GRANITE BAY, Calif. – On a blustery Saturday morning inside a Granite Bay church, nearly 1,000 people gathered to say goodbye to Jeffrey Fehr. Men and women in dark clothing filled every seat and stood along a back wall. Teenagers wearing shirts with Jeffrey’s image clustered in groups, crying and leaning into one another for support.
At a reception that followed his funeral, many spoke of a gifted young athlete who was funny, kind and compassionate. They called Jeffrey an inspiration and a mentor.
For Jeffrey’s parents, Pati and Steve Fehr, the scene was stunning.
“So many people gained strength from Jeff,” his father said, looking out at the crowd. “The unfortunate part is that Jeff didn’t realize it.”
In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Jeffrey hanged himself in the front entrance to his family’s home in a tony Granite Bay neighborhood. He was 18 years old.
Since that day, his parents have searched their hearts and minds for answers. Though Jeffrey, who was gay, had recently ended a relationship and had been treated for depression, they believe something more insidious put him on the path toward suicide. They are convinced that a lifetime of taunts and bullying contributed to his decision to take his own life.
“We will second-guess ourselves forever,” his father said. “But we do know that for years and years, people knocked him down for being different. It damaged him. It wore on him. He could never fully believe how wonderful he was, and how many people loved him.”
Despite an increase in positive images of gay people in the mass media, from contestants in reality programs like “Project Runway” to sitcoms like “Modern Family,” bullying of gay youths remains rampant. Nine out of 10 gay and bisexual students report harassment at school, according to the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention group. Gay and bisexual youths are four times more likely than their heterosexual peers to try suicide.
“Society has come a long way toward reducing hatred and discrimination against gays,” said Israel Kalman, a school psychologist in New York and director of the national Bullies2Buddies program. “But it will be awhile, if ever, before it disappears entirely.”
Alone in a crowd
Jeffrey Fehr and his two older brothers, Tyler and Ryan, spent their childhood in a community of high-end homes and high expectations.
Tyler and Ryan starred on their sports teams starting in elementary school, but Jeffrey was more interested in dancing and jumping on the trampoline. While other boys played baseball at school recess, he climbed on the jungle gym with girls.
As early as the third grade, Jeffrey was the target of taunts, family members said. He had few friends and felt comfortable only when he was at home or on vacation with people he trusted.
“He would come home from school and cry,” said Tyler, 21. “He would say he felt alone, that he wasn’t accepted for the things he liked.”
It was in the sixth grade that people first started calling him “fag,” the Fehrs said.
“It broke my heart that he was abused that way,” his mother said. They talked about how they could fix things.
Jeffrey’s parents sent him to counseling, tried to build his confidence and encouraged him to pursue his interests, including art, theater and dance. Later, they got him treatment for depression.
His parents hoped high school would be a more welcoming place for Jeffrey. But his first two years were “pure hell,” they said.
“He would literally hang his head when I dropped him off,” his father recalled. “It was just awful for him.”
One day as Jeffrey walked through the cafeteria, a student upended his lunch tray and laughed as others joined in, he told his parents. Another time, someone painted the driveway next to the Fehr home with gay slurs directed at Jeffrey. Day after day, he endured calls of “you’re so gay” and similar taunts.
Granite Bay High principal Michael McGuire acknowledged that Jeffrey “had some struggles” during his freshman and sophomore years, and said a counselor and assistant principal worked to help resolve them.
“Although there were some issues with other students, none rose to the level where school discipline was involved,” McGuire said.
Bullies rarely respond to disciplinary tactics anyway, said Kalman, who travels the country teaching educators and parents about the problem. The focus, he said, should be on the youngster who is being bullied.
“I teach the practice of the Golden Rule,” Kalman said. “When you’re bullied, don’t get upset about it. Treat the bully like a friend, like you want to be treated, and the bullying will stop.”
Jeffrey seemed to adopt that approach late in his sophomore year. He told his family he was gay, and came out on Facebook. “We told him that it was OK, that we loved him unconditionally,” his mother said. “We were proud of him for embracing who he was.”
