Erik Turbenson suicide foreshadowed gay taunting trouble at Anoka-Hennepin
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.
"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.
"Oh, that's so gay!" a boy shouted.
Erik whipped around to confront the boy. "You shouldn't say things like that."
The kid and his two friends stared back.
"You don't know who's around you," Erik said. "And you could offend people."
The other kids looked back incredulously.
"The only reason you're saying that is because you're gay," the kid shot back.
Ears perked up and a small crowd began to gather to watch the fight. Erik struggled to hold his ground. "You shouldn't say things like that," he repeated.
"Whatever!" another kid shouted. "You're just a fag!"
The hallway exploded in shouting. Hands pulled Erik away, toward the safety of the theater. His face was bright red and he burst into tears.
Fracisco and three friends guided him to the couch in the drama teacher's office, though no one reported the incident.
"There was no point," says Fracisco. "Who would you report it to who would actually do something?"
A FEW WEEKS before the start of his sophomore year, Erik's mom came to him in a panic. She'd just gotten off the phone with the parents of another boy, a kid from the drama crowd whom Erik trusted. They had something to tell her about Erik, but refused to explain unless she met them in person.
"What's this about?" Sue asked Erik.
Erik's face flushed with anger.
"Don't meet with them," he said.
Sue told him she'd already agreed to go.
Erik stormed into his room and slammed the door.
The next day, he waited for his parents in a back room of a Lutheran church. When his family arrived, the minister told them gently, "Erik has something he wants to say."
There was a pause.
"I'm depressed. I'm gay," Erik said flatly. "I tried to kill myself."
He confessed that he'd been playing with his father's hunting rifle and pulled the trigger with the barrel to his head. The gun was unloaded. But he'd thought about it.
His mother began to cry. The minister recommended therapists. Erik folded inward.
Back at school, everyone now knew that Erik was gay. The other boys wasted no time letting him know their feelings.
"Faggot," they yelled after him. "Cocksucker. Ass-muncher."
"You want to suck my cock?" one boy called. "I hear you're good at it."
Not long after the start of the school year, Erik asked his speech coach, Myles Wagner, for help. Wagner offered to report the harassment and Erik agreed.
But soon enough, Erik was back in Wagner's office. Nothing had changed. Because of privacy rules, they couldn't be told if the tormenters had been confronted or punished. All Erik knew was that the taunting hadn't stopped.
"Why are people allowed to do this?" Erik asked helplessly.
Part of the answer could be found in the health class curriculum guidelines that had been passed just a few years prior.
"We recommend," the document read, "that while respect be maintained toward all people, homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle and that district staff and their resources not advocate the homosexual lifestyle."
Conservative parents from the district were quick to invoke the wording whenever teacher training on homosexual students was coming up, or if a GLBT help hotline poster appeared in a hallway. There was no Gay-Straight Alliance at Coon Rapids.
Wagner worried that even counseling Erik could violate the murky terms of the policy.
"I could not talk to him about it," says Wagner. "I would have lost my job. I could be polite, listen, and lend a sympathetic ear. But I could say nothing."
NOT KNOWING WHAT else to do, Erik picked up the phone and called a friend from marching band. In the past several months, he'd been having trouble controlling his emotions, collapsing into tears at home and at school. But this feeling was different.
"I can't be at home right now," Erik told Aaron Hanson. "I need help. Can you take me to the hospital?"
A short time later, they were speeding to Mercy Hospital in Aaron's old Buick, Erik resting his head against the passenger side window.
"Thank you," Erik said, hugging his friend at the hospital's admittance doors. "I'll be okay from here."
The nurses called his mother. Inside, in the top-floor ward, they rolled up his sleeves and found the marks where he'd been cutting himself.
For two weeks, Erik stayed in the ward for patients who are a threat to themselves. He watched blankly as his bedside table piled up with homework his Coon Rapids teachers sent over. When a science teacher threatened to fail him, his mom started doing the homework for him.
