The lurking gay menace stalks her prey, circa Halloween 2005.
I’ve never been to Anoka, Minnesota. I’m sure that just like any other place, it’s simultaneously full of perfectly nice people and people I’d want to punch in the mouth. But really, ever since I cried all over my computer at this Rolling Stone article about Michele Bachmann’s home district, where gay kids are routinely driven to self-harm, depression and suicide due to their unsupportive teachers and desperately cruel peers, it’s hard for me to imagine Anoka as a place whose leaders are anything but terrible.
And frankly, the latest news out of Anoka hasn’t exactly changed my mind. Just eight months after Rolling Stone made the tragedy of Anoka’ “suicide cluster” of LGBT teens a national issue, the town’s event organizers have declared that a gay youth group cannot walk in this year’s Halloween parade.
I know that when compared with the sheer awfulness of teen suicide and self-harm, not being able to walk in a Halloween parade might seem like kind of small potatoes. But Anoka calls itself the “Halloween Capital of the World” -- its parades are a tradition dating back to the 1920s. Excluding a gay youth group doesn’t just tell the group that they’re not wanted; it tells the rest of the town that such bigoted, exclusionary behavior is a completely acceptable course of action from adults.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a little hard for me to view these events through an unbiased lens. When I was a queermo high schooler, joining a gay youth group in the first place would have felt stomach-sickeningly thrilling. At my Catholic high school, we weren’t even allowed to have a Gay-Straight Alliance. Instead, my loose-knit group of gay-ish friends and I jokingly called our ragtag band “The Conversion Club” during our senior year. Translation: We were kids the Church couldn’t wait to convert back to heterosexuality as soon as we ventured two steps away from all our yaoi DVDs and David Leviathan novels.
When it came to stuff like, “Parents are so square!” and, “Help me find lesbian porn,” the Conversion Club offered some measure of peer-to-peer support. When more serious issues arose, though, we were all so knee-deep in our own emotionally abusive relationships and scary brain-places that we often just fed off of each other’s negative emotions. From what I can remember, I spent most of those days covertly clutching at my friends’ hands underneath lunch tables and trembling like a baby bird from anxiety, sleeplessness and about seven Diet Cokes a day.
It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to build a time machine and go give my former self a hug and/or a slap. Needless to say, it could have really used a helpful adult in the mix, preferably one who was LGBT-identified herself.
LGBT youth will often half-assedly disguise themselves as lady knights in order to infiltrate Catholic high schools. Tell your children!
Much like in Anoka, though, school policy expressly forbade our teachers and staff from allying themselves with pro-gay messaging. Naturally, this included any explicit encouragement for the merry band of queers who were busy working out our sexual tensions with each other through impassioned discussions of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Though we had Very Special Assemblies every other week discussing how to deal with depression and stress, I can’t remember a single authority figure mentioning any possible resources for LGBT kids.
It wasn’t an environment of homophobia, exactly; instead, it felt like misdirection. If the administration didn’t acknowledge that we were all tongue-kissing each other in our basements and spewing our outcast guts on our Xangas, then they didn’t have to take any responsibility for our emotional needs. Not the healthiest plan, but certainly a way to keep the Bishop of Sacramento Diocese from yanking funding from the entire establishment.
My friends and I spent much of our teen years consumed by paranoia and helplessness largely because of strategies like these, which left us with nowhere trusted to turn in times of crisis. Even so, I think it could have been way worse. After all, despite the administration officially discouraging the “Day of Silence,” our teachers still looked the other way as a third of my class went to class with duct tape over their mouths.
My English teacher still slipped us a list of books at the beginning of the summer that he wasn’t allowed to teach us during the year, which included such LGBT-themed titles as Jamie O'Neill’s “At Swim, Two Boys” and Anais Nin’s completed works. The adults in our schools may have largely ignored our experiences, but they didn’t go out of their way to revile them; we acknowledged their silences as a necessary evil and went back to our own personal mini-tragedies.
By contrast, many of the prominent adults in Anoka have gone out of their way to ensure that gay kids feel as doomed to damnation as possible. Up until 2009, thanks to the frosted-curl efforts of local anti-gay crusaders, teachers couldn’t acknowledge the existence of homosexuality without facing the possibility of getting fired. As LGBT kids cringed in the faces of kids wearing “Be Happy, Not Gay” T-shirts in honor of Focus on the Family’s “Day of Dialogue,” their teachers kept mum on the subject.
I can’t imagine what that would feel like: being 15 and feeling constantly sick with a secret you can’t fix, facing an entire day dedicated to your own failure to thrive as a healthy human being. In an environment like that, I imagine that teachers’ silence seems a lot more like a sign of anti-gay sentiment than it did in my high school.
As far as I can tell, many adults in Anoka truly must fear LGBT children. How else would you explain the unnecessary exclusion of gay kids from their Halloween celebration this year? The gay youth group, named Justin’s Gift in honor of a gay teenager who committed suicide in 2011, wrote on their website:
“We had hoped by walking in the Anoka Halloween Parade that we would not only be showing our youth that they were a welcome part of the Anoka Community but was to also be a public step towards the healing of a community that went through a very public and very ugly situation in regards to our LGBT youth.”
But leaving out Justin’s Gift doesn’t just affect the kids in the group, or even the LGBT kids in the crowd too afraid or otherwise unable to march alongside them. It also affects the town bullies: the kids who play an integral role in driving their peers to dark places.
Like it or not, kids pick up what adults teach them about how to treat human beings. Had the Anoka Halloween Parade included Justin’s Gift in their party, maybe the kids of the district who made their LGBT classmates miserable would have cottoned on to the town’s gradually changing attitude. Maybe in five or ten Octobers, they wouldn’t have had a problem with including the next decade’s LGBT youth group in the Halloween festivities.
At this point, though, Justin’s Gift will have to throw itself a separate Halloween dance while the rest of the town holds its celebration safe and sound from the lurking teenage gay menace. Thank goodness, right?