A portrait of pain: a movie about a gay teen artist's suicide is making a powerful mark--from high schools to Capitol Hill. Can it ease the harassment?
"'You did it, Jim," she remembers saying. "Jim would have wanted this fair treatment, kind treatment for everybody--a safe haven--because everyone deserves to walk the halls of school and not feel "harassment, not hear foul language. You know how cruel kids can be."
Wheelers openly gay son knew cruelty far beyond that which most youths experience while he attended Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon, Pa., a small town 90 miles west of Philadelphia. Depressed from years of harassment by peers, he killed himself at age 19, five months after his graduation in 1997.
A powerful documentary about Wheeler's life and death is catching buzz in high schools and colleges--and now the halls of Congress--as officials grapple with how to protect gay and lesbian students from harassment. Since its May 2003 premiere, Jim in Bold has been shown at nearly two dozen film festivals in three countries and at 35 high schools and colleges. On February 25 the movie will be screened on Capitol Hill for members of Congress. Organizers of the screening hope it convinces them to support hate-crimes legislation.
There is good reason for the interest in Jim Wheeler's message. Seven years after his death, almost 85% of GLBT students continue to be verbally harassed at school, according to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. In California alone, about 200,000 of the state's middle and high school students suffer antigay harassment each year, according to a January report by the California Safe Schools Coalition.
Meanwhile, school districts are increasingly realizing they can't ignore student complaints of harassment due to sexual orientation--as Wheeler's Cedar Crest High School did. Failure to face the problem can result in a nasty legal fight, an increase in violence, or even suicide. In January the Morgan Hill Unified School District near San Jose, Calif., settled an antigay harassment stilt for $1.1 million.
"This is a good moment for Jim in Bold because our society is ready to receive and discuss these issues," says Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Philadelphia-based gay group Equality Forum, which produced the film.
Directed by openly gay Philly filmmaker Glenn Holsten, Jim in Bold presents the story of Wheeler through his family and friends. It also features a group of three young gay men who set off on a cross-country trip to interview gay and lesbian teens about their lives.
"It's really a story of hope," says Mike Glatze, who cofounded Young Gay America, the road-trip research project. "Jim Wheeler saw no positive lives being lived by young queer people. This film also shows that young GLBT people in small towns are doing well, in many cases thriving and finding each other and doing amazing things."
The slight blond-haired Wheeler was 18 when he came out to his family. Everyone in the Quaker family of seven children was immediately accepting, and Jim "decided he was going to hold his head up high and be proud of who he was," recalls Susan Wheeler. But she didn't realize the hell her son faced at school until after his death. A notebook of his poems included one piece about coming out, which inspired the documentary's title. In another entry he described how classmates had pulled him out of the shower after gym class and urinated on him.
In the months after his graduation, Jim spiraled into depression. He no longer found solace in his writing or his favorite music. "Toward the end he talked extensively of suicide. We thought he was simply being dramatic. After all, Jimmy and I were the two biggest overreactors of the family," writes Wheeler's sister Jennifer on the family's Web site dedicated to her brother. Jim did attempt suicide; the Wheelers placed him in therapy. Soon after, Susan and Jennifer found him dead in his apartment; he had hung himself.
Lazin hopes to expand the audience for Jim in Bold. With a donation from Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias and his partner, Equality Forum will send 2,500 Jim in Bold videotapes to gay-straight alliances, high schools, colleges, youth centers, and chapters of GLSEN and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
If Equality Forum can raise funds, Jim in Bold will be reedited for classroom viewing and a lemon plan will be developed. "Jim took his life, and so, in one way, Jim committed suicide," Lazin says. "In another way, which I think is far more accurate, homophobia killed him."
Says Susan Wheeler, who became a gay rights activist after her son's death: "I think Jim was very alone. If there were any gay students at school, they weren't coming out. But Jimmy, he was courageous and bold and he wanted to proclaim who he was--and he did so with flair."
Neff is the managing editor of the Chicago Free Press.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Mar 2, 2004|
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