From bullied youth to national heroine

Michigan's Katy Butler proves one dedicated person can make huge change

By Kate Opalewski

As a victim of bullying, Katy Butler was used to people telling her "It gets better." Her response to them was "It can't get better if you don't make it better." And while she may be three months too young to vote, she's not too young to use her voice to mobilize hundreds of thousands in an effort to create change. The openly lesbian 17-year-old has been called a "hero" and a "teen crusader" for the work she has done as an anti-bullying advocate.

Butler's journey began in November 2011 when she and her friend Carson Borbely started an online petition urging the Michigan legislature to stop the dangerous "license to bully" bill that would have created religious and moral exemptions from bullying. Determined to change the offensive language and improve the wording in the bill, Butler and the Riot Youth kids out of Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor joined Equality Michigan Policy Director Emily Dievendorf in lobbying legislators to add enumeration to the weaker version of the bill.

Within just a few weeks of the campaign launch for a comprehensive anti-bullying bill, more than 50,000 supporters came together on http://www.Change.org, the world's fastest growing platform for social change. "The public already knew that advocates and students wanted a strong bill because the Riot Youth had been doing all the hard work. In legislators hands was a downright destructive bill. Suddenly the nation was watching and the weaker version of the bill looked pretty good to legislators compared to the "license to bully" and the less offensive bill passed with bipartisan support," said Dievendorf, adding that Michigan schools are now required to have anti-bullying policies on file by June 6.

"That success came in great part because Katy and her friends were willing to tell their stories on the Capitol lawn in the pouring rain, pull Senators out of the Senate chambers to tell them they weren't fighting hard enough for the students most affected, and argue the value of enumeration to legislators during office visits...even getting kicked out of an office for pointing out the weakness of the unenumerated bill," said Dievendorf. "Katy and her friends showed great courage by telling powerful people their horror stories. Doors were opened by their voices that I can't get into because their stories from their mouths are more powerful than any statistic I can present."

Butler's story has affected many, but she said there is nothing unique about it and students all across Michigan have stories just like hers. She has made it her mission to speak out on their behalf, which is not something she used to do as she struggled alone in Plymouth Canton Middle School.

"Looking back, the climate was different. I remember things now that my friends would say and they were horrible. We would talk about people getting their ears pierced and my friends would say 'left is right and right is wrong because right is gay.' I never made the connection that that meant gay was wrong until recently. It was little things like that," said Butler, who is isolated from people in her hometown of Plymouth where she lives with her mom, Anne, her dad Michael, her younger sister Kelly, and their family dog Jack, a seven-and-a-half-year-old Cairn Terrier. "I don't talk to anyone here. My experiences in middle school are enough to make me not want to."

"I knew there was stuff going on and that Katy was really miserable and unhappy," said Butler's mom, a pediatrician at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital. "I went to her school at one point and met with her counselor wondering what can I possibly do to help her and to find out what's going on. Her counselor made the issue about Katy and asked me what she can do to make Katy be friends with the person who was bullying her. The school was unresponsive and actually particularly clueless."

Butler's painful memories are the reason she connected to a trailer from the film "Bully" and started another online petition in February 2012. She read a news story about the Motion Picture Association of America's rating of the film and wanted to change it from "R" to "PG-13" for the kids that really need to see it.

"When we had about 150,000 to 200,000 signatures, people really started to notice that there is something going on," said Butler. "It was crazy." Director Lee Hirsch and The Weinstein Company announced that the documentary would receive the rating change from the MPAA after more than 500,000 people, including 35 members of Congress and several celebrities, joined the campaign on http://www.Change.org,all the while, Butler was creating a following in the local and national press. Her accomplishments and growing popularity took her to places like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. where she sat down to talk with Representative Mike Honda, Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

"It was really great and really exciting to have them tell me that I was doing such a great job," said Butler. "Now they have an anti-bullying caucus going on to create a national anti-bullying law that they want me to come and speak about and help them with this summer." According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Honda is currently building membership for a bipartisan Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus to be launched this June. This new caucus is being established to draw attention to the problem of bullying and harassment in our nation's schools.

Butler has been honored by Oscar-winning producer Harvey Weinstein at the GLAAD Media Awards in March where she received a Special Recognition award. In April, the Gay Men's Chorus of LA presented Butler with the "Emerging Voice Award." She has appeared on CBS This Morning, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Fox and Friends, and CNN.

