Carolyn Wagner and the Wagner family
My friend Carolyn was - among a very many other things - the mother of a hate crime victim. In December 1996 her 16 year old son William was assaulted in a vicious anti-gay bashing at school. He survived but with lasting injuries, The Wagners filed a complaint with the Office For Civil Rights that the Fayetteville Arkansas School District was in violation of their son's Title lX rights and succeeded in convincing the OCR that GLBT students are covered by Title lX. The Supreme Court upheld Title lX rights for students, regardless of gender of victim or harasser or sexual orientation/gender identity. Carolyn is a long time progressive activist. She is a former Vice-President elect of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and co-founder of Arkansas Equality Network, created to coordinate and advocate with individuals and organizations based on the pursuit of equality for all.
Our connection: In 1996 soon after William was assaulted, Carolyn emailed me after she found Bill's story online. We started an email correspondence and an amazing friendship began. In the fall of 1997 Carolyn, William and I met in person for the first time when she asked me to join her and William on The Rikki Lake Show. In February 2000 we were in El Paso, TX for the opening celebration of the Lambda GLBT Community Center with William and his dad Bill, and with Dorothy Hajdys-Holman, the mother of Petty Officer Allen R. Schindler Jr., who was murdered in Japan in 1992 by a navy shipmate. Carolyn and I realized that we, and too many others, had become unfortunate "experts" on what it is like for survivors and their families to cope with a hate incident and its aftermath. We talked about what we needed, and all the ways this had affected us - the emotions, the legal issues, dealing with the media, etc. Neither of us wanted all we had learned (and continue to learn) to be wasted. Although we were already attracting others who were coping with this issue, we dreamed about finding a better way to share, and of building a coalition to support victims and their families as they cope with hate. So together we created Families United Against Hate (FUAH) and it continues to be a work in progress.
On January 18, 2011 my friend and inspiration Carolyn Wagner passed away in Tulsa, OK after a long struggle with cancer, hepatitis and liver failure. See: We mourn the death and celebrate the life of Carolyn Wagner, Families United Aganst Hate's Co-Founder - August 15, 1953 to January 18, 2011 on the FUAH website.
See MAKING MEN: The Boy Who Doesn't Fit In (below) and Letter from Fayetteville.
Also see: Complaint by Gay Student Triggers Historic Civil Rights Agreement - Fayetteville, Arkansas, schools must comply with Title IX
(NEW YORK, June 22, 1998)
Read Carolyn's article About PFLAG's Trans-Inclusive Legislative Policy - pdf format
Read My Friend Carolyn - by Robyn Serven, July 20, 2006
From 1974 to 1976 Carolyn was a volunteer lay therapist for S.C.A.N. (Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect) of Fort Smith, Arkansas. In 1979 she founded Fulfill A Dream, Inc. (an organization to assist families with limited income/resources meet needs and or fulfill dreams for children with catastrophic and or terminal diseases).
JAYCEES NAME AWARD RECIPIENTS - January 21, 1984
"Carolyn Wagner, president of Fulfill A Dream, Inc. of Fort Smith, an organization which helps grant the dreams of terminally ill children, was named the 43rd recipient of the Fort Smith Jaycees' Carnall "Tiny" Gardner Award for distinguished community service." (here - on page 3 - in pdf format)
It merged in 1993 to form Make A Wish Foundation and moved its offices to Memphis, TN.. In 1983 Carolyn founded Camp Rainbow for children in AR, OK, MO, TN, and LA, MS who had cancer and at the time could not attend other camping facilities. The camp's mission was to provide normal living experiences for children experiencing abnormal living conditions and their siblings as well as to give parents/caregivers a week of respite. It merged to form C.O.C.A. (Children's Oncology Camps of America).
Carolyn Wagner is one of four people featured in this article by Sonia Scherr: Children of Hate: Fighting Back Against Racist Parents, published in Southern Poverty Law Center's Winter 2009 Intelligence Report. (opens in a new window on the SPLC website). Her story is in the "Taking on the Klan" section.
