Erik Turbenson suicide foreshadowed gay taunting trouble at Anoka-Hennepin

One student's tragic struggle inside the school district

Erik Turbenson suicide foreshadowed gay taunting trouble at Anoka-Hennepin
Brian Stauffer

For the first time in nearly 10 years, Sue Turbenson wanted to tell a stranger about her son.

Turbenson was looking for the woman from the newspaper, the one with the sad eyes. She'd come to Mississippi River Community Park that sunny August day with no guarantee of finding her there. Standing under the picnic pavilion, the petite blond retiree scanned the crowd of middle-aged men and women, each of them carrying their own burden.

Finally, Turbenson saw her, standing not 15 feet away.

One of the last photos taken before Erik Turbenson  died on January 2, 2001
courtesy of Sue Turbenson
One of the last photos taken before Erik Turbenson died on January 2, 2001
Sue Turbenson says her son never told her he was being bullied
Jana Freiband
Sue Turbenson says her son never told her he was being bullied

"Hi, I'm Sue," she began. "Do you remember me?"

The woman shook her head no.

"I have a son—Erik," Turbenson said, and pulled out a picture of a lanky blond boy in glasses, 16 years old, with a cat cradled in his pale arms.

The woman's dark ringed eyes flashed with recognition. Sue Turbenson and Tammy Aaberg were no strangers, but members of the same grim sorority.

In the past two years, nine students who attended Anoka-Hennepin schools have committed suicide. State public health officials declared District 11 a "suicide contagion area" in 2009.

The enormous, 38,000-student school system lies predominantly in Tea Party presidential candidate and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's district. Her fervent opposition to gay marriage and husband Marcus's ties to reparative therapy make her no friend to gay teens, and she has refused to comment on the crisis.

Her silence has left the school district administrators to defend Anoka-Hennepin's highly controversial "neutrality policy," which has been nicknamed "no homo promo." The only policy of its kind in the state, it forbids acknowledging homosexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation: "Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation."

In July, the Southern Poverty Law Center followed through on a longstanding threat to sue the district over the neutrality policy. The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of five district students who claimed they were subject to harassment. Several complained of being physically attacked, while others were told to "kill themselves."

CNN jumped on the story, noting that the Department of Justice had launched a civil investigation into the claims that the "no homo promo" policy illegally discriminated against gay kids. Earlier this month, the New York Times profiled several kids from the SPLC lawsuit.

Both the lawsuit and the DOJ investigation are pending.

With echoes of her son's struggle in the newspapers day after day, Turbenson decided to reach out to the district's newly bereaved parents, starting with Aaberg, whose son Justin killed himself in 2010.

"It just brings back everything," Turbenson says. "I feel bad for every family. It's one of the worst things you'd ever have to go through."

   

THE STAGE LIGHTS in the theater at Coon Rapids High School had gone dark and the audience had long ago dissipated, but Erik Turbenson wanted to put on a show of his own. He pulled off the costume he'd been wearing for the production of Peter Pan and put on his street clothes—all but his sneakers. He'd brought something special for his feet.

The production had been an ordeal. A few days earlier, the director abandoned his teenage cast in a rage just hours before first curtain and the rehearsal devolved into a shouting match.

Although Erik, a tall beanpole of a 16-year-old, was just a freshman and a new face in the drama crowd, he reassured the cast that the play would be a success.

"We're doing a good job, everyone," he said. "It's a good play. It's going to be fine."

Erik was right: Eventually the director slunk back and the rattled cast pulled itself together.

Onstage as the Lost Boy "Tootles," Erik tumbled around the stage, flailing his long limbs with the abandon of a feral child. Offstage he never broke character, skipping around wildly to amuse the stage crew.

After the final performance, the drama teachers hosted a tear-down party with pizzas and soda. It was then that Erik made his most dramatic entrance of the night.

He spotted Kay Fracisco, a gloomy girl just trying to get home as fast as possible, as she tore pieces of the set apart with a hammer. At the sound of a thunderous clomping coming across the wooden stage floor, Fracisco looked up.

"Hi," came the voice from above. "I'm Erik."

Her eyes lowered and she stared at his feet. Pulled up to about mid-calf were shiny, black platform boots with heels several inches high. They made him nearly seven feet tall, and he wobbled slightly.

"What's the deal with the boots?" Kay asked sardonically.

Erik looked down and shrugged casually.

"I like them," he said.

One by one the rest of the cast gravitated around them, and Erik chatted brightly, posed shakily. No one passed by without stopping to stare and ask questions.

"Those are awesome," more than one girl remarked. "Where'd you get those?"

It was, it seemed, a very successful debut.

"From then on, that was it: Basically everybody in theater got it," says Fracisco. "I don't think that he actually just came out to everybody. He didn't really hide it."

  

THE HALLWAYS WERE packed with teenagers, clumped together in circles or jostling past. Erik was chatting with Fracisco when he heard the slur.

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