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Imagine you were born with red hair—natural, carrot-colored red. You live in a town in which certain opinion leaders teach that red hair is a sign of the devil. They’ve interpreted holy passages to prove they’re correct. They think red hair excuses them from “Love one another.” So, not only are you isolated in school, regardless of how well you do academically, but also bullies beat you up, sabotage your homework, vandalize your belongings, and mock you at every opportunity. You haven’t done anything wrong except be born.
Day after day. Year after year. The bullying only worsens. The families of the bullies back them, saying a kid like you doesn’t belong in a school with decent kids. You aren’t NORMAL. The principal says she can’t force people to like you. Have you tried therapy? You could hide who you really are as many different students do. Your parents throw up their hands in helpless dismay. Your father says you need to stand up for yourself, but you can’t stand as one against a gang. You feel alone and defeated. One day you surrender and end yourself. Can you imagine feeling that hopeless before your life has really begun?
The film JOE BELL is based on a true situation that occurred in Oregon and ended in Colorado not far from where I Iive. Tragically, the theme isn’t unusual. Aside from all the traditionally recognized stresses of being a boy trying to figure out how to grow into adulthood, Jadin Bell (played by Reid Miller) was gay. He did his best to stay positive and true to his authentic self as he pursued his own interests, which included joining the cheerleading squad instead of the football team. But the constant harassment took its toll. Parents steered his friends away from him, imagining that his gayness would somehow contaminate their children. And then he killed himself.
His father Joe Bell (played by Mark Wahlberg) was devastated because he truly loved his son. He finally realized that he might have been able to do more to support him. He had worried too much about what other people said and thought. To save himself from suicide and with his wife’s backing at home, he decided to walk across the continent to talk to anyone who would listen about the importance of accepting people who are different. He felt the energy of his lost son beside him. He wanted to tell other parents of a child who isn’t the same as the majority to love that child openly and without reserve. He chose New York as his destination because his son had always wanted to move there where he expected to find more people, more tolerance. After the fact, Joe Bell tried to comprehend what exactly it is that’s different in a gay person’s life. He found loneliness and rejection were common themes. After supporting a sheriff (played by Gary Sinise) who had been struggling to embrace his own gay son, Joe Bell didn’t complete his journey. As he trudged along the highway, he was hit and killed by a truck driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.
The film JOE BELL isn’t easy to watch—especially the scenes of bullying. I remember too well Matthew Wayne Shepard, the handsome gay boy who was tortured to death and left on a barbed wire fence in Wyoming. Like Jadin, he was someone’s beloved son with hopes, dreams, and talents. But many in the mainstream hate being required to change or to understand diversity they find strange. They believe the world should mirror only them. Certain groups ban stories that even hint at same sex love. Instead of love, bigoted hate is celebrated as a rebellion against…what? Who decides what comprises harmful perversion between consenting adults? Who decides which people are lesser? Who has a right to interpret and decide? Those who protest the loudest have been proven to be those who are secretly the most worried they aren’t different enough from their victims. And the society loses contributions and energies that might have contributed to a better world. Perhaps it’s time for the majority to demonstrate and defend the power of love to heal.