After that, Jeffrey seemed to “blossom,” she said. He joined the high school cheer squad, whose members previously had been all girls, and found a community that adored him. As a senior he was the team’s captain, and mastered handsprings, backflips and other feats. Later he joined an elite competitive team.
“Cheer gave him a lot of acceptance, because it was something he was really good at,” said fellow squad member Shayla Chock, 16.
Jeffrey’s body grew strong and muscular, and at 6 feet, 3 inches tall he towered over his teammates. He flashed a brilliant smile and had a posse of close friends, mostly girls a couple of years younger than he.
“Jeff loved everyone with everything he had,” said his pal Carly Flajole, also 16. “He always wanted everyone to get along, without drama. He was a leader.”
Bri Larson, who coached him for four years, said Jeffrey was a “phenomenal” performer known for his skills, vibrant personality and ability to motivate.
“These are qualities that you just can’t teach,” she said. “Jeff was special. He was like a son to me.”
Jeffrey had many young fans, but the taunting never quite went away. Friends recalled ugly words shouted in student sections at games, and adults who said they wouldn’t let their sons do something as “girly” as cheering. If others whispered about Jeffrey’s sexuality or teased him, the girls told them to stop.
“He seemed to brush everything off,” said his friend Megan Hurley, 16. “None of the comments made him want to change who he was. From the outside at least, it seemed like nothing penetrated him.”
But inside, said family and friends, the years of harsh words may have created a wound that never quite healed.
Jeffrey’s downward spiral seemed to begin after he graduated from Granite Bay High last year and started college. He was unsure about his academic path and his future, his parents said, and talked with anger about the “suburban fishbowl” that expected him to “conform to society’s standards.” He never complained about bullying at college, but he made few new friends.
Life outside of school had him on an emotional roller coaster. His elite coed Power Cheerleading team earned a trip to a world competition, but Jeffrey wondered aloud whether he was good enough to make a top college squad. He was smitten with a young man in Southern California, but the relationship was on and off.
Still, in the weeks before he died, nothing about Jeffrey’s behavior rang alarm bells to friends or family members. He seemed relaxed on Christmas Eve, when his friend Shayla dropped by with a homemade gingerbread cookie. He was thrilled with the new iPhone his parents bought him.
Three days after Christmas, against the wishes of his mom and dad, Jeffrey drove to Los Angeles to see his love interest. He took off early on a Wednesday and called his parents later that day. He told them all was well.
On Friday, Dec. 30, his parents got a call from Jeffrey as they were driving with Tyler to Palm Desert for the holiday weekend. He told them his relationship was ending but “we are going to be good friends,” his mother recalled. “He wasn’t happy, but he was accepting.”
He was heading back to Granite Bay.
Jeffrey’s parents urged him to get the family dog, Riley, from the kennel, and make plans with friends. But he turned down an offer to visit the mall Saturday and never picked up the dog. He was alone on New Year’s Eve.
Shortly after midnight, his mother called to wish him a Happy New Year and got no answer. “I didn’t think anything of it. I figured he’d found something to do,” she said.
At 10 a.m., she texted him.
“Are you awake yet?”
For the next hour, the family called and texted over and over. His brother checked Jeff’s Facebook page. The last entry was at 10 p.m. the previous night.
“New Years is stupid,” it said.
As the minutes ticked by and messages went unanswered, his parents began to panic. Around noon, Pati Fehr called Shayla. Could she and her mom swing by the house to check on Jeffrey?
The girl’s mother found him hanging from a rope in the home’s front entrance. Sheriff’s deputies said he probably died around 5 a.m. that day.
Now his loved ones are left to try to make sense of what happened, and to wonder whether the abuses he suffered indirectly led to his death.
“We have so many questions that will never have answers,” his father said. “But I do know that something was taken away from Jeff because of all those years he was bullied. He carried around that pain.”
Perhaps his breakup was “the last straw” for a young man who never felt fully accepted, his friends and family members said.
Last Saturday, inside a reception hall with his son’s image smiling from video screens, Steve Fehr fought tears as he spoke. He asked those gathered to “embrace diversity, be tolerant and do not bully.”
“A bully might say something and forget about it in 10 seconds,” he said. “But people like Jeff never forget those words.”