Anoka, Minnesota, and “Curing” the Gay

Many of you may already have read this piece on Rolling Stone about the rash of suicides in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District. In a nutshell, the districts “no homo promo” policy has resulted in a very negative school atmosphere for gay teens, a half a dozen of whom have taken their lives in response. The district is now reexamining its policies in this area. As it does so, the local Parents Action League has submitted its own proposal, urging the school to teach “ex-homosexual therapy.”

Just what is going on here? To understand, you have to be able to get into the minds of each side. You see, each side thinks it’s doing what’s in the best interests of these gay teens. Each side thinks the other wants to ruin these teens lives. It’s the sort of irreconcilable conflict that makes actual communication between the two sides difficult if not impossible.

First, some excerpts from Rolling Stone.

Every morning, Brittany Geldert stepped off the bus and bolted through the double doors of Fred Moore Middle School, her nerves already on high alert, bracing for the inevitable.


Pretending not to hear, Brittany would walk briskly to her locker, past the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who loitered in menacing packs.


Like many 13-year-olds, Brittany knew seventh grade was a living hell. But what she didn’t know was that she was caught in the crossfire of a culture war being waged by local evangelicals inspired by their high-profile congressional representative Michele Bachmann, who graduated from Anoka High School and, until recently, was a member of one of the most conservative churches in the area. When Christian activists who considered gays an abomination forced a measure through the school board forbidding the discussion of homosexuality in the district’s public schools, kids like Brittany were unknowingly thrust into the heart of a clash that was about to become intertwined with tragedy.

There was another common thread: Four of the nine dead were either gay or perceived as such by other kids, and were reportedly bullied. The tragedies come at a national moment when bullying is on everyone’s lips, and a devastating number of gay teens across the country are in the news for killing themselves. Suicide rates among gay and lesbian kids are frighteningly high, with attempt rates four times that of their straight counterparts; studies show that one-third of all gay youth have attempted suicide at some point (versus 13 percent of hetero kids), and that internalized homophobia contributes to suicide risk.

Against this supercharged backdrop, the Anoka-Hennepin school district finds itself in the spotlight not only for the sheer number of suicides but because it is accused of having contributed to the death toll by cultivating an extreme anti-gay climate. “LGBTQ students don’t feel safe at school,” says Anoka Middle School for the Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek, using the acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning. “They’re made to feel ashamed of who they are. They’re bullied. And there’s no one to stand up for them, because teachers are afraid of being fired.”

These teens, then, were victims of the anti-gay climate fostered in the school district by school rules against discussion of homosexuality put in place under pressure from local evangelicals. If you’re told that you are an abomination every day, day after day, you eventually start to feel like there’s something wrong with you. If even teachers don’t stand up for you, you start to feel like you’re not worth protecting. Maybe you should just end it all. And an alarming number of these teens did.

In April, Justin came home from school and found his mother at the top of the stairs, tending to the saltwater fish tank. “Mom,” he said tentatively, “a kid told me at school today I’m gonna go to hell because I’m gay.”

“That’s not true. God loves everybody,” his mom replied. “That kid needs to go home and read his Bible.”

Justin shrugged and smiled, then retreated to his room. It had been a hard day: the annual “Day of Truth” had been held at school, an evangelical event then-sponsored by the anti-gay ministry Exodus International, whose mission is to usher gays back to wholeness and “victory in Christ” by converting them to heterosexuality. Day of Truth has been a font of controversy that has bounced in and out of the courts; its legality was affirmed last March, when a federal appeals court ruled that two Naperville, Illinois, high school students’ Day of Truth T-shirts reading BE HAPPY, NOT GAY were protected by their First Amendment rights. (However, the event, now sponsored by Focus on the Family, has been renamed “Day of Dialogue.”) Local churches had been touting the program, and students had obediently shown up at Anoka High School wearing day of truth T-shirts, preaching in the halls about the sin of homosexuality. Justin wanted to brush them off, but was troubled by their proselytizing. Secretly, he had begun to worry that maybe he was an abomination, like the Bible said.

