Carolyn Wagner, the Fayetteville mother whose struggle to stop gay and lesbian bullying in schools resulted in a landmark legal agreement and a national reputation as a tireless advocate for LGBT rights, died in Tulsa, Okla., on January 18 after a long struggle with cancer, hepatitis she acquired through a blood transfusion, and liver failure. She was 57.
In 1996, Wagner filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education, saying that her 16-year-old son William had endured years of homophobic harassment and bullying while a student in the Fayetteville School District, resulting in a broken nose and other injuries. Wagner and her son claimed school officials and teachers turned a blind eye to the abuse.
In 1998, the OCR reached an agreement with the Fayetteville School District which forced both OCR and the school district to recognize the harassment of gays and lesbians as falling under Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination — including sexual harassment — in schools. It was the first case in which Title IX was deemed to cover gay and lesbian bullying, and opened school districts up to losing their federal funding or civil litigation if they do nothing to stop the abuse of homosexual students.
Born in Fort Smith, the daughter of a Ku Klux Klansman, Wagner was the co-founder of Families United Against Hate, a non-profit group that works to secure the rights of gays and lesbians, and was a former vice-president of the board of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). She also founded Fulfill A Dream, Inc., which helped realize the final wishes of terminally ill children. In 2010, an interview with Wagner was included in the MSNBC special "Obama's America: 2010 and Beyond."
Wagner often took in or counseled gay teens who had been kicked out or disowned by their parents. In one moving video tribute to Wagner on Youtube, Russellville resident Brandon Brock said he got Wagner's number and called her when he was a confused gay teenager living in small-town Arkansas.
"She drove two hours in rural Arkansas to meet me in the parking lot of a Walmart," Brock says in the video. "We sat in her pickup truck — this stranger, a woman I'd never met, whose son was gay, who met with me because she knew I needed her... She simply told me that I was okay; that I can be a decent person and be gay. I knew that down inside somewhere, but I needed someone else to pull it out of me."
One account that shows the depth of Wagner's devotion to gay and lesbian rights has only recently come to light: the story of her harassment and beating by a violent homophobe in Northwest Arkansas, which she had requested be kept secret until after her death. ACLU of Arkansas executive director Rita Sklar said that in 2006, Wagner was pulled over by what appeared to be an unmarked police car with flashing blue lights embedded in the grille. The man who came to her car window threatened her, saying he didn't take kindly to "queer loving, ACLU types."
A few days later, Wagner said, the same man came to her house and attacked her as she let her dog out one night, hitting her in the back with a steel rod or baton. Sklar said that though the Arkansas ACLU and Wagner tried to get the local sheriff's department, the State Police and the FBI to investigate, nothing ever came of the incident.
"Across the country, gay and lesbian rights activists and advocates and anyone who benefited from her tireless work — really anyone who knew her — is grieving the loss of a great civil rights champion and a kind and loving woman," Sklar said. "Carolyn will be missed."