Jamie Nabozny

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Photo by Steve Jacobs

Jamie Nabozny grew up in Ashland, Wisconsin, a small town located on the south shore of Lake Superior. By the time Jamie was in middle school, he found himself the target of physical violence and degrading acts by classmates. When Jamie turned to school officials for help, he was told to expect abuse for his sexuality and to stop “acting so gay.”

As the attacks continued and school staff looked on with indifference, Jamie lost hope and moved to Minneapolis. Free at last from much of the verbal and physical violence that had dominated his young life, Nabozny realized that he was not alone. Similar acts of abuse were happening to students across the country. Jamie decided to take a stand for his rights and the rights of his fellow students. In 1995, he took legal action against his middle school where he had been so badly beaten by his classmates that he required abdominal surgery to undo the damage.

Although his first attempt at legal action was unsuccessful, his case drew the attention of Lambda Legal, a civil-rights oriented law firm. With their help, Jamie took his case to a federal appeals court for a second trial. His new trial issued the first judicial opinion in American history to find a public school accountable for allowing anti-gay abuse, and the school officials liable for Jamie’s injuries. This landmark decision entitled students across the United States to a safe educational experience, regardless of their sexual identity.

Today Jamie travels the country speaking to students and teachers about the dangers of bullying and how they can stop it in their schools and communities. Jamie’s story has been turned into a short documentary “Bullied” produced by The Southern Poverty Law Center in 2011.

In His Own Words

Excerpts from a speech given at Bridgewater State University, April 5, 2011

I’d like to start with telling you a little bit of what happened to me when I was in school. The harassment started when I was in seventh grade, and it started with verbal harassment as it often does. Kids were calling me ‘fag’ and ‘queer’, and why they targeted me I don’t know, but they did. I wasn’t interested in girls, I wasn’t interested in sports, and so for a variety for reasons I was singled out and targeted. I also happened to be gay, and so the harassment started. I went into the student handbook and looked up harassment and found out what steps I was supposed to take to address the harassment and that involved telling the guidance counselor who directed me to the principal of the school. And in the very beginning the principal said things to me like, ‘I’ll take care of it’, ‘I’ll deal with it’ and nothing changed, the harassment continued.

Until one day in seventh grade I was in a bathroom with my brother and some kids actually ended up pushing us into the stalls and punching us. And I thought, “Okay, now that it’s turned violent the principal has to do something.” So I went into her office and told her what happened, and she said to me, “Jaime, if you’re going to be so openly gay, these kinds of things are going to happen to you.” And I was shocked, I left school and was suspended for leaving school without permission. I went home and told my parents and my parents demanded a meeting with these kids and their parents. There were two of the kids, one of the moms came, my mom, my dad, me, my brother and the principal of the middle school. And at that meeting we talked about what had happened. The principal of the middle school actually said, “Mr. and Mrs. Nabozny, boys are going to be boys, and if your son is going to be openly gay he has to expect this kind of stuff.” Well as you can imagine, that sent a green light to those kids that it was okay to continue to harass me. And from that episode, the harassment continued to escalate. I attempted to kill myself, was put into an adolescent psych ward and then was returned back to the middle school in the eighth grade.

Partially through my eighth grade year I was in a science classroom, and sitting next to two of the boys who were my biggest harassers and they started groping me and grabbing me and pushed me to the ground and pretended like they were raping me in front of the entire class. The teacher was out of the classroom I got up, my shirt was ripped, I was crying, I ran to the principal’s office, expecting, surely she’s going to do something now, it’s a sexual thing and I know there’s a lot of rules about sexual harassment and what you’re not supposed to do in school. And she just looked at me and shook her head and said, “Jaime, if you don’t have an appointment than I don’t have anything to say to you.” I left school, and went home and I attempted to kill myself again. I then went back to Ashland and started my freshman year in high school. And my parents tried to assure me that things would be different, the kids who were harassing me were now freshman, and the older kids wouldn’t know who I was. Well, in my third week of school I was pushed into a urinal and urinated on. And when I went to tell them at the office I actually didn’t even get to see the principal. The secretary called the principal and I was told to go home and change my clothes, and nothing was done about what happened to me. I quickly realized that I needed to figure out some survival mechanisms to get me through school.

And basically a lot of times I thought I had went numb between my ninth grade year and the last incident that happened to me, because I really didn’t show my emotions at school. I’ll tell you I showed them at home, I would go home and lock myself in my room and cry, and my parents were at the end of their ropes, trying to figure out what to do and trying to help me.