This is what is meant by creating an “anti-gay” climate. And yes, Justin went on to commit suicide. How did evangelicals respond to accusations that they had created an anti-gay climate that had led these gay teens to commit suicide?

Minnesota Family Council president Tom Prichard blogged that Justin’s suicide could only be blamed upon one thing: his gayness. “Youth who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk [of suicide], because they’ve embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle,” Prichard wrote. Anoka-Hennepin conservatives formally organized into the Parents Action League, declaring opposition to the “radical homosexual” agenda in schools. Its stated goals, advertised on its website, included promoting Day of Truth, providing resources for students “seeking to leave the homosexual lifestyle,” supporting the neutrality policy and targeting “pro-gay activist teachers who fail to abide by district policies.”

Asked on a radio program whether the anti-gay agenda of her ilk bore any responsibility for the bullying and suicides, Barb Anderson, co-author of the original “No Homo Promo,” held fast to her principles, blaming pro-gay groups for the tragedies. She explained that such “child corruption” agencies allow “quote-unquote gay kids” to wrongly feel legitimized. “And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death,” Anderson said. She added that if LGBT kids weren’t encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn’t be in a position to be bullied.

To evangelicals, the problem is gay activism. These teens, evangelicals argue, committed suicide not because they were bullied or made to feel worthless, but rather because they were gay. Being gay is a “destructive lifestyle” that leads to high suicide rates, spiritual darkness, devastating diseases, and, finally, death. The solution is not to validate these teens’ “homosexual temptations” as gay activists would. The solution is not to tell these teens that “this is how you are and you can’t change” but rather to work to change these teens so that they can live long happy godly lives.

This is why evangelicals in the Parents Action League have responded to these suicides by urging that ex-gay therapy be taught in the schools. It is also the reason the PAL wants the district to teach students about “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” (“GRID”) and the other health risks of the “gay lifestyle.” AIDS has not been referred to as GRID in the medical community for over twenty-five years, and is no longer seen as a “gay” problem, but you have to understand that when AIDS first came to public attention in the 1980s it was seen as a gay problem and was even seen by many as God’s judgement on gay people for their gross immorality.

The evangelicals in the Parents Action League mean well. They’re not rubbing their hands in glee wondering how many other gay teens they can rid the earth of. They believe what they’re saying. They believe that gay tendencies can be cured, that the “gay lifestyle” is destructive and harmful, and that the most loving thing you can do for these “gay teens” is to teach them the Truth, not tell them that they are stuck with their immoral feelings and locked into a tragic life.

And that is why I say it’s almost impossible for these two groups to communicate. Anytime a gay rights advocate says “we just need equal rights, freedom, and safety for all, including in our schools” these evangelicals hear “we want to tell these kids they have to follow our immoral and destructive lifestyle.” When the evangelicals say “we just need to cure these kids and turn them away from destructive lifestyles,” gays hear “we need to make these kids’ lives hell and fill them with self loathing.” It makes me think of this poster that was recently sent home with high school kids in Maryland:

[Poster since removed]

This poster turns everything on its head. It’s all about explaining that people with gay attractions can change their sexual orientations and be straight. They don’t have to be gay and shouldn’t be forced to. The most relevant excerpt is this:

However, there are those in society who refuse to respect an individual’s right to self-determination. Consequently, formerly gay men and women are discriminated against simply because they dare to exist. Ex-gays and their supporters are denied equal access and support, forcing them to remain silent for fear of negative reactions and disapproval.

In other words, the ones who are being discriminated against are the ones who are spreading the message that gays can change, that they don’t have to live those destructive “lifestyles,” they can live long, happy, normal lives if they want. The problem is the gay rights advocates who are trying to make people gay whether they want to be or not. If they would stop telling people with gay tendencies that they’re gay and it’s okay, those people could find a way to change and gain love, acceptance, and spiritual healing.

Of course, this is all predicated on several myths.

