PINE CITY, Minn (Reuters) - Barb Schroeder knew about her son Alec’s struggles as an openly gay freshman in rural Minnesota’s Mora High School. But she didn’t know about the knife.
Classmates called Alec names and pushed him around inside a portable bathroom during a homecoming football game in 2005.
“I would take a knife out, hold it and think about how quick it would be, and how I wouldn’t have to go to school tomorrow and deal with that,” recalled Alec Schroeder, now 20.
Alec’s mother transferred him to a different school district in Minnesota, a state which has become a flash point in the battle over gay rights — and not just because of the proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and woman that will go before voters on the 2012 ballot.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district, the state’s largest, was sued in July by the Southern Poverty Law Center and The National Center for Lesbian Rights for what the groups call the district’s “gag” or “neutral” policy limiting teachers from defending or advocating gay rights.
The district just outside of Minneapolis is represented by Republican U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, a presidential contender whose husband owns a counseling business that has sought to “cure” homosexuals.
It is also located in what state health officials have declared a “suicide contagion” area because of higher than average numbers of suicides and suicide attempts.
Activists say gay teens account for an out-sized number of deaths and blame the district’s “curricular neutrality” on gay issues, which critics say leads to marginalization and bullying by banning classroom discussion on the issues.
Anoka-Hennepin’s superintendent, Dennis Carlson, defended the district’s policies in a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial, saying the district is not homophobic.
“We are advocates for all students,” wrote Carlson, who added that sexual orientation can be discussed in class if it’s “age-appropriate, fact-based and connected to curriculum.”
Gay activists say the problems for gay teens in Minnesota go beyond Anoka-Hennepin. In a 2009 survey, 84 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in Minnesota said they had been harassed or assaulted in the past year due to their sexual orientation, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Minnesota was in line with the national average in terms of the number of respondents saying they heard derogatory comments such as “dyke” or “faggot” from other students. But where the state stood out was in homophobic remarks directed at students by adults — in that category, the state came in at more than four times higher than the national average.
“Unfortunately, it paints a very difficult picture,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of New York-based GLSEN.
In Pine City, north of Minneapolis, city planner Nathan Johnson, 33, remembers hearing “faggot” and “that’s so gay” from both students and teachers when he was at Pine City High School in the mid-1990s.
“That was really prevalent as I think is true in a lot of high schools,” said Johnson. “It resonated with me.”
Things have changed at Mora High School since Alec Schroeder attended. The district, located 70 miles north of Anoka-Hennepin, amended its harassment policy to include sexual orientation, calling violations of it an affront to the U.S. Civil Rights Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
Mora Public Schools Superintendent Craig Schultz said in an e-mail, “Harassment, that I am made aware of, of any kind, is not will not be tolerated during my tenure with Mora Schools. This is my personal philosophy.”
Schroeder remembers his time at Mora before the new harassment policy as “scary.”
His mother said she now thinks, “If we didn’t take him out of there, I truly believe it wouldn’t have ended well.”
Alec Schroeder said he put up with the bullying because he was a teenager confused by conflicting emotions.
“You thought that you deserved it because no one else was that way,” said Schroeder.
“As you get older, you accept it and realize that you aren’t the only one,” said Schroeder, who is now working toward a nursing degree and performing in theater.
Writing and reporting by Andy Greder; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, James Kelleher, Barbara Goldberg and Ellen Wulfhorst