Carolyn was interviewed for MSNBC's Obama's America: 2010 and Beyond which aired on Jan. 18, 2010. Carolyn is in "State of race relations" - the 3rd segment online from 14:00 to 15:30 of 20:06 minutes. View that specific segment Carolyn is in here - see 13:59-15:27.
Listen to an interview on 11/12/06 by FUAH board member Ethan St. Pierre (below)
with FUAH co-founders Carolyn Wagner & Gabi Clayton
Also on the site is a great interview Ethan did with Carolyn's son William
on 1/10/07, and many other folks too.
Listen to Steve Schalchlin's song "William's Song (Five Big Guys)" about William Wagner and his family:
San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus meet with mothers Gabi Clayton and Carolyn Wagner before the 30th anniversary show
which features songs written about the two women's experience with hate crimes perpetrated upon their gay sons.
The songs, "Gabi's Song (Will It Always Be Like This?)" and "William's Song" are part of "New World Waking! Songs on the Road to Peace
inspired by John Lennon's Piano" which was world debuted that night, December 1, 2008.
World and music by Steve Schalchlin. Arrangements and orchestrations by Dr. Kathleen C. McGuire.
A CD recording of the live concert is available at sfgmc.org. Posted by Steve Schalchlin/
Gentlemen of the 30th Anniversary San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus pay tribute to four of the inspirations
in their world premier of Steve Schalchlin's New World Waking: Gabi & Alec Clayton and Carolyn and William Wagner.
Irish Blessing, Davies Symphony Hall, 1 December 2008. ~ Posted by peelpod.
William's Song from New World Waking. Music & lyrics by Steve Schalchlin.
Recorded Dec. 20, 2008 - First Congregational Church of Santa Cruz.
A touring edition of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Arranged and conducted by Dr. Kathleen C. McGuire.
There's always a non-violent way to fight back.
...and sometimes it just takes a mom.
Based on the true story of William Wagner & Carolyn Wagner.
Posted by Steve Schalchlin
And please watch this is wonderful tribute to Carolyn by Brandon Brock:
Thank you, Brandon!
Boston Globe -- June 20, 1999
MAKING MEN: The Boy Who Doesn't Fit In
by Mitchell Zuckoff
That very night, as Bill Wagner stood watching the sun set over his small, beloved farm at the southern edge of the Ozark Mountains, he made an announcement of his own: To protect Willi, the family would move away from this Bible Belt town of 3,408 people, where homosexuality is still seen by many as proof of the devil, away from the blue-collar warehouse job where he had worked for 24 years, away from the land where he wanted to live out his days.
A bearded bear of a man, Bill Wagner would move his family to Fayetteville, a relatively liberal college community two hours away that bills itself as ''The first home of Bill and Hillary Clinton.'' He would find a new home, a ranch-style house trashed by the frat boys who lived there previously, and he would find new work, on the overnight shift at the local Wal-Mart. It was worth it, to give Willi a chance for a safe and happy life, to help him find a place where an outcast boy might fit in.
Bill Wagner couldn't have known then of the torments that would come, of the beating that would drive Willi to quit high school, of the battles with school officials and state laws, of the way his own parents would reject him and his only son.
He also couldn't have predicted the joys, of growing closer to his boy through hard times, of loving him unconditionally, and of chaperoning a tuxedoed Willi to a ''gay prom'' in Dallas last month, watching him walk to the dance floor with a rolling, rambling teenage strut.
All he knew then was that it was a father's place to do the best he could for a son, even one he didn't quite understand.
''We don't really like living in town, but you do what you have to do,'' Wagner, 45, says during a rare visit to the abandoned farm, which he and his wife Carolyn still own despite the financial strain. ''As bad as it's been at times, it would have been worse if we stayed. He got beat up in Fayetteville, but out here you get killed for being different.''
Wagner says it calmly, without drama or self-pity. It is a feature of his personality, a mix of equanimity and pragmatism, that emerges again when a nail pierces his car tire on the drive away from the farm. He gets out, inspects the problem, quietly decides what to do, then does it.
Before leaving the farm, though, Wagner sees two huge birds riding the wind, lolling through the air in gentle circles. Bill and Carolyn watch silently. They are joined by Willi and a friend, Sarah Vollmer, who came along for the drive. Sarah calls out: ''Look, hawks!''
