See if this sounds familiar: From junior high through high school, Wisconsin native Jamie Nabozny is relentlessly taunted and beaten because it’s perceived, correctly, that he’s gay. Despite numerous pleas from his parents and a sympathetic teacher, administrators refuse to intervene, falling back on a familiar line: boys will be boys and, hey, if he doesn’t want to incur their wrath, he’s better off not acting “so gay.” One of his attacks puts him in the hospital for five days. Nabozny tries to overdose on pills, but is unsuccessful. He runs away from home twice. He agrees to come home, but refuses to return to school grounds.
It’s a common tale. This one happened 15 years ago. The same thing could, and does, happen today.
In 1995 at age 19, Nabozny built up the courage to sue his school district and its administrators for their neglect and disinterest in his safety. And he won, settling for close to $1 million, marking the first time in the nation’s history that a school was legally held responsible for a student subjected to anti-gay abuse. Administrators suddenly had a practical reason to care: Let bullies taunt gay kids, and you’ll be short quite a lot of money.
Nabozny’s landmark case is retold in Bullied, a short doc screening April 28 as part of this year’s Equality Forum. While the grown-up Nabozny, his mother and lawyers relate the story, younger actors re-enact the major events: his assault in a science class while fellow students looked on; an altercation in a bathroom where he was urinated upon; and the beating that ended with a death threat and a hospital stay. Throughout, the real Nabozny speaks to a utopian gymnasium of quiet, respectful and diverse students.
Intended more for school use than as a straight-forward documentary—with aesthetics to match— Bullied debuted in Los Angeles in late August 2010. It proved eerily prophetic. Within the span of three weeks in September, there emerged a plague of suicides by bullied gay students. These include Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Ind., and Seth Walsh, 13, of California, who hanged themselves. Houston resident Asher Brown, also 13, shot himself in the head. And Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a webcam to stream a sexual encounter he had with another male student.
An explanation for this wave of suicides remains elusive, as does a solution. The most prominent response came from gay sex columnist Dan Savage, who founded the It Gets Better Project on Sept. 21, the day before Clementi threw himself into the Hudson River. The project is notable for being hands-off, aimed not at the bullies but their prey, offering moral support from well-known celebrities and authority figures. It asks the abused to do no more than tough it out.
But what more can one do? Making gay bashing a mainstream concern—and It Gets Better instantly became a cultural meme, surfacing even recently as a throwaway joke on 30 Rock —should be helpful, particularly to those in backwater towns. (This subject hasn’t been so prevalent since the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998.)
At a narrow 38 minutes, Bullied is a mere conversation starter. It’s more interesting to read the “viewer’s guide” that accompanies its DVD. The guidelines instruct students to “refrain from labeling individuals as ‘gay’ or as bullies.” The cure, it suggests, isn’t eliminating bullies but treating them with respect—letting them get involved in the discussion rather than enforcing a palliative punishment. (The parents of Tyler Clementi recently asked prosecutors to go light on his roommate, Dharun Ravi.) Cautiously optimistic, Bullied knows that a future where people know not to be cruel is far off, but perhaps not by that much.
Screening: Fri., April 29, 7:30pm. $5. Levitt Auditorium, Gershman Hall, 401 S. Broad St. equalityforum.com