Same Difference


Same-DifferenceBy Dot Belstler

I had the opportunity to preview Same Difference, a powerful documentary film that explores the difference between oppressive and supportive school climates for gay teens. It features the stories of Justin Aaberg in the Anoka-Hennepin School District and Graeme Taylor in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

We all remember the tragic “suicide contagion” in Anoka-Hennepin in 2009-2011 when nine students died from suicide after being bullied for being gay or perceived to be gay. Justin Aaberg was one of these young people; he was 15 when he died in 2010. Justin was a very talented cello player with a loving family and tons of friends, but he was also targeted by bullies at school for being openly gay.

We have the chance to meet young Justin and Graeme through home movies, photos, and interviews with friends and family. They are both extraordinary individuals. The film includes footage of school board meetings and news reports of the issues in each boy’s hometown, as well as information about Anoka-Hennepin’s “no promo homo” and “neutrality” policies regarding GLBT issues, students, and teachers.

The film continues with information on the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin school district, which resulted in a consent decree and ongoing monitoring of district policies and actions. Watching this film and reliving those meetings and news reports underscored the fact that there has not been progress in Anoka-Hennepin, just a new spin on the truth. Today, the district claims it is working toward a safe environment for all students. In fact, I recently received a copy of the district’s newsletter which boasted that the “District’s unique anti-bullying work makes it a national model” (Focus, Spring 2015, Anoka-Hennepin Schools). The board’s actions defy their words, however; the School Board recently rejected a proposal from its own anti-bullying task force that would “recognize the value of diverse people and families, including the LGBT community.”*

Graeme’s story, on the other hand, is one of a supportive school environment. In 2010, at age 14, he spoke to his local school board in defense of a teacher who was disciplined for supporting an openly gay student. His story went viral, he was interviewed by several news organizations, and he appeared on Ellen. Graeme became a de-facto spokesperson for GLBT kids and school climate. He went on to graduate from high school and is now a college student. It makes me wonder what Justin would be doing now if he went to school in an affirming district.

Twin Cities Pride is proud to help promote this film and we invite you to join us on June 20 for either the 12:30 or 3:30 screening at  Phoenix Theatre. Ticket information can be found on Conversations with film participants follow each screening.

To see the trailer, visit

#TogetherWeCan End Youth Bullying

*Full text of Recommendation 3: “Honor and celebrate the contributions of diverse people and families in our community, country and world, including the LGBT community. Recognize, affirm and assess specific LGBT activities….Continue to support student-led Gay Straight Alliance clubs…Host school-related family nights for our diverse populations … Create public displays honoring LGBT history month each October.”

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