Justin Aaberg was fifteen years old when he died. Justin was not killed in a car accident, or in a school shooting, he did not have a terminal illness. Justin Aaberg was bullied to death. Today, Sunday, March 9, would have been Justin’s nineteenth birthday.
Justin took his own life on July 9, 2010. He was being bullied mercilessly at school for being gay, and in 2010, his school had a policy that essentially silenced educators. Teachers and counselors were forbidden from speaking about, or even acknowledging homosexuality, which meant that for kids like Justin, school was not a safe place. Justin’s family accepted him, loved him, and did everything they could to let him be himself. But as the mother of a teenager, I know the impact and influence peers have on a kid. No matter what we as parents say, our opinions simply do not mean as much as the opinions of other teens.
This week is incredibly difficult for the Aaberg family, and the people who love them. Tammy Aaberg, Justin’s mom, has been posting on Facebook about her sorrow, and she has received an outpouring of affection and support. I asked Tammy’s permission before I wrote this piece, and she graciously gave it. It is impossible for most of us to understand what the Aaberg family is going through today, and what they have gone through over the past four years. Nine families in the Anoka school district go through this every year, every birthday, every holiday. Nine families visit their children’s graves.
In every photo of Justin I’ve seen, he is smiling. This was a smart young man, an accomplished cellist, a kid with the world by the tail. But in the Anoka school district, if you were gay, none of that mattered. Right wing groups moved in, and changed the dynamic of schools. It’s the language we hear now in regards to all the pro-discrimination legislation being whispered about, and soundly defeated. If you don’t allow religious zealots to attack and bully gay teens, you are somehow trampling on the rights of said zealots.
What about Tammy Aaberg’s right to hug her son? What about Justin’s right to graduate from high school, go to college, fall in love, live his life? What about the eight other teens who were so hated, and so vilified, that the only solution they could find was death? The rash of suicides, and the publicity they attracted, finally led to the overturning of the “No Homo Promo” policy in 2012, but for nine families, the damage was already done.
What people, especially people who refuse to accept LGBT teens have to understand, is adolescence is confusing enough. Hormones raging, puberty, dating, grades, the looming prospect of college, cliques; all these things make high school extraordinarily stressful. Our son has had meltdowns over his grades, he has been bullied (his aggressor used the internet, and was suspended for three days), and through it all, we keep telling him it’s only four years. But imagine if on top of all the other things a teenager deals with, they were being attacked for who they are. Not what they wear, not the music they listen to, not their hair; who they are. Attacked for something they cannot change, anymore that a heterosexual person reading this can suddenly “turn” LGBT. If you can put yourself into those shoes for a moment, you may come to a better understanding of why Justin Aaberg chose to end his own life.
Justin was gay. Justin couldn’t “turn” straight, he was born gay. Justin lit up a room with his exuberance, and bullies managed to quash that light with hate and words and bigotry. And now, adult bullies are trying to quash more lights and lives in Minnesota. A bill called The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act has been introduced into the Minnesota House. A 2011 Census report rated Minnesota’s anti-bullying law the weakest in the nation. Outfront Minnesota wants to change that. In May of 2013, the bill passed all necessary committees in the House and Senate, and passed on the House floor. As of this article, the bill still has not been passed by the Senate. One reason why is a group called MN Child Protection League.
The following statements are taken directly from MN Child Protection League’s website.
The bill creates an unsafe learning environment. It puts a gag order on students and will leave them anxious and apprehensive about misspeaking, and fearful that it will be classified as bullying. Education requires the free exchange of ideas without fear of persecution.
Promoting and normalizing sexually diverse behaviors and lifestyles is the primary focus of bullying prevention and safe schools programs such as, AMAZE, Respect for All, and Welcoming Schools. For example, in the Welcoming Schools program (piloted in Minneapolis), students are continually observed, assessed and evaluated on the changes in their attitudes and beliefs regarding family structure and human sexuality with a form that states: “I used to think…but now I know.” In these programs young children are introduced to sexual diversity-themed stories that confuse children’s feelings and set up conflict in their minds over gender roles, parental authority, and their personal values and beliefs.
On their website, MN Child Protection writes that “no one should be bullied, including LGBT.” A DVD the group sent to lawmakers a few days ago tells a different story. In the video, MNCPL claims children and parents won’t be allowed to express their own personal values, or religious beliefs, and could even be forced into some sort of state sponsored “reeducation.”
A new set of values, attitudes and behavior will replace their own religious, cultural or family values-or else.
The environment in the Anoka school district that led to the death of Justin Aaberg and nine other teenagers is alive and well, thanks to the MN Child Protection League. If we protect vulnerable kids from hate, that’s stifling religious freedom. If schools in the state with the weakest anti-bullying law in the country start taking bullying seriously, well, that means someone’s religious beliefs are being replaced with a “new set of values.” Frankly, if your religious beliefs tell you it’s alright to bully a kid like Justin Aaberg to death, you already need a new set of values.
I never met Justin. I would have loved to talk to him, to spend time with him, to try and tell him it’s only four years. Given the environment in the Anoka school district at the time of his death, I’m not sure anything I said to Justin would have helped. It’s hard to break through daily and unending hate. That doesn’t mean we stop trying.
Collage of Justin Aaberg used with permission from Tammy Aaberg.