Tammy said Justin had come out as gay when he was 14 years old, and had endured anti-gay bullying and harassment.
But what stunned her family and friends was the apparent lack of action by school officials as more kids disclosed the extent of bullying that was occurring in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. It was discovered that Justin was the seventh suicide among Anoka-Hennepin students in a two-year span, and that much of the bullying targeted students that were gay or preceived to be gay.
School officials said a district policy that they “remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation” prevented them from taking action. It quickly became known as the “neutrality” policy, and no one could figure out what it meant.
In the meantime, two more suicides occurred, bringing the total to nine dead students.
Ultimately a federal lawsuit and settlement forced the Anoka-Hennepin school district to set-up a task force to address its bullying issue.
But the problem, says Tammy, is that at least one member of that task force is a representative of the local conservative Parents Action League, which has declared its opposition to the “radical homosexual” agenda in schools. Among that group’s stated goals is providing resources for students “seeking to leave the homosexual lifestyle.”
Four years later, Tammy says, “we’re still fighting the same attitudes about gay people as before.”
In the years since her family’s loss, Tammy founded “Justin’s Gift,” a organization named for her son that provides LGBT youth a safe haven to gather, interact, and just be themselves.
She and others also continue to fight to protect the LGBT youth, not only in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, but across Minnesota.
After years of lobbying from Tammy and families like hers, the Minnesota state legislature passed a comprehensive, LGBT-inclusive “Safe Schools” anti-bullying bill, requiring schools to develop comprehensive anti-bullying policies, train staff to prevent bullying, and quickly investigate allegations.
Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill into law on April 9.
But for Tammy, her work in Justin’s memory remains unfinished. And for her, “Same Difference” is an important project.
“We need people to see this film, to understand that not every community is the same but the LGBT kids are in what they still face,” she says. “Those people who can’t stand kids like Justin are still fighting gay rights and people need to know that.”
Wentzel says he sees the film as a force for positive change.
“I hope that as a straight person, I can help encourage more non-LGBT individuals to become allies and actively stand up in support of other human beings,” he says.
Although filming has completed, Sweeny and Wentzel are hoping to raise an additional $135,000 for the documentary’s post-production, and have launched an Indiegogo campaign seeking community support.
Here’s a trailer for the film:
Editor’s Note: If you or a young person you know is LGBT and thinking about suicide, call The Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. For adults over 24, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-866-273-8255.