''Nope,'' Bill says softly. ''They're buzzards. Something must've died around here.''
His words have a dual meaning, but he seems not to notice.
Bill Wagner was born in 1953 in Odessa, Texas, where his father Ã¢â‚¬â€œ ''a redneck,'' Bill says Ã¢â‚¬â€œ was working in the oil fields. After a sojourn in South America, the family settled in rural Mulberry, Ark.
Bill's parents, Otis and Miss Jackie Wagner, as she is known, had grown up in Mulberry. Their families had lived in the rural part of northwest Arkansas since before the Civil War, during which the Wagners fought on the Confederate side.
In 1959, Otis Wagner bought a small cattle ranch, using Bill and his twin brother, Bob, as homegrown farm hands. Mostly, they communicated through work orders and criticism. ''I hope I have a better relationship with my son than my dad did with me. I try not to yell at him as much,'' Bill says.
After graduating from high school, Bill worked in the local hay fields, in an ice house, and as a roughneck, ''slinging chain'' for a gas-drilling crew headed by his father, who continued working in the oil and gas fields even while running the ranch. Bill was exempted from military service during the Vietnam War, drawing number 268 in the draft lottery, high enough for him to stay home and work.
At 19 he met Carolyn, and in short order they fell in love and eloped to Dallas. He eventually found a job loading upholstery in a warehouse in Fort Smith, Ark., near the Oklahoma border, and they settled in for what seemed like an ordinary life. Bill would work at the warehouse and volunteer at a local rodeo. Carolyn, who had returned to school to become a nurse, gave birth to their daughter Clara in 1977. Willi followed three years later.
As a child, Willi was ''all boy,'' his father says Ã¢â‚¬â€œ climbing trees, riding his blue bike, joining the Cub Scouts, making regular trips to the emergency room for stitches and minor repairs. He was bright, playful, and not always obedient.
One day in kindergarten, Willi and another boy were sent out of the classroom. Bill says it was so he could clean erasers; Willi says it was because he was misbehaving. Whatever the reason, both agree that Willi and his pal figured out how to lock the classroom door from the outside, trapping the teacher and their classmates inside. By the time they opened the door, the teacher was in tears and one little girl was desperately in need of a bathroom. Feeling guilty, Willi gave her a hug.
Another time, Willi caught a snake. Despite his parents' insistence that he keep it in a closed jar, the next thing they knew it was slithering across the kitchen floor. "You'd have to be real aware of everything you put down, because no matter what it was, he'd get into it. He was pure curiosity,'' Bill says.
It was around that time that Willi was diagnosed as dyslexic -- just like his father -- and suffering from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Doctors prescribed Ritalin, a calming drug that he would take through the seventh grade.
As he watched Willi grow, Bill knew that his son had few friends, knew he didn't fit in Booneville. But he never suspected that Willi might be gay. He missed the signs. ''When he would have other kids over to the house, they were always oohing and aahing over pictures of Cindy Crawford. Willi had no reaction to it. At the time, I just figured he hadn't gone into that phase,'' Bill says.
But Willi, now 18, says that for as long as he could remember, he knew he had no interest in supermodels, at least not the female ones. ''It wasn't a sudden realization,'' he says. ''I always knew I was different. I never wanted the prince to get the princess at the end of the story.''
His 6-foot-1 frame folded into an overstuffed chair, Willi lets out a half-laugh, half-cough, then lights another Maverick Special, a generic cigarette that comes in a black box with what looks like a gold lawman's star. A dark blonde forelock droops over his eye, and he pushes it away with fingernails painted a bright chrome, a nail polish called ''side-swiped silver.'' Two small hoop earrings dangle from his left ear.
As he grew into an awkward puberty, Willi moved from baby fat to, in his words, ''really fat.'' By 13, he weighed 250 pounds, and his schoolmates in Booneville were cruel, taunting him, pressing his buttons, picking fights. He spent more and more time with his dog or alone, playing Nintendo and reading science fiction.
