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Jim in Bold, life as a gay teen in America

Joann Loviglio | October 20, 2003

PHILADELPHIA — If Jim Wheeler had been 19 in 2003, everything might have been different.

He might be a painter or a poet, areas in which he showed early and remarkable gifts. Or maybe he would have been a filmmaker, interviewing other gay youths about the pride and prejudice they found in their schools, their families, their neighborhoods.

But Jim Wheeler was 19 in 1997, a gay teenager in a small town just a handful of years too soon. The cruelty he suffered at the hands of his peers, the isolation he thought would never lift, led him to commit suicide five months after graduating from Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

A documentary called Jim in Bold recounts the teen's troubled life -and reveals a sea change in attitudes and a burgeoning online community of gay youth that effectively didn't exist just five years ago.

"If Jim could have hung in a little bit longer, even another six months, I think he would be alive today," said Malcolm Lazin, executive producer of the film and of the Philadelphia-based Equality Forum. "There's this seismic change happening in our society particularly in terms of youth ... he would have been amazed."

Jim in Bold chronicles Wheeler's story as told by his family and friends. A bright, artistic and sensitive teen, he expressed his pain, confusion and outrage through paintings and poems.

One poem provided the title of the film. Another, peppered with hateful words hurled at him by classmates, describes a day when boys threw Wheeler into a gym shower and urinated on him.

"He had a wonderful, a loving and supportive family ... but his spirit had been so chipped away that he just couldn't recover," director Glenn Holsten said. The documentary has appeared at 22 film festivals on three continents, and its makers hope to turn it into a teaching tool for schools.

Wheeler's struggles are juxtaposed with men from a group called Young Gay America interviewing gay teens in big cities and small towns across America. Although none have been immune to the sting of prejudice, most seem to have been spared the anguish Wheeler endured - and all seem to see themselves as part of a larger community.

There are the young women in Pueblo, Colorado, organizers of their town's first gay pride day; a man in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, disowned because of his sexual orientation but hopeful for a reunion; teens in Salt Lake City, discussing the challenges of being gay and Mormon; students in Marlton, New Jersey, optimistic about the future and their place in it.

Young Gay America also posted journals from the 19,300-kilometer (12,000-mile) road trip on its Web site - one of many that provide support and community to teens of the new millennium.

"This generation has the support that Jimmy didn't have as a gay teenager in 1997 in central Pennsylvania," said Wheeler's mother, Susan, who now counsels gay teens and their parents. "But as drastically as things have changed, there's still along way to go."

On a recent weekend, about 10 members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, whose leader, Fred Phelps, has picketed communities nationwide with inflammatory anti-gay messages, traveled 17,70 kilometers (1,100 miles) to picket a Harrisburg screening of Jim in Bold"

Susan Wheeler was among about 800 people who came to watch the movie.

"My message for Fred Phelps was a message that everyone must hear: Homophobia is a killer. It is deadly," she said. "Our job as parents is to recognize our children for who they are and to respect and nourish and nurture and celebrate it. They're gifts from God, all of them." –Sapa-AP

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