You've never heard of Valders, Wisconsin. Unless you live there or got lost one day trying to drive to Manitowoc, you have gone through your life pleasantly unaware that the world contains a Valders. Even I, who spent five years of my youth living in Manitowoc (population around 35,000), only vaguely knew of its existence. I think I drove past it once or twice, and its name stays in my head like other tiny towns in rural Manitowoc County: St. Nazianz, Mishicot, Francis Creek. My assumption was that they were all seemingly quaint rural farming towns with not enough going on to require my attention.
But now there is. Gregg Udulutch (yes, a very Manitowoc-ian name, but then, so is Zipperer) is a gay teenager at the high school in Valders (population less than 1,000 – for the town, not the high school). Surprisingly, he came out to his classmates a couple years ago, and he met with a fairly good reception. Score one for the Valders teens. But this year, he started getting harassed – called names daily – by two girls at the school, and it apparently escalated to him receiving death threats at his home, according to a lengthy report in the Manitowoc Herald-Times-Reporter. Therein lies a story of complaints to school officials that seemingly went unheeded (until the school psychologist got involved), a police officer who was called in to hear Udulutch's story about receiving the death threats and responded by yelling at him to stop complaining, and counter claims that the offending girls' home was toilet-papered (so it's all even, then?).
I strongly suggest reading the article in the Manitowoc paper, because it does a fairly good job of covering all of the bases, and I wouldn't be surprised if more than a few readers come away with a pretty good idea of who made the death threats. Luckily, there are upsides to the story: Udulutch doesn't take crap from anyone, so he didn't stay silent; he complained to the school, he complained to the police, and he went to the media to make sure his story got heard. Also, Udulutch does have friends at the school who support him; he's not stuck in a 1950s school forced to hide. There was some help from the school administration – arguably too little, too late, but it's frankly better than I would have expected in my admittedly prejudiced views about small-town Valders life. And last but not least, the local paper covered the story in a generally fair and complete way.
The only question I come away with is whether all of those good things would have mattered if Udulutch hadn't been gutsy enough to make a fuss. What if he'd been like some teens who are so bothered by their conflicting sexual identity issues and harassment from others that they end their lives? Then the Herald-Times would have been running a sad obituary. I'd always rather read about a hero who fought back than about a tragedy.
Not that you care, but I delivered the Herald-Times-Reporter for a couple years in junior high school. That has no bearing on Udulutch's case, except that it helps explain why I'm including it in this blog. This is an area I know from a street-level perspective, having walked and biked and driven (well, I was too young, so being driven) around the city and county enough for it to have a special place in my memories. I did not know I was gay when I was in Manitowoc's Woodrow Wilson Junior High School about a quarter century ago (yikes, I'm old), but I would like to think I'd have been as gutsy as he is.
Lets hope the folks of Valders and Manitowoc do right by him – and their other children like him – and make those of us in the Manitowoc diaspora proud.