The basement kitchen at an Anoka church buzzed with cheerful industry as the clock ticked toward 6 p.m. Friday. Volunteers stirred gravy, sliced hot turkey and lit candles in anticipation of their guests -- gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens and their families. ¶ The laughter and chatter belied a series of sad events that united a mom, a teacher and a student to create Justin's Gift, the gathering's sponsoring group.
As a teenager in the late 1980s, Jefferson Fietek knew of only one place to find other gay people, he said -- a phone chat line. He says he's "darn lucky" that kind of risky reaching out did not end with him being assaulted or killed. Now a theater arts teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, Fietek sees kids daily who struggle with their own sexual identities.
Justin Anderson, a 2010 Blaine High School graduate who is gay, suffered psychological and physical harassment at school that left him feeling worthless and fearful.
Tammy Aaberg's 15-year-old son, also named Justin, committed suicide in 2010. She believes he was driven to despair by bullying he suffered because he was gay.
The three didn't know each other before Justin Aaberg's death, but they now are united in seeking to prevent similar sorrow in other people's lives.
As the leaders of Justin's Gift, they want to give gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) youth an outlet where they -- and their families and friends -- can get the support and resources they need to be resilient and healthy.
In 2010, months after Justin's death, Aaberg, Fietek and Anderson were among those who petitioned the Anoka-Hennepin School District to rescind its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which requires staff to be neutral in conversations with students about sexual orientation issues. Detractors call it a gag policy that hampers school staffers' efforts to help students who are struggling with their sexual identities.
The policy now is the target of a lawsuit involving the district's handling of harassment of students because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
Gift coming together
Although the concept of Justin's Gift had percolated for more than a year, Aaberg said, the pieces started to come together this fall. Friday's dinner was their second event; they also hosted a Halloween party last month. The group has a website and a social media presence, as well as a board of directors and dozens of volunteers. They're getting nonprofit status.
Support has come from college students who recall their own school experiences, from church members, advocacy groups, district families and others shocked by bullying stories they've heard.
"The feeling is just very heartwarming to know there is so much support out there," Aaberg said, "because the people that are the haters, I think there are less of them, but they are so much louder."
Aaberg, Fietek and Anderson also have offered friendship and healing to each other.
"I think Justin and Jefferson have helped me mentally get as far as I've been able to go," Aaberg said. "Without their support, there's no way I could keep doing what I'm doing."
Their hope for Justin's Gift is to go beyond giving GLBT teens a place to hang out. Though they've borrowed venues for their two events, they hope to someday have a space, and a staff dedicated to guiding teens and families through the rough patches. Already the board includes Colleen Cashen, a school psychologist in the district, and Deb Murphy, a seminary student who is working to forge connections with faith communities.
Current issues have given them extra momentum, they said, including heightened national attention to bullying in general and its impact on gay kids in particular. So has the debate in Minnesota over the Marriage Amendment that will go before voters next fall and would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
"Something like [Justin's Gift] would eventually have happened somewhere down the road, but maybe not as soon," Anderson said.
Still, they want to put the personal before the political.
For example, they said, they know from experience that holidays can be rough on GLBT kids, who may be anywhere from being fully out to their families to keeping their sexual identities secret.
"When you're a gay kid ... you've got your guard up all day at school trying to keep yourself protected, and you go home and your guard is up there, and the holidays come and your guard is up even more, it's exhausting," Fietek said, noting that some kids might be out to their parents, but keep quiet with extended family. "Instead of a joyous time of celebration, it's a time of defeat and secrets."
In the end, only a handful of teens joined the dinner. Several who had RSVP'd canceled at the last minute, or just didn't show up. Fietek said he's heard that sometimes parents discover it's a "gay thing" and prohibit kids from attending, though parents were invited, too.
Still, a welcoming committee of about 45 volunteers and community members were there, ready to draw any comers into the circle.
It's a start. Fietek, Anderson and Aaberg already have their eyes set on a New Year's Eve party.
"I tell my kids all the time, if you've been a victim of something ... you can let that rule over you and ultimately continue to hold you down, or you can empower yourself from it and rise above," Fietek said. "Justin's Gift is a perfect example of taking a horrific situation and turning it into something uplifting."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409