So in my eleventh grade year, I had found a place to hide in the morning before school started, and that particular day I didn’t hide well enough. Some kids found me, and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor and one of them kicked the books out of my hands, and said, “Get up and fight faggot”. And when I went to pick the books up, he started to kick me, and he continued to kick me and kick me until the lights in the library went on which meant that the librarian was there and at that point they took off. I had to be taken to the hospital; I had to have emergency abdominal surgery for internal bruising and bleeding. My spleen had ruptured and I had a tear in my stomach. And I knew I wasn’t ever going to be safe at school and I knew I had to leave Ashland. I ended up running away to Minneapolis-St. Paul which was the only place I knew gay people existed, and figured I would be safe there. I got down there and quickly realized that there’s not a lot that I could do when you’re seventeen to survive on the streets, or at least not things that I was willing to do and so I called home and told my parents, “You know how bad it is for me at school, just let me live here and go back to school and be safe.” And my mom said it was the hardest thing that she ever had to do, was to let me go. I was only seventeen and I had just turned seventeen at that point.

And so while I was in Minneapolis I ended up going to what was, at the time, the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council, and I ended up meeting with their Crime Victims Advocate who happened to be a lawyer and she told me that what happened to me was wrong and it was illegal and I needed to sue my school. And I went home and I called my parents and I told them about this crazy lesbian lawyer at the Community Action Council, and her crazy ideas about suing the school. And my mom was silent for a second and I could tell she had tears in her eyes, and she said, “Jaime, you need to do this, too many kids are suffering out there. And you have the ability to stand up and fight back.” And she said, “Somebody needs to say this is wrong.”

And so I went back to the crazy lesbian lawyer and I said, alright, I’ll do it. We ended up finding a lawyer locally; the case was initially thrown out by a federal judge and at that point Lambda Legal stepped in and took over the case and joined up with Skadden Arps, which for any of you who know, it’s one of the largest law firms in the world, and it was one of their partners in the Chicago firm who was my lead attorney. And not only did he take my case, but he came out as a gay, HIV positive man to his entire firm. And he said this is the case that he wanted to be remembered for, not all of the other cases that he had done. And so, just amazing people that were working on my team.

So we won a verdict against the three principals, and not the school district and a lot of people wanted to know, why didn’t they find the school district guilty? Well Wisconsin has had a law on the books since the early 1980′s that said discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation was wrong. The school had a policy, and as a district, the building and the laws were there to protect me, but the people who were in charge of making sure those laws and policies were followed through on didn’t do their jobs. and ultimately I think it was the best possible outcome for the case because what this holds is that school administrators now have a personal responsibility to protect students from harassment and if they do not they can be individually be sued, much like a doctor for malpractice. I’ve always said I don’t care why people do the right thing; they just need to do the right thing. And if it means they’re afraid of losing their house or their life savings, then hey, they’ll protect kids and that’s what needs to happen.

The case sent a message across the country that it was not okay to allow GLBT kids to be harassed and bullied in schools. And one of the things that I think sent that message loud and clear was that there was a settlement reached for $900,000. I think the message was loud and clear that if you’re going to discriminate against GLBT kids then you’re going to pay the price. And I naively believed that things would change overnight. And fast-forward fifteen years. This last fall, as you saw on the news there were a lot of suicides and specifically gay suicides because of anti-gay bullying and abuse that kids were suffering. And one of the things that I think is important to realize isn’t that suicides and anti-gay bullying isn’t on the rise, it’s just that someone started paying attention last fall. And I think it’s a really important clarification to make. This has been happening for a very long time. And so I started thinking about the fact that I wanted to go back out and talk about this issue, I wanted to tell my story, I wanted to talk about bullying again.

I think there are three main things that need to happen. The first thing is prevention. If you prevent something in the first place, then you don’t have to deal with it. It’s a pretty simple concept that seems to be forgotten over and over in this country, however, it’s going to be something that we are going to have to look at and look at seriously. And some things that I think need to happen in prevention: it needs to start early. It needs to start in grade school and earlier. we need to teach children the skill of empathy; our culture doesn’t do a good job of teaching the skill, and unfortunately parents don’t seem to be doing a good job of teaching the skill and the reality is that there have been studies done that say you can teach empathy.

We need a comprehensive approach to bullying. What I mean by that is we need to address all the people involved in bullying, we need to train staff, we need to get the victims help so they don’t internalize the messages that they hear, we need to help the bullies to understand why they’re bullying and make sure that they don’t end up living a life of crime, of domestic abuse, all the things that end up happening when we don’t address the issue of bullying.

I realize that there’s a lot of work to be done, but I’ll tell you what I’m hopeful about. We are at a turning point, and this last fall with all the media coverage that was happening, I compare that to, in a lot of ways, what happened at the turn of the Civil Rights Movement when people started getting involved and caring. And what was it? It was media coverage, for the first time they were putting on the TV pictures of people being hosed down in the streets, beaten in the streets, and America started to care, because I believe America does have a big heart, they just need to see something to get involved. And this last fall was a turning point, I don’t think just for the GLBT movement but for the bullying movement. Because people started saying, “If kids are killing themselves because of what’s happening in schools we need to do something about that. If kids are killing themselves because of our society’s attitudes towards them and whether or not they should exist, we need to do something about that.” And so, as much as I’m here to tell you there’s a huge problem in this country, I’m also here to tell you that there is hope, and I know that things are changing, and things will continue to change, but it’s going to take work and it’s going to take all of us.