Following son's suicide, grieving Champlin, Minn., mom crusades for gay kidsTammy Aaberg has been telling her son's story since a couple of months after the blond-haired cellist killed himself. Justin Aaberg, 15, a student at Anoka High School, suffered from anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and, Aaberg learned after his death, bullying at school because he was gay.
By: Sarah Horner, St. Paul Pioneer Press / MCT
Tammy Aaberg sometimes just needs to tune everything out.
After an emotional speech, or another hard interview, the strawberry-blond mother shuts herself inside the yellow walls of her bedroom in the family's Champlin home.
She draws her brown curtains, shuts off the lights and crawls into bed. She lies with her son Justin's old pillow and the orange blanket he got as a child from a woman at church.
Sometimes she talks out loud to God. Sometimes to Justin, who hanged himself in his bedroom on July 9 last year.
"It's surprising how much you can sleep when you're in that depressed mode....I just cry and sleep, cry and sleep," said Aaberg, 37. "Sometimes it just feels like it's too much. It's just so hard telling his story. But I can't stop."
Aaberg has been telling her son's story since a couple of months after the blond-haired cellist killed himself. The 15-year-old at Anoka High School suffered from anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and, Aaberg learned after his death, bullying at school because he was gay.
The suburban mother who used to spend her days chauffeuring her children around and working from home as a quality-assurance medical transcriber has been transformed into a crusader for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. She now finds herself in the center of a debate about the Anoka-Hennepin school district's Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy and a part of a national conversation about gay bullying.
These days, the plainspoken, T-shirt-and-sweats-wearing mother is wearing suits and jetting across the country to speak at anti-bullying conferences or sitting through interviews with the national media. She has made several trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to get the federal government involved.
People in the gay community have taken notice, said Phil Duran, legal director for OutFront Minnesota.
"She is not this high-powered fancy celebrity type; she is a suburban mom who loved her son....Her authenticity is powerful," Duran said.
"She has a lot of potential to really make a difference."
'I thought... that he was OK'
Justin loved to make beaded jewelry, rescue chinchillas and go shopping. But he especially loved playing the cello. He made the 12th-grade orchestra as a ninth-grader and often practiced late into the night. Aaberg can't remember him playing the night before he died.
She last saw him alive about 9:30 p.m. She was sitting in the basement of their Andover home with her husband and Justin's older brother, Andrew. Justin was wearing black jeans and a black shirt.
"He just looked at me and walked up the stairs," Aaberg said. Her youngest son, Anthony, would later tell her he saw Justin take a chair into his room that night but didn't think anything of it.
She wouldn't see him again until she broke into his bedroom the next day. He hadn't been answering her repeated knocks and cellphone calls. First she saw a futon cushion on the floor. Then she saw her son hanging.
"I never, never thought that was what I was going to find, that he would ever do that," Aaberg said.
Justin had struggled in the past. He was hospitalized for a week in January 2009 after he stabbed himself in the stomach with a pocketknife. He was diagnosed with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, got on medication and started seeing a therapist.
In the hospital, the quiet kid told his parents he was gay. They supported him, and Aaberg said he convinced everyone he was fine because he had his mom to talk to. Only twice did he mention kids at school singling him out for his sexual orientation. Once, he said a kid told him he would go to hell because he was gay.
"I told him that wasn't true, that God loves everyone," Aaberg said. "I thought he believed me, that he was OK."
Justin's things sit in boxes scattered around a basement room in Aaberg's new Champlin home. On the wall is an old mantra that used to hang in his room, "Love the life you live, live the life you love." Picture boards assembled for his funeral document his life.
Aaberg said she can see now in the pictures when Justin's smile starts to lose its luster.
"He would put his hands in his pockets and bounce back and forth when someone would talk to him. Then he would just shrug his shoulders and shyly smile," Aaberg recalls. "I think he had a good mask...obviously, he was in a lot of pain."
'I think he thought he deserved it'
Aaberg got a text message from Justin's cellist partner in late August last year. She wanted Aaberg to speak at an Anoka-Hennepin school board meeting about the bullying gay students were experiencing.
"I asked her why I would go," Aaberg said.
She starting hearing stories from the girl and eventually other friends about what school had really been like for her son. He was shoved and one time groped in a dark hallway because he was gay, his friends told her. He had been called names. Sometimes he skipped school because the bullying was so bad.
Questions about what she could have done interrupt Aaberg's thoughts all the time.
His classmates also told Aaberg how Justin had been a counselor to other struggling gay students. That, Aaberg thinks, added to his burden.
"What happens to one of you happens to all of you when you are talking about being gay," Aaberg said. "He was there for them, but he didn't know how to reach out for himself."
That climate made Justin blame himself for his sexual orientation, Aaberg believes. Her son was made to feel like a sinner.
"I think he thought he deserved it," she said of his choice to commit suicide.
The bullying is not the only thing to blame for Justin's death, Aaberg says, but it played a part.
"I think everything just added up," she said. "You don't ever know what the last thing was."
