Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Bad News from Lake Wobegon...

It's hard to know exactly how to begin talking about this...

I am a big fan of writer, essayist and radio host Garrison Keillor. His radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" Was something of a tradition for my family when I as growing up. We always listened on Saturday afternoons on Wisconsin Public Radio. Our family even attended the show in person on more that one occasion.

Keillor's stories of his fictional "hometown" of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota tend to resonate with those of us who grew up in small towns in the Midwest. Often his monologues about; "The News From Lake Wobegon" felt like they could easily have been taken from the streets of my own hometown of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

 I think what always resonated for me, wasn't just the Norman-Rockwell-esque imagery, or the jokes about growing up Lutheran. Rather for me, it was Keillor's stories of how growing up, he felt like an oddball, in his little town.

Like Keillor, I was an awkward, uncoordinated kid who preferred books to baseball gloves, and never really felt like I "fit in". Like Keillor, my daydreams were often of the day I would "see my town in the rear view mirror", as I left to begin my "real life". Also like Keillor, I tend to think more fondly of my small town years later as an "exile" , than I did as someone who had to live there.

Keillor always ends his stories with the tagline; "That's the news from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

Yet the truth is, I am not sure I will be able to listen to the News from Lake Wobegon anymore. It was one year ago, I posted a blog entry on a news story out of Anoka, MN entitled; "The News from the Real Lake Wobegon". I wrote about how the The Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, had agreed to pay a $25,000 settlement to the family of a high school junior after two teachers harassed the boy and subjected him to classroom jokes, comments and innuendos concerning his perceived sexual orientation.

The student, who was not gay had gone to school officials numerous times complaining about the harassment but was ignored. Now a year later we find out what else has been going on in Anoka, MN. Students have been dying. 

Anoka, MN, is the real life inspiration for Garrison Keillor's fictional hamlet of Lake Wobegon. The High School has had three teenagers commit suicide in the past year. All three students have something in common besides being students in the same school district. All three teens were relentlessly bullied for being Gay.

The woman sobbed as she told her son’s story to the Anoka-Hennepin School Board on Monday. “Hi, I’m Tammy Aaberg, the mother of Justin Aaberg, who was a gay student at Anoka High School who committed suicide July 9th of this year.” The school district has become ground zero in the battle between those who want safe spaces for LGBT students and those who want any mention of homosexuality banned from high school campuses.

According to LGBT advocates, Justin’s death is one of three suicides by gay students in the last year, and while the district says it takes bullying seriously and has beefed up discipline against harassment, it has spurned invitations by LGBT groups to do anti-bullying education. To make matters more complicated, a group of parents opposed to homosexuality has formed to put pressure on the board not to bow to LGBT interests.

The district — the state’s largest, with around 40,000 students — made headlines last year when the Minnesota Department of Human Rights alleged that two teachers conspired to harass a student, Alex Merritt, who they thought was gay. The news led to protests at school board meetings urging the district to adopt stronger anti-bullying policies and offers by LGBT groups to provide education. The school board rebuffed those efforts.

Now, with news of three suicides by LGBT students within a year, family and friends who have lost loved ones are demanding the district make changes.

“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,” Aaberg said.    Justin’s family and friends told the board that he had been bullied at Anoka High School before he took his own life. “Do you think my son Justin deserved to die because there are other kids who feel superior by picking on him and no staff member will stop them?” she asked the board.

Two LGBT students also used the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting to describe their feelings of isolation at school.     Christina, who graduated from Anoka High School and who was friends with Justin, said, “When experiencing these problems, you can’t go to your parents, where you face rejection from those you love the most.” She continued, “You can’t go to your church if you are in condemnation from a religion you’ve always embraced.”

Megan, another 2010 graduate, took issue with the school’s policies. “It says that it is better for students to go to their home or their community or their church. I can’t go to any of those. I go home and my parents tell me I am cursed. I go to my church and I am rejected and condemned. I go to my community? What community do I have to go to?”    Megan was referring to a 2009 school board policy that says sexual orientation is not to be taught in the district.
Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations. 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.
That policy, the AH District 11 Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, has become the battleground for LGBT advocates and members of the religious right.    Last July, a shadow group of parents formed in the district with the intention on staving off any advances for LGBT students.   The Parents Action League launched  its website in June along with a petition that reads;

 “Whereas homosexual behavior exposes participants to many life-threatening health risks; and whereas the classroom environment needs to be solely focused on academics; Therefore, we the undersigned citizens of Anoka-Hennepin School District No. 11 do whole heartedly support and desire that the School Board adhere to … the AH District 11 Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy.”
When the Minnesota Independent asked who founded the group and if it had any connections to other “pro-family” groups in the state, an unsigned email came back: “We think our website explains very well what we’re about and who founded it – citizens in the Anoka Hennepin School District.”  
Growing up Gay in a small town is quite simply an exercise in terror. On some level every day had some undercurrent of fear of your "secret" being discovered. The ultimate put-down was to say something was "gay" or to be called a "fag". You see the kids who were even slightly effeminate or "different" getting tormented on a daily basis.

For so many LGBT youth, High School is not, the "best years of your life", it is frankly something to be survived and put behind you as quickly as possible. And here we see the "good people" of Anoka, after having had three of their own teenagers bullied to death, are apparently trying to get people to sign petitions to dish out even more hate against their own kids.    
Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBT Youth. Organizations like The Trevor Project have been working to help communities address the problems and provide education, resources and support.  

The Trevor Project, in conjunction with National Suicide Prevention Week launched a powerful new ad campaign "I'm Glad I Failed."  

The ad campaign is aimed at LGBTQ youth who contemplate suicide as a result of homophobia. The ads feature young people with stories of how intolerance and harassment led them to attempt suicide, and how they are glad those attempts failed because their lives have changed for the better.

This Saturday will be the first in a long time where I won't be tuning in to listen to the "News from Lake Wobegon" . Because I know what the news is. If you are a Gay or Lesbian youth in Anoka, MN, your life isn't valued.

 You live in a community that is quite happy to just stand idly by while you are bullied to death, to the point of even starting a petition drive to PREVENT anything from being done about it.

I want Garrison Keillor to talk about this. I want him to tell the people of his hometown to stop killing their kids. I want him to tell his audience that the real news from Lake Wobegon Minnesota is that the women may be strong, and the men may be good looking, but the children are expected to kill themselves if they are Gay.

And that has to stop.


The Mysterious Traveler said...

This is a horrible situation, but it has only the most tangential connection to Garrison Keillor. It looks to me as though you are using his name and career to get publicity for a political cause. I understand that this cause is important to you, just as political causes involve life-and-death issues (chemical exposure, cancer, etc.) are important to all of us. But, really, leave Garrison Keillor out of it and make your own publicity.

DaveF said...

Mysterious Traveler,

Thank you for your thoughts but the connection to GK is entirely relevant, but he and the city of Anoka have turned the Mythos of Lake Wobegon into big business. The image of Anoka as this Norman Rockwell small town utopia has been whole-heartedly embraced by the city, just as it sells books, CD's and Powdermilk Biscuit TShirts.

The reality is Homophobia and bigotry in this town has KILLED three young people this year. As Keillor has made a great deal of moneey spinning warm fuzzy fictional yarns about Anoka, it is not in any way unreasonable to ask him as the man who made the city famous to take a moment to address the truth about the place.