BY ARI EZRA WALDMAN
To celebrate Pride 2012 and to honor the great civil rights and political successes we have earned recently, I would like to offer a series of columns on the lawyers, advocates, scholars, and individual leaders who have sacrificed so much, developed novel legal arguments, and won the legal victories upon which we stand today. It is impossible to include everyone; a entire life's work would fail to honor all of our forefathers. But these few representatives symbolize the contributions of the greater whole: a group of men and women, young and old, who have sacrificed so that we can live a life of freedom today. Today, the child plaintiffs.
Aaron Fricke and Jamie Nabozny came out before most of us did, became standard bearers of LGBT honor and equality, faced burdens that no one should, and sacrificed childhood frivolity for a witness chair. They are the boys who would be men, the children who took on adult responsibility to fight back against unparalleled brutality and anti-gay censorship, respectively. And, while LGBT youth are still being bullied into depression and suicide and while students are still not always given the freedom to engage in affirming, pro-equality speech in schools, Aaron and Jamie deserve our thanks for taking the steps few of their peers would.
Aaron (who wrote a memoir about his experiences using an homage to the classic B-52 song, "Rock Lobster") took his principal to court in 1979 when the administration refused to let him bring a boy as his date to the school prom. In an era of sodomy laws, continued raids on gay establishments, and anti-gay censorship, Aaron accepted oppression no longer.
With the help of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), Aaron challenged the public school's refusal to allow him to attend prom with a same-sex date on free speech grounds and won (Fricke v. Lynch (D.R.I. 1980)).
Jamie also won his case, but his story is nothing if not tragic.
Throughout middle school and high school, Jamie was subjected to endless anti-gay verbal and physical abuse by fellow students at his public high school in Ashland, Wisconsin. His tormentors urinated on him, performed a mock rape on him during class and in front of an approving teacher, and attacked him so brutally one morning that he required hospitalization. School officials new about all of this, yet refused to do much of anything; at one point, Jamie's principal said that Jamie should "man up" and that Jamie should expect the abuse because of his sexual orientation. Jamie attempted suicide three times, dropped out of school, and escaped his abuse by going to live with a relative in another state.
The documentary Bullied is about Jamie's case. He sued his Ashland, Wisconsin school, claiming it was a violation of his civil rights for school officials to willfully ignore his plight. He lost at the district court level, but thanks to Lambda Legal, Jamie won a precedent-setting victory at the Seventh Circuit and a nearly $1 million settlement (Nabozny v. Podlesny (7th Cir. 1996)).
Aaron's and Jamie's cases are quite different: Aaron's principal, though closed-minded, never condoned nor actively supported violence against Aaron, whereas Jamie's principal and teachers did. However, by refusing to permit Aaron to express his identity, Aaron's principal validated Jamie's tormentors and their conduct. Both villains felt there was something wrong with being gay and something worse about expressing it. Aaron and Jamie refused to accept this hatred, and every proud out gay teen relies on the legal precedents set by Aaron, Jamie, and their lawyers.
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