this school year, several students have been hospitalized for mental-health issues, and at least 14 more assessed for suicidal ideation; for a quarter of them, she says, "Sexual orientation was in the mix."

A slight boy with an asymmetrical haircut speaks in a soft voice. "What this GSA means to me, is: In sixth grade my, my only friend here, committed suicide." The room goes still. He's talking about Samantha. The boy starts to cry. "She was the one who reached out to me." He doubles over in tears, and everyone collapses on top of him in a group hug. From somewhere in the pile, he continues to speak in a trembling voice: "I joined the GSA 'cause I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be nice and – loved."