As Lee Hirsch’s documentary featuring Kelby Johnson’s story premieres in N. Texas, the transgender Oklahoma City teen wants to use the film as a platform to help end the type of harassment that nearly drove him to suicide
As a child, Kelby Johnson excelled at softball and basketball, had many friends and generally liked school.
But around sixth grade, Kelby’s schoolmates started noticing she always wore short hair, baggy jeans and loose T-shirts. On the basketball court and softball diamond, teammates stopped catching Kelby’s throws and wouldn’t protect her from opponents anymore. Some didn’t want play with her at all.
Although Johnson now identifies as a transgender male, in eighth grade, she came out as lesbian. And in Tuttle, Okla. — a town of 6,000 people just southwest of Oklahoma City — that made her an outcast.
Lifelong family friends stopped talking to Kelby’s parents. Their house was repeatedly egged at night.
Kelby’s classmates would change seats when she sat nearby. One teacher joked by calling Kelby’s name separately from the boys and girls during roll.
One day Kelby found a note on her locker: “Faggots aren’t welcome here.”
“My parents had been to the school multiple, multiple times, and we had done just about everything we could, and no one was there to support us,” Johnson said recently. “No one really had anything to say. So where do you go when the teachers don’t help?”
After three suicide attempts, Kelby’s parents finally turned to lesbian talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, whose producers put the family in touch with Lee Hirsch, an Emmy and Sundance award-winning filmmaker who spoke to Kelby about being bullied as a kid himself.
As a boy Hirsch dressed funny, had funny hair and awkward social skills. Every day when he walked home from school, several boys would beat him up, even if he changed his route. His friends and teachers told him they were just boys being boys and that if he’d shut up it would eventually stop. It didn’t. And his shame prevented him from ever telling his elderly parents.
“That daily walk turned into, you know, black and blue marks,” Hirsch said, “which became permanent yellow marks which, you know, carried on into my memory.”
Hirsch wanted to make a film to give a voice to bullying victims.
So he began recording the experiences of Kelby and four other kids from rural areas for a documentary called Bully, which opens Friday, April 13, at the Angelika theaters in Dallas and Plano, as well as the AMC Parks at Arlington 18.
For months before its recent premiere in New York City and Los Angeles, Bully gained notoriety over the Motion Picture Association of America’s proposed rating.
Because Bully contained six instances of kids saying “fuck,” the MPAA suggested an R rating. The film’s director and producers at the Weinstein Company appealed, saying that word’s removal would make a weaker and less authentic film and that an R rating would prevent minors seeing it at theaters, and schools from showing it.
Lesbian Michigan high school student Katy Butler, who was bullied herself, began an online Change.org petition that garnered more than 500,000 signatures asking the MPAA to give Bully a PG-13 rating. However, the
MPAA appeals board retained the R rating by one vote. In response, the Weinstein Company initially released the film unrated.
At the April 2 Canadian premiere of the film (where it received a PG rating), Hirsch criticized the MPAA saying, “There’s a great hypocrisy in allowing films that glorify — and even sexify — violence to get PG and PG-13 ratings time and time and time again. And for them to then bring down the hammer on a film like this, on behalf of family values, seems to me totally out of whack.”
Each of the nation’s three-largest theater chains planned on handling Bully differently: Regal would have forbade viewing by all minors under 17; AMC would have allowed minors with signed parental permission slips; and Plano-based Cinemark never shows unrated films, in support of MPAA ratings.
However, on April 5, the MPAA approved a PG-13 edit of Bully that removed three swears while keeping three in a particularly cruel scene of bus ride torment against 12-year-old Alex “Fish face” Libby.
The Weinstein Company called the PG-13 rating “a huge victory for the parents, educators, lawmakers, and most importantly, children, everywhere who have been fighting for months for the appropriate PG-13 rating without cutting some of the most sensitive moments.”
Local LGBT groups plan screening
According to a 2007 study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 88 percent of LGBT-identified students get physically and verbally abused sometime during school (compared to 14 percent of students overall). LGBT students are also much likelier to attempt bullying-related suicide.
