Rolling Stone Delves Into Anoka-Hennepin’s Gay-Suicide Cluster

With distance, some things are easier to take—and some things are harder.

James Clementi’s open letter in Out magazine brought back the suicide of his brother Tyler in such a heartbreaking way it was harder to read than the initial news reports of Tyler’s death.  And Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s feature on the rash of suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, published in this week’s Rolling Stone, revisits a tragedy most of us were hoping to put past us.

After school, Sam would encourage Brittany to join her in privately mocking their tormentors, and the girls would parade around Brittany’s house speaking in Valley Girl squeals, wearing bras over their shirts, collapsing in laughter. They’d become as close as sisters in the year since Sam had moved from North Dakota following her parents’ divorce, and Sam had quickly become Brittany’s beacon. Sam was even helping to start a Gay Straight Alliance club, as a safe haven for misfits like them, although the club’s progress was stalled by the school district that, among other things, was queasy about the club’s flagrant use of the word “gay.”

…Brittany admired Sam’s courage, and tried to mimic her insouciance and stoicism. So Brittany was bewildered when one day in November 2009, on the school bus home, a sixth-grade boy slid in next to her and asked quaveringly, “Did you hear Sam said she’s going to kill herself?”

Brittany considered the question. No way. How many times had she seen Sam roll her eyes and announce, “Ugh, I’m gonna kill myself” over some insignificant thing? “Don’t worry, you’ll see Sam tomorrow,” Brittany reassured her friend as they got off the bus. But as she trudged toward her house, she couldn’t stop turning it over in her mind. A boy in the district had already committed suicide just days into the school year – TJ Hayes, a 16-year-old at Blaine High School – so she knew such things were possible. But Sam Johnson? Brittany tried to keep the thought at bay. Finally, she confided in her mother.

“This isn’t something you kid about, Brittany,” her mom scolded, snatching the kitchen cordless and taking it down the hall to call the Johnsons. A minute later she returned, her face a mask of shock and terror. “Honey, I’m so sorry. We’re too late,” she said tonelessly as Brittany’s knees buckled; 13-year-old Sam had climbed into the bathtub after school and shot herself in the mouth with her own hunting rifle. No one at school had seen her suicide coming.

No one saw the rest of them coming, either.

Like Sam, three other of the nine students who killed themselves in the Minnesota district between 2009 and 2011 were either gay or perceived to be.

“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.”

As soon as the story came to light, sociologists and media types starting using words like “suicide contagion area,” as if there was a meningitis outbreak. But meningitis isn’t caused by a reactionary school policy like the one that barred teachers from discussing homosexuality in any useful context.

Erderly’s piece is truly commendable, both in its understanding of the larger political issues and players and its on-the-ground details of the kids facing humiliation and abuse in Anoka-Hennepin. Pick up a copy (yes, an actual physical copy of the magazine) and read it today.

One last thought: Many, if not most, of you reading this don’t have children of your own. And yet your taxes go to pay for the schools in the neighborhood. We think that gives us as much right to know what’s going on in those temples of learning as someone with a student there. Check up on your area schools: Do they have a GSA? Do they have an anti-bullying curriculum? Too many of us are hesitant to engage with young people because of old fears and prejudices. It’s time for us bury that fear and get involved—or it will be another young gay person we bury instead.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star

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  • Drew

    Ugh the term “Bullycyde” really has to go.

    Yes it’s a shame and very sad that these LGBT youth killed themselves but not every single LGBT person who commits suicide does it because of their sexual or gender orientation. In the end the reasons are unknown and it was their choice to do this.

    Or as a gay male friend of mine puts it, “Bullying has become the new AIDS”

  • ek

    I don’t think its bullying that is the problem but rather society. I know that even when I was being bullied (eight against one at times) that it wasn’t the bullies that got me down, but rather stories and commits from people I didn’t know. It’s the same way now. I moved seven hours away and the people who glare and preach don’t bother me but when I heard a friend of a friend say a couple gay slurs over skype, it affected me more than it ever had when those words were said directly to me.

  • Con

    Bullying isn’t the problem. The problem is that when students report bullying to their authority figures, nothing is done about it.

  • Bi male

    EK I agree with you. I remember coming out as bisexual to gay male friends and peers of mine and straight friends and they’d say things like, “Oh you’re not really bisexual you’re just gay or confused and just straight”, or I had one gay male friend who should know better tell me how Bisexual men are just gay men who are afraid to come out and how he’d never have sex with one because we’re at major risk for HIV. Another gay male friend of mine and I were talking and I told him about bisexual male friends of mine who are partnered to each other and he made the remark that it’s time for them to finally come out as gay men. Then you have supposed spokespeople for LGBT teens like Dan Savage claiming that your entire sexuality doesn’t exist or that you’re lying or unsure about being bisexual and will eventually come out as gay or lesbian.