"I think we just took it in stride," said Butler's mom. "I still yell at her for keeping her room sloppy." And Butler agrees that nothing has changed - she still loves Tegan and Sara, lives to dress shop, writes poetry, plays acoustic guitar and spends time with her significant other, Sarah Prelipp - there's just more work to do.

Butler is invited to LA Pride in June to be a guest in the parade and to receive the 2012 Outstanding Youth Leader award, which she thinks is "so awesome" and is "so excited" about. Locally, she will appear at this year's Motor City Pride festival at Detroit's Hart Plaza.

"I read about Katy and I was very impressed with her. I instantly had a connection with her. She's a voice for youth and represents herself professionally. She is the type of young person I'm looking for to go on this journey with me," said award-winning Birmingham filmmaker and lesbian mom Amy Weber. She chose Butler to be a part of her upcoming film, The Bully Chronicles, a movement toward change in the form of a narrative feature film shot in an unscripted documentary style. As a youth producer, Butler will be responsible for everything from casting to developing the story along with Weber, and will play a huge role in getting support on a national scale. "It was very easy for me to involve her among other kids who stand out in their communities and really do try to live their lives like Katy, truthfully, with their hearts wide open," said Weber.

When asked how she keeps up with her school work, Butler said, "I don't sleep. It's OK and it's worth it. I've missed a little bit of school, but my teachers are fantastic and they think this is the coolest thing ever." Butler is a junior and travels 20 minutes to Ann Arbor to attend Greenhills High School in a safe and welcoming environment. She is an alto singer in her school choir and loves her conceptual photography class where she is able to deliver a message through her photos.

"If anyone ever doubts what a young person is capable of doing 'to make the world a better place' - the charge to our students in our school's mission statement - then one need only look at Katy. What's most impressive about her is that she's not only an extraordinary LGBT activist, she's an extraordinary person who serves as a fine model for everyone," said Greenhills Head of School Peter Fayroian. "While I do believe that our environment was fertile ground in which Katy could explore these issues with our support and her incredible candor and conviction, I also think we've learned a lot from her as well. Essentially, we are now held to an even higher standard and we know it."

As the only open LGBT person at her school, fellow students come out to Butler all the time. The school's Gay Straight Alliance consists of Butler and a few teachers. "We're trying really hard to get a GSA in the middle school. There is resistance from parents who believe their kids are too young or that if they are exposed to gay things, they will turn gay," she said. "I think it's better for them to hear about it from someone who is more experienced and knows what they are talking about rather than from their peers."

Butler recently received some positive Facebook messages from people she went to middle school with. "They think this is really cool and want to help out," she said. Unfortunately, Butler's old counselor is less than supportive though.

"Katy very impressively reached out to her a few months ago to encourage her to go see the movie and perhaps discuss what she can do within the middle school system. Katy said she would love to go and talk to her. The response we got was a simple two words...no thanks," said Butler's mom.

That won't stop her from trying to get into those school systems to continue addressing the issue of bullying. It is also Butler's dream to achieve marriage equality in all 50 states. "I really want to work to make that happen. It would mean so much to me for me to be able to get married to the woman I fall in love with in my home state with all of my family and friends," she said. But first, Butler will attend college where she wants to study political science with the hope of establishing a career as a political activist.

"Katy told me early on that she wants my job so, just as I did, she will be starting her political career as a summer intern. Lucky for Katy, she chose a movement that has no shortage of battles to take on and lucky for me I snagged a rock star intern. I have no doubt that her youthful energy and heart will serve invaluable to efforts toward equality in housing, employment, adoption, and access to health for the gay and transgender community," said Dievendorf. "Katy is modest and real. I never once had Katy text me to let me know she would soon be on Ellen, or with Anderson Cooper. She reaches out when she needs to feel grounded and when progress seems to be on the horizon because she knows I am happy to talk to her as a friend and that I will share her excitement. If Katy brags to anyone about all the incredible places she has now seen and people she has met, it hasn't been to me. Katy is not a boaster or an attention hog. She is an impassioned young activist, down for the cause, who knows that this movement is bigger than her. She is just happy to be a part of it."

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