By Jeff Walsh
As a teenager, Jamie Nabozny tried to kill himself just so he wouldn't have to go to school.
From seventh to eleventh grade at Ashland Middle and Ashland High Schools in Wisconsin, Nabozny was: harassed, spit on, mock-raped while other students laughed, urinated on, called a "fag" by a teacher and kicked repeatedly in the stomach by his fellow students. He eventually dropped out of school.
"My life will never be the same because of the things that have happened to me," Nabozny said.
The middle school principal told Nabozny and his parents that "boys will be boys," regarding the assaults, and that if Nabozny "was going to be so openly gay, that he had to expect this kind of stuff to happen."
Nabozny, now 20 and living in Minneapolis, is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against his former school, its administrators and principals for not protecting Nabozny from the constant abuse. It is an appeal of a judge's previous ruling in favor of the school.
"This isn't going to happen to anybody else," Nabozny says. "People need to realize that this is happening and that they can't do it. A lot of times it's unfortunate, but in this country people will do things that aren't right until they are told they can't. Another school, another teacher is going to realize if I do this I can get sued. It's unfortunate, but it happens."
Nabozny's suit seeks punitive damages from the school, as well as other concessions which would allow him to attend a graduation ceremony at the school.
'I knew I was gay ... I basically dealt with it.'
Nabozny says he was always a shy, quiet kid and a good student. He first dealt with his sexuality when he was 11 years old.
"In sixth grade, I realized I was gay and came out to my parents. It wasn't a total acceptance on my part, or my parents' for that matter. But I realized I was gay and that it wasn't going to change," he says. "I basically dealt with it and accepted it."
Nabozny's parents noticed he was depressed. After repeatedly asking what was bothering him, he finally told them. "My mom said she probably knew before the meeting and she just needed to hear it from me," he says.
The name-calling began at school after people realized Nabozny had been the victim of sexual abuse. "It started out as people found out about a sexual abuse case that ended up in the media that involved me," he says. "I had been abused by my youth minister at my church. When that became public, my name wasn't in the paper or anything, but it's a small enough town, people figured it out. And then people started calling me names. I didn't acknowledge it, nor did I deny it until I was 15."
The name-calling led to the harassment and assaults, which made Nabozny's parents deal with his sexuality quicker than they would have preferred. "After telling my parents, they went into denial, but then all this stuff started happening at school and they couldn't deny it anymore or pretend it didn't exist," he says. "They had to deal with the fact that I was gay because they had to deal with the fact that I was being harassed because of it. With their acceptance, I came to accept it more."
'I was gay and it didn't matter. This shouldn't have been happening to me.'
When Nabozny was physically and verbally harassed in school, he didn't keep quiet or hide. He went to the school officials, told them he was gay, and demanded the abuse stop. Sometimes officials would meet with the abusive students and it would settle down for a while, but it would always start up again. Nabozny never told any of the students he was gay at that point.
"I got tired of this happening, and people always saying 'Why don't you just tell them you're not gay? Why don't you just tell them you're not gay? They'll leave you alone,'" he says. "But at that point, it wasn't about that. I was gay and it didn't matter. This shouldn't have been happening to me. So, confirming it, I thought, may actually lead to them leaving me alone. Because it wouldn't be that they were guessing I'm gay and harassing me because of it."
Nabozny was 15 when he came out to his fellow students. He didn't know any other gay students at his school, and even if other gay students were there, they wouldn't have talked to Nabozny.
"Everybody was too afraid to talk to me, because people would think they were gay," he says. "I did have two ... and I wouldn't even call them friends, we were so different. We were only together because we were the social outcasts of the school. It was a Jehovah's Witness girl and a schizophrenic girl, who wasn't there half the time. We wouldn't hang out after school, we'd sit together at lunch time or whatever, but that was it.
"I did start a gay youth group when I was going to school there, because I wanted a place where I could just go and talk," he says. "I thought maybe there would be other kids who would end up going because they wouldn't have to worry about talking to me in school, but that didn't happen."
Growing up, Nabozny did have a gay best friend whom he had met when he was eleven. "We grew up together in Ashland. He moved there and then we started hanging out," he says. "But he didn't go to school ever."
'I want to have a normal life .. if that's possible.'
