On January 1, 2012, my son, 18-year-old Jeffrey Fehr, made the agonizing decision that he could no longer go on living and took his own life. He had recently graduated from Granite Bay High School where he was a pioneer as the first male cheerleader and was very active in competitive cheer. He was well loved by his friends and his family and was an inspiration for countless peers. He was also an out gay youth who had endured years of teasing and bullying.
Growing up, Jeff was happy-go-lucky and carefree. But as early as third grade we began to notice he had different likes from his peers. While other boys would play basketball and other sports at recess, Jeff would play on the jungle gyms with the girls. Like we did with his two older brothers, we started him in sports such as soccer and baseball, but he would rather participate in drama and other non-sports related activities.
As Jeff grew older his circle of friends was almost exclusively all girls and he would go to school dances and other high school events with groups of girls. People have asked, “When did we notice Jeff was different?” But to us he wasn’t different. This was just the way he was, and we loved him dearly for who he was, as we love our other two sons for who they are.
But Jeff struggled. While coming to grips with who he was, he suffered the emotions, the questioning of self-worth, and the experiences of being bullied that are all-too-commonly experienced in the LGBT community. When he came to us and told us he was gay, my wife Pati and I demonstrated unconditional love, as did his brothers, and Jeff seemed to blossom, though inside the scars were deep.
Many times Pati and I would lay with him as he was crying in agony about feeling all alone, and we would try to tell him what a great person he was, how much we loved him, and that there was a big world beyond Granite Bay that would be so much more accepting of him. But we could not give back to him what was taken from him as a result of all the years of being bullied and made fun of – of being outcast. As much as we told Jeff what a great person he was and how much good he could do in this world, he could not see it for himself. And at the end of the day, we had not walked in his shoes.
The significance of Jeff making the decision he could not go on any longer in the early morning hours on New Year’s Day is not lost on us. He did not see the next year being any better than the last, and he grew tired of the struggle. But if he had known about The Trevor Project and reached out to speak to someone who had walked in his shoes, or if he had seen the “It Gets Better” films and the stories of other people who had overcome the same struggles he was facing, who knows if Jeff would have made a different decision that morning.
We will never know the answer to that question. And for Pati and me, that is why the It Gets Better films and the work The Trevor Project does is so important. We need to continue to take steps to raise awareness, educate people on the impact of bullying, and initiate programs in schools to promote tolerance and social and emotional learning.
In honor of Jeff, the least we can do is share his story with others in the hope that at least one person does not make the fatal decision Jeff made and another family does not have to endure the pain, agony and loss we are enduring.
Later today, at an event in Palo Alto, California hosted by my company SAP, I am honored to join representatives from the Trevor Project, It Gets Better, and Gunn and Granite Bay high schools on a panel to discuss the bullying epidemic, its impact on our youth, and what we as a community can do about it.
At this event, my company will also premiere the SAP employees's "It Gets Better" film. We are honored for its dedication to Jeff but saddened by the need to share the worst-case scenario. Because while Jeff shared the struggles expressed in the film, what he did not share is the perspective that it will get better, and that is regret and guilt we will live with for the rest of our lives.
Thank you to my fellow SAP colleagues for making this film and telling the world that “It Does Get Better.” Watch the video below.