Bullied gay teen finds purpose

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2012 - 11:16 PM

Film about his traumatic school years changed man's life.

For years, Jamie Nabozny downplayed his role in the first successful lawsuit to require a public school district to protect students from antigay bullying and harassment.

"I thought of myself as the kid from Wisconsin who got beat up," he said.

The release last year of the film "Bullied," which documents his story, changed his attitude and his life's purpose.

Nabozny will be the keynote speaker at a sold-out educational conference in St. Paul today, aimed at teachers, administrators, social workers and parents of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. "Cultivating Respect: Save Schools for All Students," to be held at Hamline University, is sponsored by PFLAG-Twin Cities, an advocacy and support group for parents and friends of GLBT people.

The group has used its speakers' bureau as an educational tool, but local leaders felt extra urgency as the suicides of GLBT teens have made national headlines, said Gretchen Murr, a PFLAG board member.

"It just seemed like this was the time we needed to do something," she said. "The sadness from kids feeling so desperate over their situations that they've taken their lives, it's gotten the country's attention, and it's gotten ours too."

Murr also noted local headlines like those from the Anoka-Hennepin School District. The district is the subject of a civil rights investigation and a lawsuit, and officials are struggling to refine policies that protect GLBT and other students from bullying and harassment.

In addition to Nabozny's address and film screening, the conference will include sessions on the trauma from bullying, safe spaces for transgender youth, stereotyping and bullying in elementary school, strengthening schools' gay-straight alliance clubs and drafting district-level policies to make schools safer for all.

"I just really believe we're moving in the right direction," Murr said. "It doesn't seem like it sometimes, and we can get discouraged. But I think if we look at history and how far we've come -- and there's certainly a lot more work to do -- but I think we're moving in the right direction."

Film wasn't a big deal, at first

After his 1996 lawsuit was settled, Nabozny moved on. Two years ago, he was living in Minot, N.D., working for Wells Fargo. He didn't hide his past, exactly, but he didn't talk about it either. He agreed to work with the Southern Poverty Law Center on the film, but didn't think it would be a big deal.

In the fall of 2010, he went to the film's premiere at the center's Alabama headquarters. People started filing in, and then more people. Watching his own life unfold onscreen changed Nabozny's mindset about the power of his story.

He also discovered a change in how he thought of himself. "I was no longer the kid from Wisconsin who got beat up. I was the kid from Wisconsin who got beat up, fought back and won, and made a difference for kids all across the country."

He moved to Minneapolis, determined to use his experience to help others. He travels the country to speak at schools; he finds that the 40-minute film gets the details of his abuse out of the way, letting him share the meaning of his journey.

"There was a lot of unknowns and uncertainty," he said. "I have not made as much money since I left, but there's no way I'd go back to a corporate job. I wake up every day with a sense of purpose and passion about what I do. I get messages from kids every day that tell me what I do makes a difference."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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