In Texas, in the fall of 2010, openly gay 13-year-old Hamilton Middle School student Asher Brown shot himself after years of abuse from classmates who mimicked gay sex in his gym classes, tripped him in the stairwell and kicked around his books.
Brown’s parents filed multiple reports, but Asher’s school did nothing. Likewise, the GLSEN study says one-third of the 39 percent of LGBT students who report bullying never see any school intervention.
Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, said reliable statistics on bullying in Texas don’t exist because school districts aren’t required to report bullying incidences, something he’d like added to the state’s new anti-bullying law, passed last year.
While the law doesn’t specifically mention LGBT students, it does require schools to implement anti-bullying policies that teach students and faculty how to identify and report bullying.
Chris-James Cognetta, board chair for the LGBTQ youth advocacy group Youth First Texas, would also like additional laws requiring schools and districts to report bullying statistics to the state — and penalizing schools that ignore bullying.
James Tate, chair of GLSEN’s newly relaunched Dallas chapter, added that such laws provide students and parents legal pressure to ensure that schools respond to bullying, even if anti-LGBT bullies claim they are simply expressing “freedom of religion.”
“There is no religious exemption to bullying a child,” Tate said. “It is the law and is enforceable, and if [schools act] against the law, we need to get rid of people who aren’t enforcing it. Fire teachers and school administrators.”
Tate and Cognetta are organizing an invitational screening of Bully where school counselors will be able to participate in a post-viewing Q&A on how bullying affects their campuses.
“Children are federally mandated to be in classrooms for seven hours a day. It’s our responsibility to make sure they are protected no matter how they identify,” Tate said.
On the federal level, anti-bullying advocates have garnered bipartisan support for the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require all schools to create bullying prevention and reporting policies. There’s also the
Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In its press release about the film’s PG-13 rating, the Weinstein Company said, “Building support for the Safe Schools Improvement Act is the next step in this movement for change.”
“Lawmakers and politicians are being sought out to back the efforts of anti-bullying supporters everywhere in creating legislation that will comprehensively address the issues of bullying and harassment,” the company said.
Butler, who circulated the petition, added: “If we can’t get the Safe Schools Improvement Act passed, we’ll be visiting the home states of each lawmaker until it does.”
Needless to say, during Kelby Johnson’s high school career, no such anti-bullying laws existed. And in his native Oklahoma, they still don’t.
Johnson recalled another incident when, while walking with friends, a minivan with six boys repeatedly drove by yelling and throwing things. When Johnson walked into the street to ask them to stop, they sped up.
Johnson’s body hit the hood and then the pavement.
That’s when his parents realized that if they didn’t do something, their child could end up dead — and contacted DeGeneres.
Johnson hoped the harassment would end, felt angry and eventually fell into a months-long depression. He would lie awake in bed each night reliving the ridicule.
Johnson initially wanted to remain in Tuttle and speak to high school classes about LGBT people and bullying. But when his teachers refused, he realized he couldn’t do it alone. He dropped out, got his GED and moved away.
Now 19, Johnson lives in Oklahoma City — which is somewhat more progressive than Tuttle — with his girlfriend.
While promoting Bully and speaking to bullied teens nationwide, Johnson has realized he’d like to become an LGBT activist. He currently supports the anti-bullying group Do Something and will intern with GLSEN in D.C. this summer.
“There’s always going to be something, but (the bullying) has calmed down a little bit for me after the film,” Johnson said recently, “and there are a lot of things I can brush off now. The film has helped me grow stronger and be more aware of others around me. It’s definitely been a positive experience, and I will carry it with me for the rest of my life.”
Nevertheless, Johnson’s moment of fame has refocused Tuttle’s bullies against his 17-year-old brother in high school.
Recently, a gang of boys pinned him against the school bathroom wall and ridiculed him for being related to Johnson. Someone else torched his tires and broke his windshield. Despite all that, he’d still like to graduate in Tuttle, something his older brother couldn’t do.
“What I want [young people] to get out of [the film],” Kelby Johnson said, “is that we can be the generation to stand up and say: ‘This isn’t gonna be us. We’re gonna put a stop to this now so that our children do not have to go through this.’ And that no matter what school you go to, no matter what parents you have, you deserve the love and respect that everyone else gets.’”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 13, 2012.