MOHAWK, N.Y. — The bullying by classmates and taunts of "homo" only got worse after Jacob began dyeing his hair and wearing eyeliner in eighth grade. One student scrawled "I hope you die" on his shoe, he said; another drew a pocket knife on him.
Jacob's grades dropped, and he missed school from fear. His father tried repeatedly to get school officials in their working-class village in upstate New York to help protect his son from harassment. The response by the Mohawk Central School District, according to a federal lawsuit, was to do "virtually nothing."
"Everything was bad," Jacob – who is identified as "J.L." in the lawsuit and didn't want to draw attention to his new school by having his last name used in this story – said this week. "I hyperventilated when I left the school ... and I didn't want to come back the next day, or ever."
The 15-year-old might soon get a measure of satisfaction. The lawsuit filed by Jacob and his father against the school district with the New York Civil Liberties Union could be close to settlement, according to both sides.
The negotiations come as the U.S. Department of Justice seeks to intervene in the case, citing the "important issues" it raises in enforcing federal civil rights laws.
"There is a growing recognition across the country that schools need to take harassment based on gender expression and homosexuality seriously," said NYCLU attorney Corey Stoughton. "If there is a settlement in this case, that's an affirmation of that principle."
Justice officials say it's the first time since 2000 that they have argued that Title IX, the antidiscrimination law affecting schools that receive federal funding, covers sex discrimination based on gender stereotypes – such as when a boy does not act or look stereotypically male. Stoughton said that while harassment based on gender nonconformity is widespread, there have been only a handful of legal cases like this nationwide.
Mohawk School Superintendent Joyce Caputo said the district denies allegations in the lawsuit, but she stressed they are working with the NYCLU and the Justice Department to settle the suit in a way that benefits everyone.
"We are committed to doing everything in our power to prevent bullying and to promote tolerance," she said.
Mohawk is a village of modest clapboard homes set near the river of the same name and just east of Utica. Jacob said he did not face serious problems until he went to Gregory B. Jarvis Junior/Senior High School as a seventh-grader in fall 2007.
That was about the time it became clearer that Jacob was different. By eighth grade, he wore eyeliner to school sometimes and would dye his hair bright blue or pink. He was out of the closet that school year.
"People would ask and I'd say, 'Yeah, I'm gay, whatever. Peace out,'" he said.
In an interview this week with his father at their home, Jacob said he was just being himself. That is, a teenager who loves to write songs, short stories and poems and who dreams about a career in the movies, maybe as a director or a writer.
Dressed in a blue fleece and jeans, Jacob talked effusively about pop culture – Pink is his favorite singer, "Orphan" a favorite movie. But his voice got softer when he talked about his experiences at Jarvis.
The lawsuit claims the principal and other district officials did not follow their own anti-harassment policies. Teachers blocked him from going to a "safe room" set up for him. One teacher told him he should be ashamed of himself for being gay, according to court papers.
Jacob's father, Robert Sullivan (he has a different last name), devoted himself to making sure his son was safe in school despite fighting Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"I put the cancer stuff aside," Sullivan said, "because he doesn't have anyone to defend himself beside me."
But Sullivan said he failed to make much progress.
"You listen to your child cry at night and wish he was dead, and wish he wasn't here. It's a hard thing to go through," Sullivan said. "And you know you've got to send him back there the next day."
The idea of a lawsuit came from someone at a support group Jacob attended, and the NYCLU sued in August. The Department of Justice asked to intervene last month, noting the suit's claims that Jacob was denied equal protections guaranteed in the Constitution and under Title IX, the antidiscrimination law affecting schools that receive federal funding.
The department would not comment on the litigation, but gay rights supporters saw its involvement as evidence of a strengthened commitment under the Obama administration to the rights of people who are gay or who do not conform to gender stereotypes.
However, it's now possible that a settlement will be reached before a judge decides whether the federal agency can intervene. The Justice Department would not comment in detail on the lawsuit.
Jacob this week seemed happy just to put the trauma behind him.
The family recently moved to the next town. Jacob started a new school and the experience has been like night and day, he said: "It's amazing. I have a lot of friends there."
Sullivan's cancer is in remission. He said it's nice to see his son smile again, and he has hopes for their future.
"As long as I can get to see him graduate high school," Sullivan said. "I think I can die happy."