Gay Iowa Teen’s Suicide Prompts Vigils, Investigations
Readers of the Sioux City Journal picked up an unprecedented issue of their Sunday paper: An unsigned editorial ran unopposed on the front page. Above the fold, a black-and-white illustration accompanied one clear exhortation: “We must stop bullying. It starts here. It starts now.”
Kenneth Weishuhn, a high school freshman in small-town Paullina, Iowa, killed himself April 15 in an apparent response to anti-gay bullying. Weishuhn had come out to his family and to his school the month before; his family says he began receiving anonymous death threats over his cell phone, and online harassment, including the formation of anti-gay Facebook groups. Before he died, he told his mother that she “[didn’t] know how it feels to be hated,” she told KTIV news.
Iowa has a progressive record on LGBT legal rights—employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, and same-sex marriage was legalized in a 2009 Supreme Court case—and Weishuhn’s suicide is a sobering reminder of how far the state has yet to come.
At an April 20 candlelight vigil for Weishuhn in Iowa City, one man who grew up near Paullina in the 50s and 60s said he had similar memories. “That area of the state is very conservative and bigoted,” he said. “I don’t know how else to say that.”
Rallies and vigils were held at every public university in the state, as well as across the nation—one group that organized Iowa City’s vigil received a phone call from a group in Philadelphia, saying they’d been inspired to plan their own vigil for that night.
Iowa’s lawmakers are responding, too: Iowa City’s Rep. Mary Mascher is investigating the founding of a statewide bullying and teen suicide hotline. (Iowa does not allocate any funds for suicide prevention; a federal grant that paid for some programs ended earlier this month.) Advocates plan to rally at the statehouse in Des Moines on Wednesday morning to show support for the program and to call for greater action to combat bullying in schools.
At Iowa City’s vigil, activist and radio host Lauren Siebert related seeing teenagers in a small town struggle to form a gay-straight alliance against the wishes of parents and the school board.
“Don’t think, because you can move here or to Chicago or to San Francisco, there’s no fight [in rural towns],” Siebert said to around 30 people gathered on the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest. “We can’t forget where we come from. We can’t abandon those places and people. Because you know that bullshit is still going on.”
Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.
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