I wrote this story in 1996, part of what turned out to be the first of an occasional series for the Ozark Gazette about harassment of young people over gay issues in Fayetteville. We actually already had the front cover already laid in, when I got the call that the Wagners wanted to talk to me - the night before we were going to take the weekly paper to the printer. I did the interview, wrote the story overnight, and the next day was spent frantically reworking the paper - our last issue before we took our Christmas break - to get ready for the printer.
:Hate on the Home Front
Gay Bashing: Closer Than You Think
Written by Richard S. Drake
It can't happen here. . . but it does.
Treatment ranging all the way from verbal abuse to shoving to an actual beating have been the experiences for two Fayetteville students, due to the fact that one is gay, and the other's mother is a lesbian.
The young man, high-schooler William Wagner, has refused to stay in “the closet,” and has been subjected over the last several years to increasingly violent harassment, culminating this month in a severe broad daylight beating, outside a local Laundromat.
“Danielle,” a young student at Woodland Junior High School, had very similar treatment over the past several years.
The experiences of these two young people are the result of the anti-gay prejudice that has touched America's schools, workplaces, and homes.
While schools have always been a breeding ground for bullies seeking victims, the situation becomes that much worse when these predators feel “justified,” as when they attack someone for some “offense” against society, whether the excuse be race, religion, or sexuality.
For William Wagner and his family, who moved to Fayetteville to escape the bigotry of a small town in Arkansas, what has happened has set them back.
Carolyn Wagner says that they were trying to find a place where William could go through
school safely. “There is no place we could move where he is going to be one hundred percent accepted, but we stood a much better chance of getting a decent chance up here.” William has responded well to the intellectual atmosphere at Fayetteville High School, where many teachers have enjoyed his open mind and quest for knowledge.
That has not been enough to spare him from attack, however.
Most of the time, the attacks have been verbal, with some pushing, shoving and punching. Sometimes people write cruel remarks on the chalkboard, such as the misspelled. “Willie is a fagot.”
This has been the first time he was seriously attacked.
Several months ago, a teacher (who would not identify herself) called the Wagners and warned them that there were rumors that William was going to be attacked. She was frightened for him. She told them that some of the teachers liked him very much, but that there were some who did not, as well as some of the students.
William himself had no direct warning of the attack, though he had heard rumors that someone had been “bragging that they were going have people beat me up.”
Last week, while waiting to eat lunch at the Hogwash Laundry on University Avenue, William and some of his friends were waylaid by two vehicles full of young men, only two of which he recognized.
Separating him from his friends, they began attacking him. As he was fighting back, he heard someone say, “Fucking queer,” and then punches rained upon his back.
Fighting back, he fell, taking one of his attackers with him. Regaining his feet, he said, “So you're afraid to fight me alone, huh?”
“Shut up,” was the response as he was punched again.
“After a while, I began to feel my nose break, and I thought, this can't go on. I just curled up into a fetal position.”
When someone at the edge of the group warned that the police were coming, the boys fled. Afterwards, the 10th grader was taken to the hospital, where it was discovered that his nose was broken in two places, and also that he some kidney damage.
The next day, two students at the high school were arrested for the assault.
William wants the world to know that it was a gay bashing, and not hide. At first, his parents were worried, but they have come to appreciate his point of view.
“We went the other route, we've tried to stay quiet. We've tried to stay calm, and not be demanding, hysterical parents with the school. We have just tried to be persistent, and tried to be tolerant of their ignorance, and it got us nowhere. Our son got beaten anyhow. That does not work, and now that we think about it, it never has worked. They are murdered all the time, and beaten and taunted.
“It’s time to stand up, and say, we're not going to tolerate it.”
One morning following the attack, an anonymous caller rang the house early one morning and said,
“The fag is going to get a cap in the head.”
Don't Cry, Mom
For Woodland Junior High student and 10th generation Fayettevillian Danielle (a pseudonym), harassment has also been an every day occurrence. She feels that she has at times made a mistake when she has trusted her friends with the information that both of her parents are women. Almost instantly, it seemed that gossip about her and her parents has been spread around the school.
“I really wasn't ready for this year,” she confessed in an interview this week, following a talk with her mother, when she revealed the extent of the verbal and physical abuse she has suffered. She cautioned her mother not to cry when she heard the story.
The least of her troubles seems to be the constant verbal harassment. Cursing, vile names and insults about her own sexuality often follow her through the days. It has been all too apparent that her harassment is due to the fact that her parents are both lesbian.
Words like Gay-wad, lesbo, bitch, whore, slut and a dozen others have rung in her ears as the school year has gone by. Boys in her class accuse her of having sex with her dog. Sadly, it is not just the garden variety jerks who have been attacking her, but some of the more popular kids as well.
Though she says that when teachers hear the verbal abuse and have told the students not to say such things, it doesn't go any further than that.
She says, “Nothing they can do can really hurt my feelings. But when they start talking about my family, I start getting mad, and I can't take it. I fight back.”
Most teachers seem to either not truly understand what they are seeing when she is being bothered, or they misconstrue the situation, particularly when she strikes back at someone. On at least two occasions she has struck out. The first was after a girl slapped her, and she responded in kind. The girl then went to the teacher, complaining that Danielle had attacked her.
On another occasion, she slapped a boy who kept getting in her way in the hallway, who kept referring to her in a sexually explicit manner. When asked about what he had called her, she replied, “It was a really bad word, and I don't want to say it,” and her voice broke a little.
The abuse has not been confined to the verbal. She has been pushed, slapped, kicked, and once in a gym class, restrained under a large parachute and kicked in the head.
Most of the students involved in these particular attacks are female.
Danielle is sometimes afraid that the attacks might be so violent that “I’m afraid that I might eventually get beaten severely.” Whatever happens, however, she vows to stay in school. Though she stresses that she has more friends this year than in most past years, she says that, for the most part, her friends don't come to her defense when she is harassed.
Ironically, Danielle’s mother was harassed thirty years ago as a student at Fayetteville High School, due to the fact that she refused to hide her sexual identity.
The above cases are reminiscent of the experiences of Jamie Nabozny, who recently won a large lawsuit against Wisconsin school officials who failed to assure his safety while in high school. The gay student underwent a series of attacks from fellow students. One attack (which required hospitalization) involved an assault in a classroom, in which several young men pretended to rape him.
On another occasion, he was knocked down in the bathroom and urinated upon.
Nabozny himself called William Wagner the Friday following his beating to offer words of encouragement.
In the end, it will not only be words of encouragement that will save the Williams and the Danielles among us, but a drastic realignment in our thinking. We need to emphasize not just tolerance, but acceptance.
Ozark Gazette - December 9, 1996