  • Caliban

    That article is infuriating! The School Board, school principals, and teachers WON’T do anything about anti-gay bullying because either they’re afraid of the Evangelicals or they ARE Evangelicals. And even the teachers who claim they are (or were) concerned about anti-gay bullying didn’t do anything about it because they might get into trouble. So they just let it happen.

  • Shannon1981

    Isn’t this where Bachmann is? Figures. That woman is poison. I blame her.

  • Triple S

    Suicide is never the way to go. I haven’t experienced truly detrimental bullying in my time. I don’t know if I will or if I won’t, but regardless, suicide is NEVER justified.
    People say; “Oh, they were bullied so much, that they couldn’t take it anymore”. Yeah, well, I’m sorry for those people, but there are people to help you through that.
    Then people say “There IS no one to help them”. Well that’s called bullshit.
    That’s that’s the purpose of such organisations as the Trevor Project and the It Get’s Better Project. I’m not saying that they’re fullproof and you’ll be a super happy person if you use them, but they ARE ways to help.

    When people decide to kill themselves, it is a selfish thing of them to do. They are causing psychological and often permanent harm to parents, family and friends. Even completely unrelated people are thrown about when they here that someone killed themself.
    I’m not saying that people who commit suicide are evil people, but it is wrong and unjustified in whatever the case.

    If you truly are at your wits end, then the authorities can be appealed to in order for them to intervene. There is never a reason to kill yourself.

    Further, those that do commit suicide who decide to stage it for everyone to enjoy are the most selfish. Like that guy recently on Queerty, the one who hanged himself outside his front door?
    Just imagine what it would’ve been like for his mother, father or sibling to go to the door, open it and see the dead body of their son or brother. I’m not saying that he was fine and didn’t have to do it, but showcasing it for all to come and see is incredibly cruel and selfish.
    And that doesn’t say that if you do it in the isolation of your own room, that’s the better way to do it; someone will eventually come looking for you and find a dead body.

    To sum up: suicide is a pathetic escape from short term pain (it CAN be stopped if you try hard enough) and causes horrific pain and upset to other’s lives. It is never justified and the person who committed the suicide should not be looked upon as some poor person who just needed that extra help. They should be viewed as a poor person who indeed, could have done with a bit more help, but THEY COULD HAVE GOTTEN IT.

    Finally, do NOT think of me as someone who is not sympathetic to people who have suicidal thoughts; I have nothing more than the utmost of sympathy for them. But I will never accept that they “just HAD to”. There is ALWAYS a solution. Like they all say; “There is always more than one solution”.

  • Troy

    We have all been there, people say its the fault of these people or those people but this just isnt that easy, We send our kids to school to get an education (we hope), and help them to learn how to become good productive adults. no its not the job of the teachers and schools to raise our kids but they are responsible for them when there at school.I dont believe this was just a Gay or straight thing, these kids are horrible about anything they pick out about another student= weight, height,poor, Black,Gay…
    These teachers know what is happening in these schools, but it sure is easy to just turn your head and look the other way–Until it hits you in the heart the way it has our family, If I could only go back and tell Sam Im sorry she was feeling so bad inside and If I only would have asked the questions and listened more then Maybe My little Niece “Sammy” would still be here. God i miss her. After all this that has happened I really push my kids to stick up for others who cant, and never ever for any reason pick on other kids. Wow first time I have commented about this online, kinda feels good and kinda sick to my stomach at the same time. (guilt is a powerfull medicine). Troy

  • Triple S

    @Troy: You have my most sincere condolences, Troy. Don’t read what I said before and see me as someone who has scorn for your niece, I have no feelings of happiness or satisfaction when I find out about suicides.
    Your words say that Sam was a lovely girl, and of that, I am sure. Words like yours are not spoken lightly.
    You have my best wishes.

  • Troy

    @Triple S:
    ” Suicide is NEVER justified” I guess if we are dealing with an adult like you or I then I would agree. But when we are talking about a 13 year old child I strongly disagree. They have no concept of forever, forever for them is having to wait till friday to go hang with there friends. Its not the forever we know. But I respect your opinion on this.

  • Troy

    @Triple S: Thank you, that was very much appreciated and needed.

  • Triple S

    @Troy: Well, I suppose I was being a little absolute. My perception of the matter would very much be viewed as different by a thirteen year old. Sorry about that. And thanks for calling me an adult, but I’m actually only sixteen and a half.

  • Troy


    Isnt it strange how we move thru this life thinking we have it figured out and then BAMM it hits us up-side the head and spins us in a direction we have never thought of before or refused to open our eyes to. That is what happened to me, Anyone else with me on that whole life lesson?

