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In Memoriam

Remembering Justin Aaberg — in the year since his death, much has changed, much has not

Saturday, July 9, 2011
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On this day one year ago — July 9, 2010 — just weeks after finishing his freshman year at Anoka High School in Minnesota, 15-year-old Justin Aaberg killed himself in his bedroom.

His mother Tammy and his two brothers, Andrew and Anthony, found him — he had hanged himself.

Justin, they would later learn, had been a victim of bullying due to his sexual orientation.

Justin Aaberg

In the year since Justin took his life, much has changed, and much has not…

Tammy Aaberg said she had known her son was gay for a year and often feared for his safety.

“For those of you who have never had a gay child, you need to know it is one of the scariest things to learn because you know that they will need to deal with a lot of criticism and harassment in their lives, and it makes me worry,” Tammy Aaberg said, addressing the Anoka-Hennepin School Board in August.

She blamed the school district for not intervening to stop the bullying, and accused district administrators of tying teachers’ hands with a policy that kept them from being able to “reach out and help these hurting students.”

For the past year, Tammy Aaberg has lobbied the school district to step up its efforts to combat bullying, and abandon its “neutrality policy,” which requires that staff remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation “in the course of their professional duties.”

It’s a policy she says limits the role that teachers and educators can play in curbing anti-gay bullying.

In fact, Justin was one of seven teenagers in the Anoka-Hennepin School District who committed suicide in a year’s time — some, but not all, of those students were gay and there were concerns that bullying at school contributed to many of the suicides.

And yet, in the months and year that followed, at least 14 more teens would take their own lives because of anti-gay bullying and sentiment, prompting a National Summit on Bullying, the launch of the “It Gets Better Project,” a national campaign to inspire and encourage LGBT youth, and the first ever White House conference on bullying prevention.

In addition, the Department of Education issued guidance to school officials reminding them that federal law requires them to take action against bullying — including gender-based and sexual harassment of LGBT students, and provided schools with examples of effective state anti-bullying laws as a reference for developing or revising their own policies.

This year, members of Congress introduced several pieces of anti-bullying legislation, including the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to implement anti-bullying programs; the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which establishes similar anti-bullying requirements for colleges and universities receiving federal student aid; and the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA), which states that elementary and secondary schools must not discriminate against students on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds, or risk losing those funds.

And while much has changed on the national scene to bring attention to the adversity and intolerance faced by LGBT youth, the steady stream of anti-gay rhetoric continues to undermine progress within the community.

Just weeks ago, Rich Swier, an activist with the Tea Party Nation, published an article in which he said that anti-gay bullying is not bullying at all, and called it “peer pressure and is healthy.”

In a stand-up routine in Nashville, comedian Tracy Morgan launched into an anti-gay tirade in which he suggested he would “pull out a knife and stab” his own son if told him he was gay.

And LGBT people continue to be bullied, attacked, and murdered because of their sexual orientation. For their stories, click here, and here, and here.

In fact, analysis of 14 years of hate crime data found that homosexuals, or those perceived to be gay, are more than twice as likely to be attacked in a violent hate crime as Jews or blacks; more than four times as likely as Muslims; and 14 times as likely as Latinos.

Which is why we can not forget Justin Aaberg, that he was an accomplished cellist and composer of songs, a brother, a son, and member of the LGBT community.

It is in Justin’s memory — and the memory of Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, Brandon Bitner, Raymond Chase, Cody J. Barker, Justin “Chloe” Lacey, Aiyisha Hassan, Nicholas Kelo Jr., Corey Jackson, Lance Lundsten, Kameron Jacobsen, and Zach Harrington — that we persevere in hope that one day, no young person would have to endure a life of relentless taunts and harassment, just because they’re gay.

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