There’s a joke I often tell when I’m talking to people about going to school in the 1970s and ’80s. “You know that kid at school that everyone made fun of?” I’ll ask them. “Yeah,” they’ll say, nodding their heads with understanding. “Well,” I’ll say. “That kid made fun of me.” And I’ll get a big laugh. And it is a joke — but it’s also true. Because I was that kid.
When I was in school, I was bullied mercilessly. I was called every possible name kids could think of. I was bullied for everything I said, wore, thought, or did. I was bullied for being gay even though I was straight. And the bullying continued well into high school. I wasn’t alone. Far from it. I saw plenty of other kids bullied, and they all saw me. We formed a silent club that never spoke to each other or told of our experiences. We were bonded in isolation. We carried the weight of what happened and what we endured, and it affected each and every one of us long after school was over. It colored our lives and influenced the choices we made, the friends we gravitated toward, and the way we saw the world. Some of us took our own lives. Some of us tried but failed. And some of us only thought about it, hoping for a way to end the pain.
It’s because of this that news stories about bullying demand my attention like an old wound rubbed raw. It’s why I couldn’t ignore a story I saw in 2009 about two teachers in Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District who had regularly bullied a student for his perceived sexual orientation. “He has a thing for older men,” they said. “His fence swings both ways.” “He likes to wear women’s clothes.” The district was fined $25,000, but the teachers kept their jobs. I was stunned and outraged. I couldn’t believe that any school system in this day and age would allow teachers who had consciously bullied a student to continue in their jobs.
Months later, papers began to report about the rash of teen deaths by suicide in the district and how bullying had played a part. Several of the teens had been bullied for their sexual orientation, either real or perceived. And with the reporting of the deaths came the story of the district’s neutrality policy: that “staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student-led discussions.” Teachers, now afraid that interceding in sexual orientation–related bullying could be seen as “un-neutral” and thus cost them their jobs, let comments, slurs, and assaults go unnoticed and undisciplined. Administrators told kids to ignore the bullying or to come up with snappy comebacks, ignoring the fact that any of this harassment was in any way related to sexual orientation.
Hearing that struck a nerve because it seemed so like my own experiences at school, when the adults were as much a part of the problem as the kids. Where not only would teachers ignore what was happening to me, they’d often reprimand me for disrupting class. Or send me to the principal or a school social worker because I was the problem.
It was heartbreaking reading about this. And the story could have easily ended there. But it didn’t. Because instead of just letting it stay a story about injustice and pain, a group of brave and committed people stepped forward and changed it. Parents, students, teachers, concerned citizens — they came together and fought to end the neutrality policy. They fought to protect the lives and rights of LGBTQ youth. They fought to make their schools a safe place. Not only did they fight — they won. And that’s what makes this such an important and inspiring story to tell.
So often, we dwell on the pain. Too often, I think we unintentionally traumatize people or perpetuate the harms done to them by repeating and retelling the stories of violence. While it’s important to remember those things — to remember where we came from and what happened — it’s also important to remember what we can change.
Ultimately, the story of the Anoka-Hennepin School District is a story of humanity and of hope. It’s the story of how one determined group, facing incredible odds and incredible resistance, really can make a difference. It’s the story we want to tell in our documentary Normal Valid Lives. A crowdsourcing campaign went live this month, and we hope to start principal photography on the film in July.
The story of Anoka-Hennepin means so much to so many people — to the people who fought this battle; to the LGBTQ youth who live through events like this each day; to the LGBTQ adults who survived them; to the people who lost loved ones; to the people who still suffer from the scars of their youth; to the people looking for hope and promise. When I talk to folks about this movie, they perk up. They lean in. “Thank you,” so many of them say. “I’m so glad you’re making this film. This story has to be told.”
The other day, I received an email from a young woman after she’d seen our trailer. “I just want to say how proud and honored I am,” she began. “Thank you for giving hope to not only me, but many LGBTQ youth. This trailer has shown me that silence is not an option. I should not have to be afraid of what I will experience in a school setting because of who I am.”
It’s for people like this young woman that I’m making this film. It’s for people like the kid I was, who feel so alone, afraid to stand up for themselves. It’s for the people who fight against injustice simply because it’s the right thing to do. It’s for the people who want to act but don’t know it yet. Why do I want to make this film? Because it’s the story I’ve wanted to tell my whole life — that people can stand up to bullies. And they can win.
JAN RADDER is the producer and writer of Normal Valid Lives. He is a filmmaker, educator, and member of a queer family living in Minneapolis.