Kelby Johnson was one of several students featured in Lee Hirsch’s powerful film Bully, which has its television premiere on Independent Lens tonight, Monday October 13 at 10pm [check local listings]. After coming out as a lesbian as a teenager, Kelby and Kelby’s family were treated as pariahs in their small town of Tuttle, Oklahoma. A one-time all-star athlete, Kelby faced an outpouring of hatred from some classmates as well as teachers, and was eventually forced to give up sports. As seen in the film, the gutsy teenager, bolstered by an adoring girlfriend and a few staunch friends, resolved to stay in Tuttle and change a few minds. Kelby, who has since come out as transgender and continues to be an outspoken advocate for anti-bullying campaigns, sees Bully as a tool to help end the forms of harassment that nearly drove him to suicide.
Kelby took the time out to speak with us over email about his amazing story (both in the film and after it), and the work he’s been doing since.
Tell us a bit about where you’re living today — are you in college, traveling, working?
Today I am living in Oklahoma City with my now fiancée Brionna DeMeritt. I am about to go to school to become an anthropologist and hopefully start a job as a 911 dispatcher in the next week.
In the film, while you were in high school, you had to deal with bullying that stemmed from anti-gay prejudice, but were pretty steadfast about remaining in your small Oklahoma town. This included being physically harmed in what must have been a very terrifying incident. Do you have any regrets about you and your family staying there as long as you did? Have you seen any changes there in how LGBT teens are treated specifically or bullying in general?
If I’m being honest some of me regrets staying in Tuttle as long as I did. I do feel like they may have taken certain aspects of my personality away that I am still working on regaining, but most of me doesn’t regret it at all. When you feel something needs to be said you need to do something about it. I think I would’ve regretted it more staying quiet and not doing what I could. I haven’t really been back to see if much has changed. There’s not much LGBTQ youth in that town, but I know that some hearts were changed so hopefully they’re doing okay.
Along those lines, has anyone there seen the film and then given you feedback? How do you feel about all the eyes that will be on it after it plays on PBS?
People from Tuttle did see the movie and I got a wide array of responses to it. I had some old friends tell me how awesome it was to see something being done. I had a teacher reach out to me and talk to me about my time there. I also got responses of anger saying that I was showing the town in a bad light and that made them angry.
Do you keep in touch with any of your supportive friends that we see you with in the film?
I do still talk and hang out sometimes with my friends in the movie. They’re still incredibly open and crazy and I will never forget the support of that group I had.
Since you’ve more recently come out as transgender, have your experiences in school helped you prepare for all the different ways people react to that? Is it easier now, are people more open?
It’s weird to say that I can see a huge change in the tolerance with lesbian, bisexual, and gays here; however, I do feel when it comes to being transgender that’s a whole other topic. I feel that people haven’t really yet grasped exactly what it means, an understanding. You get a different reaction telling people they’re using the wrong pronouns and all that good stuff. So it’s been different dealing with this than it was in Tuttle, but I feel I can handle it better and we have to keep educating the public.
Have you gotten back involved in sports since then, is there more tolerance for young LGBT athletes than there was then?
I have not gotten back into sports. That is one area where I think it’s just best left alone here. I do go shoot some hoops with my fiancée though and we go have some fun.
Tell us a bit about your experiences working with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) and what you learned from that that you’ve taken with you since?
When I was working with GLSEN I had no idea that so many people were out there working that hard to make a change. I wasn’t aware that there was so much I could get involved in and help [with]. I got to learn about a couple bills trying to be pushed through for students, and speak with Oklahoma representatives. I learned there is always something that needs to be improved upon.
Have you connected with any of the other kids seen in the film Bully, either in real life or online?
Of course. After the movie came out we were close with the Libby family when they moved down here. I still have most of them on Facebook and still talk to the Longs quite a bit.
Is there any one story, experience (or thing someone said to you) coming from your experience being in this film that you’ll never forget?
The messages that I get from kids who have seen the movie I will never forget. I get about 30-40 messages a day now from kids sharing their stories or just telling me that without this film they wouldn’t have made it. The most heart-touching is feeling like you were a part in saving a life and making a kid feel less alone. I have made so many friends online that I’ve never met in real life that I would trust with my life.
Any advice for other LGBT teens out there struggling with bullying?
I hate telling people struggling with it that it gets better [because] at that point in time I know it feels like it never will, but you have to stick with it. The ones who are picked on are the ones we need to make a difference. The smart ones, the ones who think outside the box, the different. You need to be here for yourself, your family, and this world because we need you.
Things do get better. I’ve found that you find yourself once you can break free from whatever it is holding you back. You just have to keep your head up, stand firm, find a haven, an outlet, and speak up. Do not stay silent. Let them know you are here and who you are. Always be yourself. The world is changing and you should be around to see it. I love you guys.
Learn more about the film on the Independent Lens companion site.