By Jeff Walsh
Willi Wagner never wanted to be out in his high school. He was outed in the ninth grade, and left school after his sophomore year, due to constant verbal and physical attacks. Wagner and his parents, with the help of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, filed a sex discrimination complaint to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education. The complaint was the first filed under Title IX on behalf of a harassed gay student.
On June 17, the OCR reached agreement with the Fayetteville Public Schools, calling for the district to "recognize the various forms of sexual harassment," including "sexual harassment directed at gay or lesbian students..." Under the agreement, the school district must overhaul its policies and procedures and train faculty, staff, and students with written reports of progress to the OCR until June 1999.
"This is the first case in the nation under the new Title IX guidelines' explicit coverage of sexual harassment directed at gay students," said Lambda Staff Attorney David S. Buckel. "School principals who question whether sexual harassment of gay students is illegal will learn a big lesson from this breakthrough."
Wagner was always comfortable with his sexuality. He says he'd always known he was gay, figured out the name for himself at age 12 or 13, and came out to his parents at 14.
"I never even pretended to have crushes on girls. In the fifth and sixth grades, I used my fag hags as covers, even though we didn't know what we were then. Well, they didn't know what it was then, they just thought I was the sweetest boy and had such great taste. So, we would just go out as friends, and it functioned as a cover for me."
It was when he began coming out to friends at school that trouble began.
"When I was in the process of talking to one of my friends about it, some girl in the class was eavesdropping, and she overheard us, turned around and said, "WHAT? You're GAY?" And everyone in the school knew by ninth period that day," Wagner said, in a phone interview with Oasis. "Of course, the shit started in, but they would try and bully me around because they saw me as a pansy boy. They used to think I was a Satanist, so now they saw me as a Satanist pansy boy. They tried pushing me in the halls, and I would push back.
"It went back and forth like that, and they always called me shit in the halls. Once, when I was on a field trip in the ninth grade, a boy in class put signs up on the bus when we were on our way to an arts center that said "Help, Willi's raping us" and "Willi jizzed all over us." Whenever my mom went to the principal, the principal of course said I was asking for it by going around and declaring I was gay," Wagner said.
Wagner is clear, though, that this was not the case at all.
"I didn't go around and declare I was gay. I would have been more than happy that no one besides my friends knew, but someone else did that work for me," he said. "[The principal] said I was asking for it for being so vocal, and if I didn't fight back, it would all be over with."
Wagner said some of the problem getting in his harassment resolved is that one of his attackers was the son of prominent local lawyers. Wagner had submitted the boy's name on a list as one of the people bothering him.
"Whenever they saw his name on the list, they were like 'Do you know who this boy is? Do you know who his parents are?' So, the principal completely refused to do anything," he said.
Wagner, of course, was not given the same consideration. After the incident on the school bus, Wagner had a panic attack and needed to get away for a while. He stepped off school grounds when he went to try and relax in a grove of trees next to school property. He was given a suspension for it, although the boys who caused his panic attack with their harassment were never punished.
Things didn't get better once Wagner went to high school. It was only a few weeks before everyone knew he was gay, as his old junior high classmates told the kids from the different junior high. The harassment started up again.
"This is one of the most delightfully juvenile things I've seen in a while. They had drawn pictures of me having sex with gas pumps and stuff, and passed it around. I just found it so juvenile, I couldn't help but laugh, which only made it worse," he said. "Then they started following me around, saying they were going to kick my ass at lunch. And I would say, 'Not on school grounds, you dumbass, you're going to get yourself arrested.' And they would only do it while they were around each other."
Wagner tried hard to not be a victim, in fact he challenged the people who attacked him. One time, he encountered one of his harassers alone with different friends. Without the rest of the group, the kid didn't harass Wagner, so Wagner reminded him.
"I said, 'Weren't you planning on doing something during lunch?' And he just didn't say anything, because for all the friends he had, I had four. Eventually, another kid transferred into the Academy, which was the school program I was in, and he started in with me. One time when I was walking to get my pencil sharpened, he leaned back and punched me and pretended he was stretching his arms. And I just turned around and said, "If you touch me again, I'll fucking break your neck like a goddamned twig." He just jumped back out of his chair. First, he looked scared, but then he was like "C'mon!" I just told him to get a life. He started walking toward me to try something and the teacher stopped him. I kind of dealt with it different then most people, I just got really callous to it."
Of course, the level of abuse eventually escalated.
"Thirty minutes before it happened, there was a lot of shit going on. A lot of my friends had already been kicked and punched by this group of rednecks who were looking for me. The one kid was bragging that they were coming to kill me. Apparently, he had even paid them to make sure they did it," he said. "There were eight of them. I lost. I had my nose broken in two places, I had knots all over my head and my ribs were sore for a long time. But, I lived through it and we decided not to take any vengeful legal action against the school because what good would taking money away from the school do? It would only make other kid's education more crappy. We legally prosecuted the ones we were able to find out about, and we were only got to prosecute two of them."
One of his attackers had also allegedly raped a 13 year-old girl and is now in prison, the other got probation.
Wagner's forceful attitude didn't mean he wasn't afraid, though.
"There was fear, but I never showed it to them. I was bound and determined I was going to be just as mean as they were, only with a little more pizzazz. A lot more stylish," he said. "But every day, I went through the same thing every day I woke up. I knew it was going to be another day of torture. Each period was its own unique torture, and still has the same psychological warfare consequences, the place of my daily defeats and ridicule.
"When I was little, I would try and play sick. I got pretty good at that, but it didn't get me all the way. Toward the end, I would skip weeks at a time. I just didn't think it was worth it," he said. "I didn't want to carry around too much emotional baggage. What was the purpose of getting an education if you were going to be psychologically scarred for it."
Wagner did get his GED, and is planning to start college in the fall, on his way to a doctorate in theology, his first step in being a possible career student ("I want to learn everything I've always wanted to know.") He's never had a steady relationship, and hopes that is in his future.
"I fucking hope so, I am sick of this. Arkansas can get lonely," he said.
Wagner is glad he's always had the support of his parents. Despite the fact that he said he is now effeminate ("It was definitely a learned trait with me."), he only gave his mother her first hint a week before he told her.
"I never dressed up in my sister's clothes or play with her clothes," he said. "I always played with the blow-shit-up toys like GI Joe and Transformers. I always wanted the guys with the biggest guns." (No, we're not going anywhere with that).
Wagner's mother Carolyn and father Bill both got support through PFLAG, of which they are members.
"My heart broke when my son was so terribly abused, just for being himself. A mother's dream for her children is that they be happy and healthy, and this includes being safe at school," Carolyn Wagner said. "This agreement with Fayetteville Schools, hopefully, will safeguard many parents' dreams and protect their kids."
Willi thinks it's great that the struggle he went through is now something that can be used to protect gay and lesbian students across the country.
"Now, more kids will be making it out of the schools alive, which means a lot."