'She is opening people's eyes'
The school board meeting in August was the first time Aaberg talked publicly about what happened. She remembers shaking and crying as she spoke.
That was the beginning.
With her thoughts on Justin, Aaberg wasn't able to work her regular hours. She heard stories similar to Justin's from Anoka-Hennepin and from across the country. She began funneling energy toward making sure it didn't happen to other kids.
She connected with hundreds of struggling GLBT youth through Justin's Facebook page and forged friendships with some. She encouraged them to talk. She tries to give them hope, she says.
"She makes you feel like there is nothing wrong with you and that you are OK as a person," said Lindsey Block, a lesbian at Anoka High School who knew Justin and has come to know Aaberg. "I think she is making it more possible for parents and others to see how important it is to love and respect their LGBT child....She is opening people's eyes."
After the school board meeting, Aaberg started getting requests to speak. She has flown to events around the country, including her lobbying trips to Washington, and spoken at many local events.
Her story has taken off in the media. Her name is a fixture in local news stories about perceived gay bullying in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. She's done interviews with Larry King, the New York Times, People, Mother Jones magazine and others.
"Unfortunately, people are listening to me because my kid died," Aaberg said.
Who she really hopes is listening are the kids.
"They need to come out to somebody because it hurts to keep it inside," Aaberg said. "I keep telling kids to talk to an adult, to not keep it in."
'Sometimes it's just mental overload'
Aaberg has her challengers. She is often targeted by hateful comments online. A few friends, including one she has known since she was 14, no longer speak to her.
The Anoka-Hennepin district -- often perceived to be on the opposing side of Aaberg's -- ultimately wants the same thing she does, spokeswoman Ellen Perrault said.
"We share the same goal of keeping GLBT students safe," Perrault said.
Aaberg's schedule is stressful and often causes flare-ups of a chronic pain in her legs. It's also mentally and emotionally exhausting.
She hit a wall after testifying before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights this May. Lights were flashing at her as she recounted her son's experience and told the panel about the number of bullied GLBT kids dying from suicide. Afterward, she had to listen to others testify. Some said bullying was freedom of speech.
On the verge of tears on the airplane on the way home, she tried to avoid eye contact.
When she got back to her house, she crawled under Justin's blanket again. That time she didn't emerge for days.
"She wants to do all this stuff, but sometimes it's just mental overload," her husband, Shawn Aaberg, said. But the work has also been healing for his wife.
"I think it helps her cope, knowing she is helping other people," he said. "I'm amazed at how much she's done."
Aaberg also says the work has brought powerful good into her life.
She has connected with people across the country, parents of others lost to teen suicide, activists and kids. She has made deep friendships in the GLBT community as well, including one with Jefferson Fietek, a middle school teacher at Anoka-Hennepin who is gay and has also become a figure in the district's swirling debate.
"I tell her she is like that mom that everyone in the neighborhood knew they could go to for help," Fietek said. "I think that is why people respond to her so well. She puts a real face on the tragedy...and she is just so darn lovable."
The work makes Aaberg better understand what her son was feeling, she said, and it helps a little to help those who feel her son's kind of pain.
"I want them to feel loved," she said.
'It's like a gift from Justin'
Aaberg said change isn't happening fast enough. She'd like to see Anoka-Hennepin's Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy overturned, but with two lawsuits challenging it in mediation, she says she's not allowed to talk much about that.
Critics have said the policy prevents effective intervention into gay bullying. The school district and other supporters say the language -- it instructs staff to stay neutral in GLBT discussions -- is necessary to deal with a controversial topic.
Aaberg is more eager to talk about her latest project with Fietek. The two recently started an organization called Justin's Gift to help struggling GLBT youth.
"Jefferson and I are texting about it all the time," Aaberg said. "We have so many ideas."
The now close friends -- they first met at a school board meeting -- hope the organization will fill teens' heads with positive messages, instead of the negative ones they often hear.
They held a gay youth pride event in Anoka this summer and a Halloween party for kids Saturday.
They see the organization offering a space for GLBT teens to talk about faith and problems and to have fun, the two said. They envision holding workshops on self-esteem. For now, they will rent space to hold their events; eventually they'd like to have their own community center. A decade from now, they want to be running a homeless shelter.
Aaberg says it seems a natural legacy for her son, who tried to help so many of his own flailing friends.
"It's like a gift from Justin in a way," she said. "It can't help him, but it's for them so they don't have to be in his position."
The Trevor Project: National suicide-prevention hotline for youth who are gay or questioning their sexual orientation. 866-4-U-TREVOR; (866) 488-7386
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education: National suicide-prevention hotline. (800) 273-8255
Anoka-Hennepin Cares-Summer Support: Counseling service not to replace crisis hotline. Staffed Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (763) 433-4695
To learn more about Justin's Gift or to make a donation, go to www.justinsgift.org or call (763) 220-0153.
A collection of photos of Justin Aaberg assembled by his friend Meagan Downing can be found at http://bit.ly/JustinAaberg. The music is a song composed and played by Justin that he wrote in eighth grade. It's called "Incinerate."
Distributed by MCT Information Services