Myth #1: People aren’t born gay, they are made gay by environmental factors.
Myth #2: Gay people can actually become straight through reparative therapy.
Myth #3: The “gay lifestyle” is destructive and leads to depression and early death.
Myth #4: Gay people commit suicide because it gives them a tendency toward suicide.

The truth is that gay people don’t “choose” to be gay any more than straight people “choose” to be straight. You can’t choose who you feel physically attracted to. Try looking at a picture of someone you feel no sexual attraction for, and then forcing yourself to feel sexually attracted to him/her. Or vice versa, try looking at a picture of someone you find very sexually attractive and then feeling no sexual attraction for him/her. It doesn’t work that way. Gay people can choose to love celibate lives or can marry someone of the opposite gender in an attempt to “fix” themselves, but that doesn’t change their sexual attractions. Oh, and no one is trying to tell gay people want to be celibate or marry those of the opposite gender that they can’t do that, but rather that there are other valid options out there for them.

The truth is that gay people are at higher risk from suicide because of homophobia, not because they’re gay. I know a gay guy who tried to kill himself in high school because of the messages he received in church. He didn’t try to kill himself because he had gay attractions, but rather because he believed those gay attractions meant he was sinful and evil, and he try as he might he couldn’t change those attractions. Those gay teens killed themselves because they couldn’t see a worthwhile future in the midst of the hell they were living in, a hell created by homophobia, not by their gayness.

But there’s a deeper problem. Even dispelling these myths won’t change the minds of evangelicals like those on the Parents Action League. Why? Because their real objections come from the Bible. They dress it up by talking about the “destructiveness” of the “gay lifestyle” (and they really do believe that), but their objections come, at the base, from Bible verses condemning homosexuality as “an abomination.” Now there are gay Christians who explain that those verses are all misunderstood, but evangelicals, like their fundamentalist kin, generally take the Bible fairly literally and look askance at attempts to “reinterpret” the traditional understandings of key Bible passages. For them, the Bible says it’s wrong, so it’s wrong.

Given that, I’m not completely sure how to fix this problem. The best solution, I suppose, is to continue the strategy of normalizing homosexuality – the more gay people someone knows, normal, worthwhile, fulfilled gay people, the harder it becomes to sustain beliefs in the immorality and destructive nature of the “gay lifestyle.” In other words, we can keep working to dispel the four myths listed above. And if poll numbers are any indication, this strategy is succeeding. But it’s important to remember that as long as there are those who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality as sinful, immoral, and destructive, though, we will always have people like those on the Parents Action League urging that the real solution is to “cure” gay teens. Deeply held religious beliefs don’t always allow for a lot of give, and this is one situation where we see that loud and clear.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Kaoru Negisa

    I generally agree with you, but I think in this case you're posting too rosy of a picture of people like the PAL. I'm sure some of them have good intentions at heart, but this sort of blinkered hatred requires at least a little bit of death wishing for the gay teens ruining their godly world. I know you've come from that culture and probably know better, but I have a hard time wrapping my mind around them knowing the results and being able to justify them without that being their goal.I'm writing a post about this too, mostly focusing on the response by an Illinois family group that was absolutely inhuman, and I hope that I can try and see the noble intentions hiding behind the ignorance that you can.

  • jemand

    The death penalty anti-gay Ugandan bill is once again out of committee… may be voted on soon. There are some links between that and evangelical missions in that country. While in the US people like PAL may just manage to create a hostile enough atmosphere suicides become common… when such rhetoric enters some other cultural contexts, the results can be exacerbated.This point is kind of neither here nor there about the precise subject the post is about, but sort of related.

  • Jason Dick

    Ugh. How many more kids will have to die before they finally learn their lesson?