Nabozny credits his parents with his being alive today. "Without them, I don't think I would have made it. I would get really depressed and very suicidal," he says. "A lot of times, the only thing that would prevent me from killing myself is the fact that I didn't want to hurt my mom."
It was his parents who usually prompted any action against the abusive students. "I would go to the principal, explain what happened, and she (the principal) wouldn't do anything," he says. "I'd go home and tell my parents and my parents would call and demanded a meeting. They wanted to confront the youths and the parents themselves. My parents were very angry and upset. They let the principal know that this wouldn't continue and they wanted something done."
In eleventh grade, Nabozny, with his parents' blessing and on the advice of his guidance counselor, dropped out of school. He has since gotten his GED.
"In December of my eleventh grade year, we had a meeting with my parents and guidance counselor at school, and we decided the best thing for me to do was to leave," he says. "She (the guidance counselor) said 'I've tried to help you through this whole thing and nobody's willing to do anything.' My parents had a really hard time letting me go. So, I left and I moved down here (to Minneapolis).
But finding a new school wasn't easy. "The high school I tried to go to decided it was going to be too difficult to have an openly gay student in their school, so they sent me to college," he says. "In Minnesota, they have something called post-secondary options. If you test out of high school, you can go to college."
Nabozny had to put college on hold because of his lawsuit. "After the lawsuit started going, I started doing depositions and a lot was going on with it, so I postponed it (college)," he says. "In the fall, I will definitely be going back no matter what. I realize I have put my life on hold for the last two years. Even if I win (the lawsuit), I'm two years behind where I have been."
Nabozny plans to get a master's degree in social work. "I want to work with gay and lesbian youth," he says. "My ultimate goal would be to start group homes for gay and lesbian youth."
"Once my lawsuit's done, I want to sink back and have a private life again," he says. "I want to get married, have kids, and have a normal life if that's at all possible. But I still have five more years of school."
'I'm going to go on, and I'm going to be okay'
Nabozny thinks another Ashland student also had trouble accepting his sexuality, but was unable to pull through his trouble. That boy killed himself after Nabozny was out of school for a couple of months.
"I didn't know he was gay, but when I was little, we used to mess around together. He ended up killing himself and leaving a note. The note was kept private," he says. "The family didn't want anyone to know what it had said, and I really believe that's what it had said. He actually did call me while I was in high school and he couldn't say anything.
"He said 'hi, this is so-and-so,' and I said 'hi.' He said, 'what are you doing?' And I said, 'I'm watching TV,' or whatever I was doing, and he just kind of said 'Oh' and he just shut up. I said 'are you there?', and he said 'Yeah, I got to go, I got to go.' And then he hung up."
"I believe wholeheartedly that's what happened and he was really having a lot of hard times with other things," Nabozny said. "He was really popular. He was in sports."
When Nabozny finally got out of Ashland schools and moved to Minneapolis, he didn't even think about filing a lawsuit against the school.
"When I first came down here, I wanted to put it behind me and just get on with my life. And I went to a place called the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council and I was trying to find gay foster parents down here, because I had just turned 17," he said. "I needed to get back into school, and I couldn't exactly get a job. The crimes victim advocate was who I met with because she was there, and she told me what had happened to me was totally illegal and the school should be made held responsible for that.
"I didn't realize what was being done to me was illegal or wrong. I just thought it's a small town, they're very prejudiced, homophobic," he says. "I almost felt it was okay what they did to me, that they could get away with it. I knew it wasn't right, but I didn't know it was illegal until that point."
A few days later, the advocate found him an attorney, and the suit was filed. "I think the attorney who took this case in the first place thought this was going to be a quick thing and she was going to get her money and that was it. She didn't realize how involved it was going to be," he says.
The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund wanted to be involved in his case from the beginning, but Nabozny's lawyer was against using their help.
"It was surprising to me, because when she took the case, I thought she was very sympathetic and it was going to be a good relationship," he says. "But she turned out to be quite homophobic and she did not want to be labeled as a gay rights advocate. She did not want this to be a gay case.
