BBYO Alum Shares his Story and his Advocacy Work to End LGBTQ Bullying
in The Chicago Daily Herald
February 1, 2011
A Letter from Michael Spivak
In the winter of 1991-92, I tried to kill myself. I put a bag over my head and waited for the air to run out. I was in 8th grade at Twin Groves Junior High, Rand Campus. And I was queer. I knew it, but I wasn’t yet ready to admit it.
I was also bullied. I wasn’t punched or kicked. I wasn’t urinated on or put in the hospital. But at the same time, they weren’t “just words”. They hurt.
In seventh grade, yearbooks were passed around for others to sign. I got mine back with my face rubbed out by someone’s eraser. The bullying continued as I went through Stevenson. I was active in school. I was on the math team (went downstate freshman and sophomore years) and managed the varsity baseball team my sophomore and junior years. I was named conference all academic one year.
Occasionally, I was shoved or received snide comments. Outside of school, I was active in BBYO, a Jewish youth group with a very strong local presence. I was on chapter board my junior year. My senior year, I was chapter president and was on the council board, overseeing people from all over the north shore and northwest suburbs.
Relatively speaking, I had it pretty good. I had the privilege to be taught by some of the best teachers in the state. The administration knew who I was and did what they could. They couldn’t see everything and I didn’t tell them everything. It helped that my dad, Marc Spivak, was president of the board of education and served District 96 for 16 years.
Sadly, students today are still bullied based on sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and other differences. They still hear harsh words; they’re still beat up; and they’re still trying to kill themselves. I had the privilege of meeting a few heroes. Jamie Nabozny, three years older than I am, sued his Wisconsin school district for not protecting him from bullying. Over years of junior high and high school, Jamie was insulted, spat upon, beat up, shoved into lockers, and even urinated on. A federal appeals court ruled that the district had the legal obligation to protect him. A jury ruled that the district failed to protect him. Jamie settled with the district for ,000.
I also met Tammy Aaberg. Tammy’s son, Justin, took his own life in July of 2010. He was gay and bullied. I can’t imagine her pain and how much courage and strength it takes her to get up and speak about her son and the tragedy of his death.
Recently, a number of people have posted “It gets better” videos on YouTube. I’m here to ask the faculty, staff, and students of districts 96 and 125, two schools I had the privilege of attending, to make it better. You know who the bullies are. You know who the victims are. Stand up for the victims. Stand up to the bullies. Send the message that bullying will not be tolerated in our communities. Send the message not that it gets better, but that it IS better.
I’d like to share a couple lessons I learned from school and living in Buffalo Grove. Mrs. Waite, the former music teacher at Kildeer, would not allow students to say, “That’s so retarded,” (then the insult du jour). She taught her students that “retarded just means slow,” and told us she was “retarded at art.” It was a powerful lesson, and we didn’t use that word, at least not in her class. I call upon today’s teachers to respond the same to “That’s so gay.”
Words are not harmless. They have power. They cause pain. I remember the first time I lobbied. I had recently come out. I traveled from Champaign to Buffalo Grove for the grand opening of Country Meadows. The Illinois Human Rights Act was being debated in the Illinois legislature. Hands shaking, heart beating rapidly, I approached Sid Mathias, a man who I’d known most of my life, and asked him to support the bill. He told me he was already a co-sponsor.
Today, for me, it is better. Today, I still lobby. Today, I can enter a relationship with a same-sex loved one and have it recognized by my home state. Today, I ask, what are you doing to ensure that it will be better?