  • Brawne Lamia

    " She added that if LGBT kids weren't encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn't be in a position to be bullied." What strikes me about this is how many kids are bullied and commit suicide because they are PERCEIVED to be gay, not because they have actually come out yet. I feel as though many of the stories that I read about kids who are being bullied to the point of suicide haven't come out, and honestly are on the brink of puberty and very likely haven't actually figured out their sexuality (one way or another). My friend (and first boyfriend actually) was picked on in middle school because he had a high voice and his favorite color was purple. He isn't gay and honestly, at that time he had only just begun to think about girls or boys or anything sexual, but the perception that he was outside of gender norms was enough. Stop teaching your kids to be little assholes. I had heard that some people were pushing teaching GRID over AIDS and hoped it just wasn't true. Because seriously, aside from the massive homophobia there, you are putting kids at risk. While I realize that these parents are under the impression that good Christian boys and girls won't have sex until they are married and will only have it with one person or whatever, they seem to be missing the point that AIDS rates are growing the most in heterosexual couples. Do these people think that the AIDS epidemic in Africa or it's continued growth in other countries is due to rampant homosexuality and promiscuity? (Ok, probably they do, but bull-fucking-shit). I feel like this massive homophobia is teaching kids to ignore reality and possibly putting them at more risk for things like AIDS, (which, btw, can be a very effective pro-abstinence and anti-drug too- don't have sex, don't use needles- you'll get AIDS and DIE! Basically what my school said). I wish that I could go Anoka and help these kids in the same way that the gay community in my hometown helped my friends. Because of support from the small gay community in my middle of nowhere small midwestern town and from the larger vocal community in the nearby city, students at my school were able to intelligently defend themselves when parents came in to attack things like the Gay Straight Alliance. When a friend was kicked out for coming out, there was a support system ready to take him in, and I want to find a way to provide that for everyone.Libby, you seriously have been knocking your posts out of the park this week!

  • iamnothere

    All I know is if I had kids in that school system, I would remove them and home school if I had to to protect them.

  • Anonymous

    A place where I see a reason for hope is in (some) conservative churches' attitudes towards divorce. When I was growing up in a conservative non-denominational Evangelical church, divorced people (divorced women in particular) were seen as extremely immoral. I remember, as a child, thinking about how sad it was for a girl in my Sunday school class because her parents were divorced–I wasn't sad for her because her family had been through immense pain, I was sad for her because divorce meant her mom was bad, untrustworthy, and barely still Christian. I remember being taught in high school youth group that divorce was so immoral, you couldn't even divorce an abusive husband and be "right with God" (my youth pastor explained that this was because Jesus never explicitly said it was ok to divorce a spouse for abuse).Today, I'm an adult atheist. I don't belong to a church, and my view of divorce doesn't depend on any theology. However, what's interesting to me is my parents' thinking about divorce, and their church's attitude toward it. Their current church is pretty theologically conservative. And it has a divorce ministry. This ministry is not aimed at repairing marriages, but rather at supporting individual church members who are going through a divorce or are already divorced. It's like the church has woken up to the statistics: half of marriages end in divorce, and the numbers are no different for Christians. My parents' church is not alone in recognizing that they need to either make room for divorced Christians or risk losing many members over time. They've gone from insisting that no one should divorce to recognizing that they need to make room for divorced people.It's not a perfect analogy for LGBT people and conservative churches, but I am encouraged to know that, whereas when I was younger, my church thought that excluding divorced people was acceptable and even necessary, now they recognize the need to include divorced people–and to do so without moralizing about it. (They do a bit of moralizing, sure–especially with the young marrieds ministries–but I am astonished at how welcoming they are to people whose marriages are over.) I am hopeful that, over the next couple decades, as today's young people (who generally support or are at least open to gay rights, regardless of their religious beliefs) take up leadership positions in conservative churches, this type of awful, hateful behavior will no longer be accepted even within conservative churches. I'm not saying there will be a shift to overt acceptance of LGBT folks into conservative churches, but I believe this hate and hostility will end–both because of external pressure and the internal influence of younger Christians.I may be overly optimistic, but that's my hope.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I think that the people in PAL secretly take pleasure in the suicides of gay kids since it gives them ammunition to the cause that being gay makes you suicidal – it's just a little collateral damage in the cultural war to them. It's the same deal social conservatives have with young people having sex – they want kids to either be abstinent, or end up pregnant or getting a disease because the existence of people who practice safe sex reduce their ability to use scare tactics concerning sex, the way that happy, well-adjusted homosexuals would make their anti-homosexual ideology harder to push.It seems like, though you've been generous and tried to believe that they might be motivated for what is best for kids, I think you would agree that you at least have tried to understand their viewpoint. For these people, they can't even rationally consider the viewpoint that homosexuality might not be a horrible thing. They talk self-determination, but clearly only within the framework that, essentially, nobody really wants to be gay.