"When we lost, I had the opportunity not to continue with her representing me and Lambda was very interested in doing the appeal. I chose not to keep her because of the way she was," he says. "I wasn't able to do interviews. I wasn't able to talk to people. That was one of the important things about my case. If we lost and there was no public knowledge of my case, nobody would have realized this happened. Because of the fact it got publicity, people now know this happened. It's horrible, because the way the law is written right now, it can continue."
When he lost the first round in his case, Nabozny said he didn't want to appeal the decision.
"When the judge gave summary judgment to their side, I was very, very upset and I didn't want to continue and it has been a long, hard process. I have to live this stuff over and over again," he says. "The depositions are very difficult, because their lawyer is ruthless. He's very cruel, that's what he gets paid for, but it's not easy at all. So, I thought, 'Now I can let this go.' But I realized, 'No I can't.' I got letters about the decision, people saying you have to appeal, you can't let this happen.
"It really had become so much more about everyone else and less about me. Because my life is going to go on," he says. "I've worked through a lot of this stuff and am still working through it, but I'm going to go on, and I'm going to be okay.
"But there's a lot of people who aren't, some people don't make it out of high school because they kill themselves or run away and get involved in stuff that kills them," Nabozny said. "It's very important, to me, that they know they don't have to take the abuse. They don't have to go through this stuff."
Nabozny says the way Wisconsin's laws are written, "they don't protect youth, they protect adults. Minnesota has very specific laws that schools are to be safe for everyone. The Minneapolis schools have curriculum-wide stuff on gay and lesbian youth," he says. "Every school has a support group when it's needed. Minneapolis is very progressive on these issues.
"I've been involved with District 202 since I came here, which is the gay and lesbian youth center here," he says.
'I lived in fear every day'
But no matter how far away Nabozny is from Ashland, a small Wisconsin town with about 8,000 residents, the memories remain.
"I was sick all the time. I would get up in the morning and say 'I can't go to school, I can't go to school,' and my mother would say 'You have to.' She'd always know what was the matter, but I don't think they realized the extent to which it was affecting me," he says. "They'd go to school, and they'd feel like something was going to be done when they left there, at first, I guess. And I wouldn't tell them a lot of times what was going on. If I came home and told them every single day what had happened ... I didn't want to deal with it every day I came home. I just wanted to forget about it.
"Every day I had stomachaches. I lived in fear every day I got on that bus. I started walking to school because after a while, I wouldn't even take the bus anymore, it was just like my stomach was in knots," he says. "I had to live every day trying to avoid being harassed. I was very used to dealing with the name calling.
"I'd go to school and get there early so that I could get to the library before the other kids got there. The librarian was always the first person to get there, so I was always safe in there," he says. "I had to live every day like that. I had to use bathrooms usually used by teachers to avoid the kids in the bathroom. I had to think about these things every day."
His appeal cites three instances where Nabozny couldn't take it anymore, and tried to end his life.
"I tried to kill myself more than that," he says. "Those were the three attempts that were quite serious and I ended up in the hospital for."
'We support you'
Throughout the lawsuit, Nabozny said the school officials have refused to comment to any media. "Basically, they've let their lawyers handle it, and they are trying to get around the law," he says. "They cite a lot of employment cases, where if one employee beats up another employee then why is that Burger King's fault? But they're basically letting the lawyers handle it to protect their butts. They have not said one word to the media."
The judge who ruled on the case in favor of the school said he didn't dispute the harassment happened, but that the law "didn't back up what we were saying," says Nabozny.
"He said he believed everything happened to me, but since I was in a public school, I wasn't protected," he says, "whereas if I was a criminal and I was locked up, I would have been protected. Or if I was in a mental institution, I would have been protected. School is a voluntary place to be, he said, which is absolutely absurd, because by law you're supposed to go to school."
One student at Ashland High School, when she heard of Nabozny's lawsuit, used her disgust at the school to prompt her to come out.
"The day after it was in the paper, she announced at lunch time that she was a lesbian and that she thought this was ridiculous," he says. "At this point, I had been out of school for a few years. Some of the other kids that were there were a lot more supportive and they actually got together and made a huge poster for me saying "We support you" and then there's all these kids signatures on there and they wrote little notes to me."
Change for the better
"In high school, I was very withdrawn, shy. I had no friends, except for my one friend, and even then it was a minimal existence," he says. "Since I've moved out here, I have made a ton of friends. I'm doing things constantly. I go out. I have fun. I'm a very, very different person. I'm not shy whatsoever. A lot of people can't believe I ever was shy."
