Tammy Aaberg's son Justin wasn't alive to see gay rights victories of the 2010s.
Starting in 1998, the Minnesota Student Survey, conducted among the state’s ninth and 12th-graders, included questions about sexual activity. Was it with the opposite sex? Same sex? Both?
In 1998, students who’d had same-sex relationships suffered more depression, more stress, and felt “hopeless” at far higher rates than straight peers, according to a new paper in the Journal of School Health. They were twice as likely to think about killing themselves, and two and a half times as likely to have tried it.
Over the next dozen years, conditions generally improved for all students. But those mawing gaps hadn’t closed a bit. Some got worse. “Boys with same-sex partners had a higher likelihood of being ‘sad all the time’ in the past month,” says Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, a researcher at the University of British Columbia. “Girls with same-sex partners had increased stress.”
How could this be? In 1998, religious groups effectively bullied advertisers and ABC, and got Ellen Degeneres’ sitcom canceled. By 2010, Ellen was the heir apparent to Oprah, and a judge on American Idol, the top-rated show in the country. Couldn’t these queer kids see all the progress we’d made?
That’s not how they experienced it. During the years in question, their sexuality became a political battleground. In 2004, Republicans put gay marriage bans on the ballot in 11 states to drive up conservative turnout. All 11 passed.
Minnesota passed its “Defense of Marriage” in 1997. That wasn’t enough for Republicans, who spent the next 14 years pining for a constitutional marriage ban, finally voting in 2011 to put it on the ballot.
“When the general public discourse treats you as second-class citizens,” Saewyc says, “people who are prejudiced feel tacit permission to continue bullying and harassing.”
The 2000s were a “best of times, worst of times situation for queer youth,” says writer Dan Savage. Teens in loving homes and accepting schools could live out and proud like never before. Others suffered alone, not just against in-school (or in-house) discrimination, but from salvos of bigotry from the religious right.
“You had essentially the entire Republican Party dedicated to this proposition that gay marriage was a plot to destroy straight relationships, straight families, the church, the world,” Savage says.
In 2010, Savage started his “It Gets Better” campaign, a reaction to suicides among those who didn’t survive teen cruelty long enough to find peace in adulthood.
Minnesota was not immune. A rash of suicides in the Anoka Hennepin School District around that time—eight students in two years, at least four of them gay or bisexual—turned suburban schools into national news. Years later, one name remains on the tip of Savage’s tongue. “Justin Aaberg,” he intoned quietly, like a Catholic lighting a candle for a saint.
Tammy Aaberg had known that her 15-year-old, who’d just finished his freshman year at Anoka High School, was depressed one week in July 2010. She hoped Justin would open up to her, as he often did, when they took their regularly scheduled shopping trip on a summer Friday. “I never got that chance,” she says. She and Justin’s siblings found him hanging that morning.
Tammy often thought “I wish Justin was here” in the following years as she watched the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” Minnesota voting “no” in 2012, and the legalizing of gay marriage. During his short lifetime, Justin saw mostly setbacks.
Advocacy groups like OutFront Minnesota had pushed school anti-bullying legislation for years, seeking to replace the measly 37 words (with no mention of sexual orientation) on the books. Finally, the Legislature passed it in 2009. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it.
As governor, Pawlenty was no fire-and-brimstone preacher. His cruelty was quiet and cold, more like a hospital administrator asking if the unconscious patient had the proper insurance.
Pawlenty stripped same-sex partner benefits from state employees, and vetoed an end-of-life bill that would’ve treated gay partners like heterosexual widows, saying, “Marriage... should remain elevated in our society at a special level.”
Minnesota’s gays and lesbians were lifted to that “special level” in 2013, and the anti-bullying bill passed the next year. Experts hope to see positive effects on queer youth responses to the Minnesota Student Survey by 2019, a decade after Pawlenty’s veto.
Aaberg and Savage recognize this tenuous moment in our story of progress. Both are disturbed to see the return of a chilling character from those grim middle chapters. As a candidate for governor, circa 2018, Pawlenty is dodging his past. Gay marriage “is now decided,” he recently told WCCO. Besides, he opposes discrimination... except in the case of “voluntary behaviors” like “cross-dressing,” where protection goes “too far.”
He should not be let off this wicked hook.
“Either you have terrible judgment,” Savage says, “or were willing to throw vulnerable people—including vulnerable young people—under a bus for political power. Neither answer makes Tim Pawlenty look very good.”
Pawlenty’s first official step on his campaign was backward: an event with the Minnesota Family Council, whose fearful whispers about the gay “agenda” guided Pawlenty’s cruelest moments in the 2000s. Now the Council’s scariest villains are the transgender. As Savage notes, the pervert-in-a-bathroom-with-your-kid scenarios are identical to the “bullshit” once used against gays.
Tammy Aaberg is raising a trans teenager, one who has reached the same age Justin was when he died. Aaberg is trying to shield some of the harshest rhetoric, talking her teen through the rest, and offering hope when she can.
“The more of us that are caring toward each other, and positive toward each other, the more positivity there is in this world,” she says.
Thinking of Justin, she adds: “It’s been eight years now. We don’t want to go back there.
By Mike Mullen of City Pages