Sad and lonely, Willi made several suicidal gestures that in retrospect seem designed as much to gain attention as to end his life. Having heard news reports about ''flesh-eating bacteria,'' he ate a plateful of raw ground beef, hoping it would contain the germ and either kill him or devour all the fat on his body. Another time he lay down in a road and cried. He raided the family medicine cabinet for prescription drugs.
His parents brought Willi to a private psychiatric hospital in Fayetteville. On his 14th birthday, several weeks after his admission, they went to the hospital bearing balloons and a giant cookie.
But Willi didn't want to talk about his birthday. Hesitating, with long gaps between words, he choked out the truth: ''Mom...Dad...I'm...gay. I don't think I'm gay. I don't want to be gay. I just am.''
Carolyn Wagner, who has since become an Arkansas gay rights activist, says she was dumbstruck at first. ''I felt like a brick wall had just fallen on me,'' she says.
Bill sat silently as seconds ticked past. Then, he said to Willi: ''I made a mistake with you.'' As his words hung in the air, he finished the thought: ''I didn't talk to you about safe sex because I didn't see you interested in girls. I see I made a mistake. I should have talked to you about that.''
And that was that, no judgments, no criticism. There was a nail in the tire, and he had to deal with it. Today, Bill doesn't see anything unusual about his reaction; he just can't imagine having done anything else.
''It could have been something really bad. He could have been on drugs, or had cancer, or been killed in a car wreck. He had gone through all this to tell us, and then he was so relieved, and so I figured, OK, that's it,'' he says.
It wasn't that Bill didn't know that some men explode at such news, he just couldn't see why. ''I think a lot of fathers have a negative reaction because they think it reflects on him, or his manhood or something, and it doesn't. It's just like if a man with black hair has three sons and two have black hair and one is blonde-headed. He's still your son, just like the others,'' Bill says.
What Willi didn't know at the time was that Bill had heard such news before: His twin, Bob, had revealed his homosexuality to Bill and Carolyn the previous Christmas after a marriage that failed after 15 years. That announcement didn't require much response from Bill, and it made no dent on his feelings: ''I'd do anything for that man. He's still my brother.'' He also was Bill's first gay acquaintance.
If Bob's news could be handled with a hug and a shrug, Willi's would demand quick, dramatic action.
Shortly before Willi's announcement, the family had gotten an unpleasant taste of what it was like to be different in Booneville, a dot on the map where city hall, the local newspaper, the fire department, and the ambulance squad are located in a row of storefronts barely 50 feet long from end to end.
In September of that year, their daughter Clara had told them about daily Bible readings in the high school. Bill and Carolyn were both raised in Christian families, but both felt the Bible belonged strictly in church and at home. They tried to familiarize the community with Supreme Court limits on prayer in school, only to be shunned and threatened.
They also knew what had happened when a mixed-race family had moved into town: Someone poured gasoline on the newcomers' lawn in the shape of a cross and set it afire.
''I grew up in a small town, and they hadn't changed much in 20 years. I knew what would happen to Willi if we didn't leave,'' Bill says.
Signs of how quickly they left the 40-acre farm are still evident more than four years later. Past the black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace that dot the overgrown property is a storage shed with boxes of old toys and family photos. Willi's old bicycle rusts near a tree. A small satellite dish sprouts in a field like a metallic sunflower.
By the time Willi left the psychiatric hospital in December 1994, the family had uprooted to Fayetteville. For a time, things went relatively well, and Willi became a class clown. ''I would weird people out. Anyone who wasn't too scared off by abnormalities would pretty much become a friend,'' he says.
Willi began telling his few close friends that he was gay. But when he whispered it to one during a fourth-period speech class, a girl in front of them overheard and blurted it out. ''By seventh period, everyone knew, and I was getting made fun of,'' Willi says.
Taunts led to rumors. When his dog was killed by a car, word spread that he had raped and killed it. Then the bullies would smack him in the head with books and try to pick fights. And when he wouldn't fight them, they made other plans.
On Dec. 2, 1996, Willi and some friends left school to get lunch at the Hog-Wash, a nearby laundromat-cum-convenience store. Suddenly, a blue truck pulled up and six young men jumped out to the gravel road. ''C'mere you faggot,'' one called.