Nabozny submitted written testimony about the abuse he suffered in high school as part of the Hoekstra hearings in Congress recently. He also did a little lobbying while in Washington D.C. and gave packets of information to people who were going to be on the panel for the hearings, which only allowed one "pro-gay" voice to testify -- Mary Griffith, the mother of Bobby Griffith, who killed himself because of his inability to accept his sexuality.
Nabozny is also affiliated with the Log Cabin group, which is for gay Republicans, "which most people think is strange," he says. "But I do consider myself a Republican.
"The fiscal policies are the stance I'm more into. The only Republican I've ever supported is our governor Arnie Carlson, because he's not anti-gay whatsoever. He's been very supportive," Nabozny says. "I went to the Governor's Ball, after he won the election, with a male date. He's extremely liberal on a lot of issues. And also (openly gay Wisconsin Republican Congressman) Steve Gunderson, I met with his staff in Washington and he wants to have dinner with me now, so I'm going to try to arrange that. There is a handful of Republicans who are very supportive."
Nabozny still maintains an excellent relationship with his parents.
"Being gay isn't an issue anymore, and very few people can say that about their parents. It's so much a non-issue that they'll meet people who are gay and they want to set me up with them if they like the person," he says. "I bring my friends up there for Thanksgiving and Christmas if they don't have anywhere to go or their family isn't supportive. My parents come down here for gay pride. It's so weird when people talk about their parents, and I don't know what to say to them. My relationship would be the same with them if I were straight."
His social life has improved as well.
"I go on dates," he says. "Although, I'm less interested in settling down at this point than I will be in the future. I've had a couple serious relationships and they never last very long. I think part of it is my age, and I'm not ready to settle down yet. I'll know when I'm ready.
"It's really weird being my age and having been out for nine years," he says. "I don't date people my own age, and it's not just about maturity, but about my life experience, how long I've been out and what I've done since I've been out. Most people can't relate to that at all."
A photographer is also shooting a photo documentary of Nabozny (and another person's) life. "It's supposed to be like 150 pages with glossy pictures with direct quotes from me about what's happening in the pictures. That's supposed to come out a year from this spring," he says, also mentioning it might also be available on CD-ROM.
So, it doesn't seem that quiet private life is going to happen to Nabozny right away. "People are writing about me and doing articles about me and it's kind of weird," he says. "And when this book comes out, there will be 13 and 14-year-old kids looking these pictures of me, and I haven't really dealt with that part of it yet. So, as much as I'd like to have a private life, it might be 30 years from now and someone could be reading this book."
Nabozny isn't comfortable with being called a "role model" for gay youth, though. But he does like the ability to help other gay youth.
"I see what I'm doing as something that will be helpful to other gay youth, but my coming out experience was not normal at all. So the things I'm doing right now would be difficult for someone to do for someone who's 20 and only came out when he was 19," he says. "I have a very good understanding of who I am, what I'm all about, and what I want out of life, and that hasn't changed since I came out. I think I was 14 years old when I decided I wanted to work with gay and lesbian youth."
But sometimes, Nabozny forgets that his acceptance of his sexuality and coming out are not typical of most gay youth. "When someone asks me for advice, I have to remember that I'm not talking to someone who's been out forever, and they're just dealing with being gay, and that can be a fundamental issue for someone for a very long time," he says.
Nabozny has only recently started using the Internet, and was awestruck by its possibilities to help gay youth.
"If I would have been able to have access to it, I wouldn't have felt so alone or alienated," he says. "And I think that a lot of people are finding that. When I first was on the Internet, I was talking to 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old kids and I was thinking this is just very bizarre. I would never had had the opportunity, and they would not have had the opportunity without the Internet. I was very surprised to see that."
But despite his desire to help gay youth, his legally challenging his high school to account for how they treated him and his desire to go into social work, he doesn't even see himself as doing anything special.
"People have called me an activist, and I don't feel like I'm this radical person," he says. "I feel I'm doing what I'm doing because I think it's right. I'm not out there every day beating on people's door telling them 'Gay Rights Now.' It's not my thing, I guess."