Every day, in schools across the world, LGBT youth face hostile and unsafe environments. They are subjected to bullying, harassment, and often times violence. While much of this comes from their peers, they also face discrimination from the people they are supposed to be able to trust: teachers, schoolboard faculty, and parents. This leaves kids feeling rejected, lonely, and isolated and they hope with all their might that their friends won’t abandon them. When the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota enacted their “No Promo Homo” policy of neutrality and denial, they set off a chain reaction that saw nine students commit suicide within a two-year span. Joshua Sweeny’s documentary Same Difference examines the tragedy first hand through interviews with those who lived through it and by exposing the stunning stubborn and homophobic negligence of those in control. It also accomplishes a rare feat in films about bullying in that it provides solutions that will work. This is an important piece of work that demands to be seen.

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Graeme Taylor and his sister

Justin Aaberg was 15 years old when he committed suicide. When he was outed as being gay to his school and community, he was hit with relentless waves of bullying and ridicule. He went from being a charming, personable young man to losing most of his friends and almost completely shutting himself off from the world. His only solace was the music he played on his cello. Life had become unbearable for him and a strong contributing factor to this was the unwelcoming environment in his school. The Anoka-Hennepin School Board was adhering to a strict policy of quashing any kind of speech or activities that could be seen as promoting a homosexual agenda. They shut down GSAs (Gay Straight Alliances), forced gay teachers to stay in the closet in order to keep their jobs, used intimidation tactics on faculty who wanted to encourage more inclusive behaviour in their classrooms, and refused to do anything about the rampant homophobic language prevalent amongst the students in every age group. To them, with the backing of many parents from the community, not acknowledging there’s a problem meant it didn’t exist. Being LGBT is viewed as a sin to these people so by removing any positive reinforcement that it might be even remotely okay, and only allowing it to be viewed in a negative manner put their conscience at ease.

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Justin Aaberg

Even after news spread of the resulting suicides to an international audience and an investigation was conducted by the Department of Justice, the school board still refused to take responsibility and claimed the deaths were not related to any sort of homophobic bullying experienced by these students. They spun stories and told lies to the media to try and remove themselves from the problem. They just could not reconcile that their views may be ignorant and that their actions made them culpable to the tragedy. Even in the aftermath, years after, almost nothing has changed for the better. To offer a ray of hope and highlight the positive actions taken by people of the community to fight the problem, the film also profiles Graeme Taylor, a teenager that stood up for a teacher who was suspended for removing a homophobic student from the classroom. His speech in front of the schoolboard went viral and he became an activist for LGBT youth. The film also interviews several experts in the field of bullying, presenting logical and compelling evidence of how the problem escalates when students feel unsafe.

The intimate and respectful interviews with Justin’s family and friends give life to his story and what he suffered through. It’s clear that he was delightful young man with a bright future ahead of him as a musician. The emphasis is placed on the fact that this devastating tragedy was entirely preventable, not just for him but probably also for the eight other students if the members of the schoolboard had allowed a more welcoming and diverse atmosphere instead letting their judgment be ruled by their own religious and close-minded beliefs.

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Tammy Aaberg, mother of Justin Aaberg

Graeme’s positive personality and willingness to be open about his sexuality is a breath of fresh air. For someone that young to now be so assured in his sexual orientation provides hope and guidance for those who may be struggling at that age.  It also demonstrates the rapid changes in social attitudes taking hold. As an adolescent and teenager, I was the target of the same types of homophobic bullying being discussed in the film for many years so this subject matter is highly relatable and very personal for me.  Looking back at the twenty-odd years since I experienced it, I marvel at how far we’ve come.   While obviously there is still a great amount of work to be done, the new generations of children are changing the world for the better.

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Graeme Taylor

The solutions to the problem are easy if the misguided roadblocks are removed. All it takes is education to make schools safer not just for LGBT youth but for all students. Educating kids on how to treat their fellow classmates with respect, and by highlighting their commonalities instead of their differences with each other, will remove the stigma and misinformation. We see resistance from uninformed parents and educators when attempts are made to change the situation and with that attitude the problems will only persist. As was so clearly laid out in the film, there are four steps to be taken: The states and school boards must increase the amount of LGBT content in the curriculum at all levels, increase the number of supportive and LGBT-friendly educators at all levels, increase the number of GSAs that students have access to, and develop the policies and procedures that underpin and support all of this in schools. This teaches students to truly think about the words they say, the context behind them, and the impact they can have on another person. Only then can the isolation and hatred experienced by LGBT youth be eradicated.

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