  • Troy

    @Triple S:

    Well you are step ahead of the rest your age. Hope you always stay that way.

  • CBRad

    Maybe some of these gay kids commit suicide, partly, because the future looks bleak. All they see online are stories showing ghastly parties, gay-ghetto attitudes where you have to follow all the Gay rules or you’re not an Acceptible Gay, those druggy Gay Cruises, etc. It can present such a looming, limited, unfullfilling future. They need to know there’s an endless variety of ways you can live your life while preferring the same sex. (Maybe that’s just part of it, sometimes. I know suicide is a complicated subject).

  • jason

    Rolling Stone magazine only tends to cover us gay guys when we’re committing suicide. Apart from that, we don’t get much coverage in that magazine. It’s a homophobic magazine run by homophobes.

  • tookietookie

    @Bi male: What did that have to do with anything? Don’t make this a platform for your issues.

  • ek

    @Bi male: I agree with you that the stigma around bisexuals (especially males) is terrible. I think this may be part of the reason why I have noticed an increasing amount of people who identify as pansexual. I think we as a community need to address the stigma around bisexuality and abolish it. It doesn’t help when you have people like Cynthia Nixon who are working against fixing this. And tookietookie, lay off. He has as much right to commit about his issues on here as anybody else. His story spoke of bullying which was absolutely related.

  • tookietookie

    Bullying gay kids isn’t the same as people not believing in bisexuals. I am for freedom to do as you please, but you shouldn’t thought-police people who don’t believe you. Their own experiences with confused “bisexuals” is the basis for their skepticism and it would be irrational to just go along with your views just because you feel emotional about it. Never gonna happen, and for you to get on here and bandwagon onto an objectively serious problem involving kids so you can soapbox about the validity of your opinion is really narcissistic of you. Even if you are bisexual, you’re too self-involved to contribute to the discussion about this post. Why don’t you take a breather and wait for a Cynthia Nixon post to pop up again.

  • Sheldon

    Tookie do you even read what you write before you hit post? You’re being a bully towards bisexual men and towards LGBT youth. Biphobia and bisexual erasure which you’re practicing are just as bad as homophobia.

  • Caliban

    Maybe it’s because I was a “bullied teen,” which did have a tremendously detrimental effect on my grades and social interaction that lasted through my 20s, but I just don’t understand how teachers can just look the other way. I don’t. Presumably most of them went into teaching because they had some interest in helping young people, at least in educating them, and bullying gets in the way of education. It’s kind of hard to concentrate in class when you’re tracking the people around you, bracing yourself for the next slur or punch which might not happen immediately, but you know it’s coming eventually.

    I used to think that calling the aftereffects of bullying PTSD was a bit over-dramatic because, hey, PTSD is something that happens to soldiers who’ve been in battle! But now I see that it isn’t an exaggeration at all. The causes aren’t the same but PTSD is really just holding onto fears and reactions from a stressful situation long after they’re needed or functional. Despite no longer being in a war zone a soldier might react to a loud noise as if he or she is still in battle. A person who has been bullied views other people with fear, is watchful, waiting for others to turn on them, even though it’s an unrealistic fear now they aren’t in school any longer.

    And it’s not just anti-gay bullying that’s a problem, but the victimization of people for race, looks, socioeconomic status, interests, whatever. No matter what your religious or political views are it’s something that has to be dealt with in our schools.

  • Jenna

    I live in Anoka where all these things were happening and it didnt have to do with gay/ lesiben stuff it was all different like someone cheated on a girlfriend then killed himself.

  • 13Zeroither

    i’m just curious, i guess most people are use to hearing about people killing themselves for reasons like sadness, despair, lonelyness, etc…
    but has anyone heard of honor suicide? Like in Japan, who have a much higher suicide rate than we do. Their reason of suicide is different than ours. Its not always selfish reasons.

  • Mike

    @Jenna: Yes, the four or five gay kids who killed themselves, that had nothing to do with gay or lesbian stuff, not even the ones that were detailed in the article? Enough with the excuses.

  • Julia Rooke

    @Drew: If schools mobilise to help they can make a huge difference. Sweden has a school bullying ombudsman who names and shames and fines school authorities if they let kids down. Amazing how quickly this makes schools take bully prevention seriously! Find out how the ombudsman saved 17 year old Yasmine’s life when she was contemplating suicide and thought the bullying was all her own fault. Hear Yasmine’s story from her own lips and what the Swedish ombudsman had to say when he spoke to Brenda High from US BullyPolice. See my feature in Latitudenews.com. We’d like to hear your story and your views.

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