  • Libby Anne

    Kaoru – Oh I'm sure some people are just dicks and really do only feel hatred. But my experience is that evangelicals and fundamentalists see an ideal world in which everyone followed God and did what he wants, and there would be order and everyone would be happy. Sure they believe that if you step out of God's plan and do things he says are destructive and immoral, you in some sense deserve what you get. But they honestly believe that everyone would be better off, happier, more fulfilled if they followed God's rules, and that's a big part of why they do spend time trying to "cure the gays."Anonymous – Sure, the people in PAL see those suicides as backing up their belief that being gay is a destructive lifestyle, and sure, they think that if you step out of God's plan and do things he condemns you are asking for punishment, but I don't think that has to result in "secretly taking pleasure" in these suicides. Sure, some may, but the majority of evangelicals and conservatives, in my experience, honestly believe that in a world where everyone followed God's rules everyone would be happy, fulfilled, and have awesome lives. They're not out there to ruin gay teens lives, but rather to show gay teens that there is hope and healing in Jesus, and that they can change and live happy lives. As for "trying to understand their viewpoint," I was raised a fundamentalist evangelical, I grew up attending traditional marriage rallies, and believing everything I describe here. I haven't just tried to understand their viewpoint, I do understand their viewpoint, because I used to share it.

  • shadowspring

    I second Libby Anne's perceptions. Fundamentalism teaches us that these kids are unhappy because they have a psychological issue that needs addressed, and the symptom is gay attractions. If the inner problems is fixed, the gay attraction will go away and at the same time the person will be healed and happy.I bought into this teaching. It wasn't until I was accused of being "liberal" that I would have even considered looking at pro-gay web sites. When I did, I was so shocked to find out I was deceived all those years. I read testimony of people who had been through ex-gay ministries, and it was not about healing anyone of anything. It was behavior modification therapy, and it did nothing positive for anyone!Then I heard the stories of Christian kids who discovered they were gay, without any positive outside influence and in spite of strong outside censure. I was more stunned.Now I realize that gay is a genetic difference, like IQ or whether you can see color or smell faint scents. It just is. It is something unique about a person to be celebrated, and certainly nothing "wrong" or needing to be changed.When I believed that gay was a psychological aberration, I never hated any one who was gay. I see now how hateful such ideas are, but I didn't invent the idea, I was just given the idea by people I trusted. Obviously, I was trusting the wrong people. Mea culpa.But I never wished any one evil, and I am truly sorry if anything I ever said or did caused any gay people personal harm. I have apologized personally to anyone I know who might have been affected by my former beliefs, and I know promote understanding where I can.

  • Ashton

    Libby, a few post ago, you wrote about how those who say that abortion causes trauma for women who have them have created the problem (inasmuch as it actually exists). Don't you think that the same is true here? "Gays lead unfulfilled lives. What? What's that? There's a happy gay person living a normal life who does lots of great things for the world? I must do something to fix that!"

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Now thanks to this post I can think the PAL people have "good" motives and intentions (something that wasn't precisely on my mind when I read this the day the magazine posted the article) but those Illinois Family group… I can't believe that of them, they always seem to promote just hate. Every time I know of them or the Florida Family Association I lose some more faith in humanity.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Speaking of this, if you want to help, they are pushing for anti-gay gag law in Russia. Here is the all out link:;=1&t;=3&utm;_campaign=russia_call&utm;_content=english&utm;_medium=email&utm;_source=actionkit

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    And not only in Africa, I had to do a big project on AIDS and in Spain the group with faster growing rates was heterosexual males followed by parenteral drug consumers. Of course this is very much related to better public awareness on the gay community of safe sex and prostitution.Also, as an anecdote the VIH was originally known as the 4H disease (Homosexuals, Haitians, Hemophiliacs and Heroin addicts) because the only thing they knew it was that it was widespread in those four communities. It's true that the male gay community was incredibly affected but if you go by origins, why do they forget the other 3 main affected groups? Just rambling. Anyway, as my boyfriend tends to joke about, if AIDS/HIV is a disease sent by god to punish people, he must love lesbians (or at least way better than heterosexual couples).