When he finally felt well enough to go back, his counselor suggested he be classified as an Emotional Behavioral Disorder student, and placed in a class separate from the rest of his peers. The classes made him so miserable he started hiding in the theater.
As his sophomore year was coming to a close, his parents decided he would not be returning to Coon Rapids High School.
A few months later, on a stage in a tiny theater on the West Bank, Erik sat in a pool of light, chest and chin out, as Chanticleer the Rooster in Canterbury Tales. Seven girls playing his wives lounged at his feet. They looked up at him as Erik delivered his favorite line of the play—a dead-on rooster's crow that rang through the theater. He'd been practicing it for weeks.
After the curtain closed, his new friends from Perpich Center for Arts Education, his current school, flocked around him. They knew nothing about hospital visits or suicide attempts. It was as if none of it ever happened.
"He was definitely one of the cool kids at Perpich," recalls his closest friend, Ashley Siegel.
NEARING THE HOLIDAY BREAK, Erik finally had time to catch up with his old Coon Rapids friends. He dragged Fracisco around shopping for three hours, hunting for the perfect shade of bright orange to dye his hair. He chattered like the old Tootles.
"I want to come to Iowa with you for New Year's," he told her. "Let me ask my mom."
But Erik never called, so Fracisco left for her trip without him.
On January 1, 2001, the day before the start of school, Erik came out of his room and found his mom.
"Want to play a game?" she asked.
He set up mancala, an African marble game, and without much conversation, mother and son played a few clattering rounds. Sue won a game, then Erik. He was calm and smiling.
At the end of the second game, he stood to go to his room and his mother got up to hug him.
"I love you, Erik," she said.
He smiled wordlessly and went into his room. Switching on his computer, he logged on to his AOL chat account and found Siegel. After some idle chatter about New Year's, she told him she had to go to bed.
"I'm not coming in tomorrow," he typed.
"Why?" she wrote back.
"Not feeling well," he wrote. "Tell everyone I love them."
"Okay, I will!" she answered.
A few hours later, he saw that Fracisco and her girlfriend were online. He chatted for a while with Kay's girlfriend, until she started asking if something was wrong.
"I hope you guys had a good New Year's," he typed abruptly. "I just wanted to say goodbye."
Then he signed off.
Shortly after, in the dead of night, Erik carried out his plan. He put on a nice shirt and his favorite black beret. He taped a sign to his bedroom wall with an arrow pointing down to his desk. "Suicide note," it read.
In the note, he asked that no one blame themselves—he'd made up his mind some time ago. He was still unhappy. It was the prospect of facing another school semester. He was tired.
Moving silently through the house, his entire family fast asleep, Erik slipped into the backyard with a rope. He stepped quietly through the snow. He looped one end around the limbs of a tree in his dark and heavily wooded backyard.
Then he shimmied up the tree, placed the noose around his thin neck, and jumped.
NO ONE WHO KNEW Erik Turbenson ever forgot the story of the bee.
After a long, hot day of strutting in carefully choreographed formations across a well-trimmed practice field, summer band camp was finally coming to a close for the Coon Rapids Marching Cardinals. The sweaty and exhausted teens were called to attention as their band director delivered the final notes of the day.
Like those around him, Erik stood with military discipline, his Yamaha bass drum dangling from thin shoulders. After a few minutes of muggy stillness, Erik finally dared to move, raising one reedy arm straight up in the air. The director carried on with his instruction, but Erik's hand wouldn't go down.
Finally, the director called on him. "What do you need, Erik?"
"Can I be excused?" Erik asked sheepishly. "I'm being stung by a bee."
As he fumbled to take off the drum rig, snickers rippled through the ranks.
"Pussy," a boy hissed.
"Suck it up, faggot," another whispered.
A stream of tears poured down Erik's face as he retreated to the locker room.
To his friends, this was classic Erik—so dedicated he stood dutifully in formation while suffering the pain of the insect trapped in his clothes.
They recall this as a testament to Erik's strength. Others remember only the cruel words, and the fact that this kind of thing happened to Erik all the time.
Recalls bandmate Kelly Lamkins: "Nobody did anything about it."
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