They surrounded him, knocking him to the ground. He felt his nose break and he curled into a fetal position. So they kicked him, their cowboy boots bruising his kidney and leaving welts around his head and body. One of Willi's friends ran to a nearby house to call police and Bill. ''There's blood everywhere. They're killing him,'' the boy shouted into the phone.
Bill arrived as fast as the first squad car, a big, angry, scared man. He would later tell his wife that he wanted to walk into an alley with the parents of Willi's attackers, knowing he'd be the only one to walk out. It remains the only time in their 26 years together that he ever spoke of such violence.
But outwardly he forced himself to remain calm, softly telling Willi he was safe now. Willi's hands covered his face, and blood seeped through his fingers. Bill cradled his battered son and brought him to the hospital.
It would be two months before Willi would return to school, and that didn't last long. The last straw came when he learned that a friend was being bullied for defending him.
In the middle of the 10th grade, Willi dropped out. Two of his attackers were convicted on juvenile assault charges, but they had accomplished their goal.
In the two years since then, Willi's life has improved. He obtained his equivalency diploma, and he is making plans to attend the University of Arkansas with dreams of becoming a psychiatrist. He has spent more time with his father, recently helping him collect some discarded sheetrock and insulation in hopes of someday completing the farmhouse.
Like other teens, he has won and lost jobs. He still has the first pay stub from his job at Ci-Ci's Pizza, for $61.78; his father had it framed.
Also during the past two years, his parents successfully battled with the Fayetteville Public Schools over the failure to protect him from harassment. A year ago, the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, acting at the Wagners' behest, won an agreement under which the Fayetteville schools are required to take specific steps to eliminate sexual harassment, including harassment of gay and lesbian students.
In April, at Carolyn's urging, Bill's advocacy of gay rights became even more public. He became a plaintiff in a challenge to a state law that bans anyone living with an adult homosexual from being a foster parent. ''This law means I'd have to kick my son out of the house to help another child. That doesn't make any sense,'' Bill says.
Bill's activism also has a more comic element. Marching last year in a Gay Pride parade in Tulsa, Bill was swamped by people admiring the message printed across his chest: ''My son came out of the closet and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!''
But there have been costs as well, including lost friends, the scowls of neighbors, and a .22-caliber bullet that shattered a window one night while Bill was watching TV.
Bill shrugs off pretty much all the costs, except for one: he is plagued by his estrangement from his parents.
The rift began with Willi's beating. Carolyn told Bill's mother, Miss Jackie, why their grandson was attacked. She asked, ''Who knows?'' It was a question about Willi's sexuality, not his health. Bill's father, Otis, won't talk about it at all, and Bill has given up trying. They still don't know their other son, Bob, is gay.
''How much energy can I put into a dry well? They're not going to change,'' Bill says. It is an example he won't follow.
It is Saturday night on Memorial Day weekend, and the sky in Dallas is lit by jagged flashes of lightning. The Wagners have come to the Dallas Grand Hotel, with Carolyn's mother in tow, so Willi can attend the Second Annual Rainbow GayLA, a ''prom'' for gay and lesbian youths.
Bill and Willi had spent the day before picking up Willi's rented tux, a black jacket and pants set off by shimmering silver vest, bow tie, and pocket square. Black work boots complete the outfit. As the prom approaches, Willi chooses a pink accessory: Pepto Bismol, to soothe his nervous stomach.
Carolyn gets into the spirit with a long white skirt. Bill does his best, putting on a white polo shirt with black trim and donning his son's spare sport jacket for pictures.
Two days earlier, Willi revealed he had a simple goal for the night: ''Find myself a boyfriend. Almost all my straight friends have a love interest, and then there's me.'' But tonight, Willi seems tentative and Bill offers him some fatherly advice: ''Just relax, have fun. They'll like you when they know you.''
Willi joins some new friends at a table, growing more animated as the volume on the sound system rises. A song called ''Cornershop'' begins, and Willi and a young man with dark hair and glasses rise to dance.
Standing off to the side, out of Willi's sight, Bill smiles.