Teen Activist Katy Butler Talks 'Bully,' Ellen DeGeneres and GLAAD: Interview

Teen Activist Katy Butler Talks 'Bully,' Ellen DeGeneres and GLAAD: Interview
Tracy E. Gilchrist

In less than a month17-year-old Katy Butler went from being an antibullying activist in her home state of Michigan to becoming a prominent figure in the national conversation about bullying, complete with celebrity backing and recognition from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

An out lesbian, who endured antigay bullying in middle school, Butler launched a Change.Org petition late in February, calling for a rating change from R to PG-13 for the Weinstein Company’s documentary Bully, so that the film’s target audience of middle school and high school aged students would be able to see the film and so that it could eventually be shown in schools.

The push for a rating change came when the Motion Picture Association of America slapped an R rating on the film for its six swear words, whereas, if the film had only four swears, it would have qualified for a PG-13 rating.

The fight for Bully’s rating change began before Butler launched her petition but since she took action she’s caught the attention and support of celebrities, politicians and GLAAD. Butler’s odyssey from Michigan high school student to activist on the national stage includes an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show during which DeGeneres lauded Butler and introduced viewers to Bully and the surrounding controversy.

Hollywood mogul and one of the men behind Bully, Harvey Weinstein, will present Butler with a special recognition award at the 23rd Annual GLAAD Awards in New York City.

SheWired talked with Butler about coming out, her activism, Bully, her appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and just who she’d like to meet at the GLAAD Awards.

Congratulations on the wonderful work you are doing. How are you handling your sudden fame since launching the ratings change petition?

It’s been absolutely wonderful. It’s incredible that so many people want to support such a great cause. It gives me so much hope to know that almost half a million people are so willing to change the climate around bullying in the United States.

You’ve spoken openly about your own experiences with bullying. Can you elaborate on what happened to?

When I was in middle school I came out as a lesbian, and not a lot of people liked that. They called me names, pushed me into lockers, knocked my stuff over, and they ended up slamming my hand in my locker and breaking my finger.

That’s so awful. I’m sorry. Was the school faculty unaware of the bullying?

I think the fact that it happens so much, and they don’t know what to do about it, becomes part of the daily life of school, unfortunately.

How did you first hear about the film Bully?

I did a lot of work with the Michigan anti-bullying legislature in November of last year, so I’m on a lot of email lists and whatnot on bullying. I got an email one day that was talking about this new movie, Bully, that was coming out.

I looked it up and I thought it was the greatest thing, and it had such a wonderful message -- such a powerful film. Then I saw that it was rated R, which was really, really confusing, because the target audience of this movie is the middle school and high school students who are bullied and who are the bullies. Having that R rating makes it really hard for those kids to see it. So, I went on Change.org and started the petition to change the rating.

Have you seen the film?

I have now. I hadn’t seen it when I started.

What do you think of it now that you’ve seen it?

I think it’s absolutely amazing. It has a powerful message, and once you watch this movie, you just want to go and change the world.

Stepping back a little bit, you said you came out when you were in middle school, which is a really bold move at that age. You must have an incredible sense of self. To what do you attribute your ability to come out at such a young age?

Definitely my parents – my parents raised me in such a way that they taught me to be accepting of everyone, and love everyone. And the morals they instilled in me and empowered me with were just incredible.

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Do you think that if the rating change becomes successful that bullies will actually go to the theater to see it?

I think they will, because if the rating is changed, they can go and see it just like it’s another movie. Their friends can go, “Oh hey, there’s this movie I heard about, let’s go to the movies,” and go see it like any other movie.

Also, there are people like Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato who are the heroes and idols of the kids in middle school -- who need to see the movie the most -- and they are out there talking about it, which will, in turn, cause them to want to go see it and see what it’s all about.

How does it feel to be supported by people like Ellen DeGeneres, Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato?

It is absolutely incredible. Ellen DeGeneres is one of my heroes, and I couldn’t do what I am doing right now without what she’s done in the past. I am so thankful for that. Just to know that all of these people are supporting the message that I know is so important is really great.

When did you first become aware of Ellen as a personality? And when were you aware that she is an out lesbian?

For the longest time, my family has gone to Disney World, and there is the ride at Disney world where Ellen DeGeneres talks about energy. I love that ride. We went on it all the time. It was like our family thing to do at Disney World. I fell in love with Ellen; I’ve loved her from the time I was six years old. When I was in ninth grade – actually two years ago – that’s when I actually learned she was a lesbian. I had no idea.

That’s fun to hear. Can you talk to me about just the experience of meeting her and going on her show?

It was absolutely amazing. She told me she was proud of me, which obviously means the world. And she gave me a hug, which is incredible, and I am so thankful she supports this – it’s great.

You couldn’t have a bigger, better person in your corner – except perhaps Harvey Weinstein, who is presenting you with a GLAAD award Saturday.

Yeah [laughs].

How did you feel when you learned first that you were going to be awarded a GLAAD recognition, and then that Harvey Weinstein, the maker of this film, was going to be giving it to you?

I’m so excited. I can’t wait until Saturday. Its going to be such a great experience, and I love that so many people are recognizing what I am doing because I think what I am doingis important, and to change the climate of bullying, and I think what I’ve started is a really great start.

Who are you most excited about possibly seeing or meeting at the GLAAD Awards?

Oh my goodness. So many people, I heard Santana (Naya Rivera) from Glee is going to be there, and I am so excited to meet her.

I think a lot of people would be excited to meet her.

[Laughs] Definitely! Yeah, I love Glee.

She’s had such a wonderful storyline on the show.

Absolutely, yeah she’s the lesbian on the show.

What do you think is next for you after all of this?

Well, college obviously is in the near future. I would love to go into political activism, so staying on that track. I am definitely going to be working on the national anti-bullying law.

I know that you had worked on the Michigan anti-bullying law, how is it different working on the national level?

Obviously it’s a thousand times bigger. There’s so many more components to it, there’s so many more things it will have to go through before it becomes the law. There are people, unfortunately, that are going to disagree with whatever it’s going to be. There is going to be more of a struggle.

Where are we in the process of getting the rating for Bully changed? Are we getting closer?

It definitely is getting closer. We talked with the MPAA in the beginning in LA and they were very hesitant about it. They didn’t want to change it. They didn’t want to talk about it. I talked with former Senator (Chris) Dodd last week, and he said if it were up to him, the rating would be PG-13. So I think we are definitely making a difference. We’re aiming for the biggest people. The movie was only rated R by one vote. We honestly need to influence one person.

And the R rating is over six swear words?

Yeah, four f-words can be used in a PG-13 movie, and anything over four, which there are six in the Bully documentary, is then rated R. I think if it’s said once then its there and it shouldn’t matter if it’s said once or if it’s said six times.

That’s a really good point. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

We still have a few days left to influence the MPAA. Go sign the petition. Obviously we need as many signatures as we can get. We’re so close to half a million. 

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