When Marcel Neergaard decided to start a petition calling for StudentsFirst—a national political action committee pursuing "transformative" school reforms—to revoke the "reformer of the year" honor it had awarded to Tennessee state Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) in April, he grabbed a dictionary and thesaurus. The legislator had introduced the Classroom Protection Act (another "Don't Say Gay" bill) earlier in the year, and the 11-year-old Oak Ridger felt this wasn't right. So he wanted to express his thoughts just so.
"We looked at words, and they were huge words, because for something like this, I can't use fourth-grade words. This is a petition, this is something big. Instead of using the words ‘take back,' I learned the word ‘rescind.' I never knew that word!" he says.
The learning curve has been steep in more ways than one. Neergaard thrust himself into the media spotlight about two weeks ago when he put his name on the petition he posted on MoveOn.org and sent it out into the world, not knowing what kind of response he would get.
"The first goal was, let's get to the first 100. Between the four of us, we can probably wrangle up 100 people to come along," recalls his mother, Misty Neergaard.
But within an hour, the petition had 1,000 signatures, thanks to MoveOn.org promoting the petition to its followers. By last Wednesday, he'd reached his goal of 50,000 signatures. And the petition worked. In a June 5 blog post, StudentsFirst director Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s troubled school system, announced that the group had revoked Ragan's award.
"[Ragan's] introduction of ill-conceived and harmful legislation including HB 1332—which would have cultivated a culture of bullying—does not represent the type of leadership we look for in our legislative champions," Rhee wrote.
"It felt much bigger than I thought it would be," Marcel says.
And really, it was much bigger than any of the Neergaards expected. Many discussions had taken place—at IHOP over pancakes, Marcel says—over whether to let him put his name on a potentially controversial petition. Misty says she wanted her younger son to realize what some of the consequences of coming out so publicly would be. "It's hard for us to grasp as adults," she says.
"And you were also trying to make sure that it was my decision, and that I was not being forced into it," Marcel says to his mother.
"It was absolutely very important that you wanted it, and that you decided it was important to you. Because it was never our fight to take on," Misty says.
The whirlwind experience of the last two weeks began much earlier when, at age 10, Marcel realized he was gay. Though he came out immediately to his older brother Maitland and to his parents, Misty and Mike, a few months later, no one at his school knew Neergaard was gay. Despite his still-secret realization, the gay slurs among his classmates started to be slung in Marcel's direction.
Marcel explains that his classmates thought their words were all in good fun.
"The bullies don't think they're bullies at all. They think they're the person's friends. It's hard to figure out what's kidding around and what's bullying," he says.
But when the teasing among friends went from calling him gay "as a curse word" to Marcel being hit with his own backpack toward the end of his fifth-grade year, his parents decided he should take a break from public school. Neergaard was home-schooled for his sixth-grade school year.
That decision was reinforced with the re-introduction of state Sen. Stacey Campfield's "Don't Say Gay" bill. Ragan, who represents the Neergaards' district in the state Legislature, had previously supported the infamous "Don't Say Gay" bill, and this year brought the Classroom Protection Act to the state House. (Campfield was the state Senate sponsor of the bill.) The Classroom Protection Act was an update to Campfield's first Don't Say Gay bill, which would have accidentally liberalized the state's sex-education laws by allowing teachers to address the reproductive aspects of sex, but not homosexuality in any context, before ninth grade, which is the earliest grade in which sex is addressed according to state law. In the updated 2013 version, that loophole was closed, and another provision was added: If children tell teachers they think they might be gay, the teachers are obligated to report that to the students' parents.
Marcel's parents were well aware of the bill when it was filed in the House by Ragan in February, and say they believed that perpetuating the idea that being gay is a taboo would create an environment of fear, not only for their son, but also for other kids whose parents might have different views on homosexuality. Marcel's immediate reaction to what the bill would mean for kids across Tennessee was, "That's dumb," says Mike.
"It was something that Mike and I heard of before, and it was one of the reasons we decided to home-school because it was hanging over as a possibility—and we knew that if that bill passed, it wouldn't work out well for Marcel in school," Misty says.
Neergaard and his family realize that the way he was raised was much different than many of his native East Tennessee peers. He was born in California, but the family moved to Oak Ridge just a few years later. After a lot of time researching how to address her younger son's coming out, Misty says the family was able to make connections to local resources, including Oak Ridge High School's Gay-Straight Alliance, which Neergaard attends regularly.
"I really love the GSA meetings. It's sort of like my home, where I can be myself. I don't have to be hidden," he says.
The low-key coming out to his family and close friends was one thing. But when Neergaard wanted to put his petition online, his parents realized the stakes would be much higher.
"I wanted to make sure Marcel knew that it would mean people that he never really intended to say anything to would know—friends of his that he just knows from other things. And not that he has a problem telling them, they would just know, where it would never come up in a normal part of their discussion," Misty says. "I really wanted to make sure we said, ‘Are you okay with such-and-such knowing?' And he said ‘Wow, I hadn't thought about that.'"
Marcel is chatty and forthcoming about his thoughts and experiences. He might say a word wrong, like "opinionative" instead of "opinionated," and will take his time when searching for the right word to describe how he feels. And when he smiles, it lights up his whole face, especially when he he's reminded of last Wednesday, when his petition got its 50,000th signature. "Victorious!" he says, raising his fist. His brother Maitland says he has "a lot of friends who might like Marcel better than me," and Misty says all the people who attend the GSA meetings "love Marcel."
And, Maitland says, "Marcel's fearless."
"And one of the big reasons that I did this petition is because what happened to me in fifth grade is completely unacceptable," Marcel says. "The idea of that happening to anyone else is completely devastating."
Huffington Post blogger Scott Wooledge had noticed the StudentsFirst oversight in naming Ragan "Reformer of the Year," and then not saying anything when the legislator introduced the Classroom Protection Act. But then he heard about Marcel through the family's connections at the Tennessee Equality Project. Wooledge, Misty says, was instrumental in getting Marcel's column onto the Huffington Post's website.
"We thought maybe it would end up in the local newspaper or something," she says.
Marcel has also given interviews to Michelangelo Signorile for his satellite radio show The Michelangelo Signorile Show, and to WATE.
And the response has been overwhelming, says Mike. There are the negative comments—"The worst of humanity is in the comment threads," he says—and Mike says he's seen many commenters wonder if kids Marcel's age can really know whether they are gay. But he prefers to focus on the positive messages.
"One guy [wrote in a comment], ‘I was out at age 11 in the '70s.' People wrote in stories of abuse. It was cathartic for them. I cried a lot. It meant a lot to me that they had a place to go and share that story," Mike says. "It's very nice to know that I have people who will stand by me and say ‘Yes, we agree with Marcel.'"
And while it's yet to be seen whether publicity from his petition may affect the bill's chances, the self-aware pre-teen says he probably won't be able to absorb everything that's happened in the last week until later.
"I think when I'm older I'm going to say, ‘That was a part of my life that was huge.' I think I'm just going to look back and just gasp," Marcel says with a smile.