In memory of Justin Aaberg
March 9, 1995 – July 9, 2010
The hot, sticky days of July are often a time of family vacations, summer school, summer jobs, and for others who have just graduated from high school, time spent with family and friends before leaving home for college.
For 18-year-old Graeme Taylor, whose academic endeavors have led him to enroll at Kenyon College in Ohio as an incoming freshman this fall, it’s a trip to Michigan’s Upper peninsula with good friends in celebration of that one last time together — friends who have stuck by Graeme even after he announced to his classmates and the world four years ago that he is gay.
But in a quiet suburban home north of Minneapolis, some 600-plus miles west of Graeme’s home in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Aaberg family remembers their own unhappy anniversary — it’s been four years since 15-year-old Justin took his own life on a quiet July morning.
Justin was gay, and one of many victims of an anti-gay bullying epidemic at his Minnesota high school in which suicide had already claimed the lives of six other students, and eventually resulted in a federal probe and lawsuit.
Now, four years since the two teenage boys walked very similar, and yet very different paths, “Same Difference,” a new documentary film from Pittsburgh-based filmmakers Joshua Sweeny and Kyle Wentzel examines the contrast in the stories of both Graeme and Justin.
“We’re hoping to present the issue of bullying and how life is for these kids by contrasting in a clear way that highlights how communities and schools play a role in growing up LGBT,” Sweeny tells LGBTQ Nation.
In the fall of 2010, Graeme received national attention for his spirited and public defense of Michigan high school teacher Jay McDowell, who was suspended following an incident that began when he asked a student to remove their Confederate flag belt buckle.
The exchange prompted a discussion over the difference between Confederate symbols and LGBT rights symbols, and ended when McDowell tossed two students from his classroom for saying they refuse to accept their gay classmates.
Graeme had traveled to Howell, Mich., to defend McDowell and protest his suspension at a school board hearing.
In a brief speech that went viral, and later landed the 14-year-old on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Graeme not only disclosed that he was gay, but that having supportive teachers like McDowell was of a critical nature to the safety and well being of LGBT students like himself.
The Howell High School controversy struck a chord nationally as it highlighted a disturbing growing pandemic of teen suicides, even as many school districts nationally were proposing ways to enact anti-bullying programs.
But those efforts set off a rancorous debate over LGBT rights, morality and family values. In the end, parents and school administrations agreed that school bullying, and the suicides that result, must be stopped.
Graeme’s speech in defense of McDowell came just four months after Justin took his life.
It was July 9, 2010, a heart-breaking day of “horrible images” that Tammy Aaberg says she will never forget.
Tammy and her youngest son Anthony had returned from from shopping around noon and discovered that Justin had not made his usual appearance.
She pounded on her middle son’s locked bedroom door, and after not receiving a response, panicked. She forced her way in by dismantling the door knob to find Justin dangling off the ground. He 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.
She ran to him but it was too late. His body was cold and lifeless. It was later determined that Justin had been dead for hours by the time Tammy broke into his room.
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.