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    TO counter this sad article, let's spread some LGBT joy. This week there have been three good news about gay marriage: Court Strikes Down Ban on Gay Marriage (Prop 8) in California: Washington State House of Reps. VOTE IN FAVOR of Marriage Equality 55-43: a tweet two hours ago let me know that:Marriage equality bill to be introduced to the Australian Federal Parliament within the next couple of hours. #maddow

  • OneSmallStep

    **She added that if LGBT kids weren't encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn't be in a position to be bullied.**… I missed this section the first time I read the article, but what an incredibly heartless thing to say. She's blaming the victims, and saying that it's their fault they committed suicide in the first place. Apparently, bullying is acceptable is one is going "against God."

  • Libby Anne

    Ashton! Don't think so fast! I was getting there! No really, yesterday after posting this I had a similar thought and sat down to write a post linking the two issues. I just posted it this morning. But yes, the same is absolutely true!

  • kisekileia

    When I became a Christian, even though I was a conservative evangelical, I believed strongly that bullying was wrong and that part of the good God was doing in my life was healing the effects of being bullied. I remember, for years, simultaneously believing that gay sex was wrong and that bullying was wrong, and I'm pretty sure I was in favour of hate speech laws protecting gay people because of the latter. It's interesting to think about how my conservative evangelical (or gradually liberalizing evangelical, as in my later high school years) self would have reacted to learning about kids committing suicide due to anti-gay bullying. I wonder whether I would have clued in that the idea of homosexuality being a sin was part of the problem, and that I had to get rid of it to be truly loving and accepting towards LGBTQ people. I did realize that eventually–I abandoned the belief that homosexuality was a sin because I came to the conclusion that said belief was incompatible with loving your neighbour as yourself–but it took several years.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I do agree with you, but I take issue to the statement that sexuality is something you're born with. For one thing, that's just not true. There are/have been cultures where male-with-male sex was idealized, or at least widespread. Ancient Greece is one example, modern Afghanistan is another. We can also see, if we look at standards of beauty across time and cultures, just how malleable our preferences are. To accept a debate between whether homosexuality is something you are either born with or not, as though there's some sort of hormonal on/off switch, is to do an injustice to the complex and often messy area of human sexuality.My second objection isn't really a response to you, but rather to the "born with it" rhetoric in general – It hurts the cause. It's a red herring, totally irrelevant to the argument of whether gays deserve basic human rights or not. Let's say they are born with it, what then? When a baby is born with a heart defect or a club foot, we fix it. Being born with something doesn't make it good, desirable, or even tolerable. And what if being gay is a choice, or is acquired through life experiences? That's as irrelevant as whether preferring chocolate or vanilla is a choice – you first have to argue that it's a bad thing before anyone cares. It's the homophobes who want to talk about homosexuality as being either "natural" or "unnatural." They want us to get hung up on that because human sexuality is so complex that we have never and probably will never be able to identify a "cause." At best, we might find a few correlations that will only alienate gays who don't fit, and the homophobes get to keep trumpeting about gays being unnatural. To accept these terms in the discussion is to put ourselves on the defensive, to be forced to prove the unprovable. It's much better, I'd say, to stick to talking about human rights. What does it matter if George prefers men, or I prefer blondes, or Selena is a white woman in love with a black man? Who cares? The only line that we, as a society, have the right to draw is at consenting adults. Anything else and it's the homophobes, the racists, and NAMBLA who have to go on the defensive.

  • Pingback: yellow october()

  • Pingback: cat 4 brother()

  • Pingback: blue ofica()