When Jake Stallman needs a moment to ponder, he sits outside and gazes at airplanes as they fly over his hometown.
"I like to think who’s up there and what’s their story," said the 17-year-old Tipton resident. "When I look up at them, I’m looking at my future."
His future will soon include a plane ride of his own. He and his mother Tania McAtee will fly to Denver, Colo., where the Matthew Shepard Foundation – named for the 21-year-old college student murdered near Laramie, Wyo. in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998 – will give Stallman the Spirit of Matthew Award during the organization’s annual Bear to Make a Difference Gala on Saturday, Oct. 12.
“Jake is a true treasure, and he embodies the Spirit of Matthew Award,” wrote Christine Romero, the editor of Matthew’s Place – the foundation’s web home for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young adults – where Stallman has maintained a blog since May. “His path to coming out has been fraught with struggles, but his hard work to overcome homophobia and make the world a better place for LGBTQ youth makes him a true light that shines into the future.”
In many ways, Stallman’s life sounds conventionally idyllic. He’s a junior at Tipton High School, a member of the school’s marching band who can’t wait to leave Iowa and go to college.
But if Stallman’s life is idyllic now, it certainly wasn’t a year ago when he received a death threat after McAtee launched Tipton Against Kid’s Being Bullied. Stallman, who came out to his mother when he was in seventh grade, was the target of anti-gay slurs from his peers. As a result of the bullying, McAtee said that her son’s self-esteem took a noticeable hit.
Once he began blogging for Matthew’s Place, McAtee – who described herself as “a proud mom” – saw that his self-image began to change.
“He’s much stronger,” she said. “He has really matured and a lot of that has to do with the foundation.”
Romero called Stallman one of the site’s “most popular bloggers.”
That new-found confidence led Stallman to try out for cheerleading, becoming the first male cheerleader in Tipton High School's recent history.
“The people that used to make fun of me, they don’t talk to me, they don’t even look at me in the hallways,” he said. “I feel confident and I feel like if someone was to say something to me, I could come up with a comeback to show them that they’re not getting to me.”
For Stallman, winning the Spirit of Matthew Award is a silver lining.
“There was some good thing that came out of all the stuff that happened to me,” he said. “Blogging and getting this award has been me realizing how much my blog has impacted people.”
Stallman will receive the award on the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death. The Tipton resident was unaware of Shepard until last year when Stallman found “The Laramie Project,” a play about the crime and its aftermath, while searching for a piece to perform in a speech competition.
Subsequently, Stallman said he became “addicted” to researching Shepard. In front of his entire social studies class, Stallman did a first-person project where he spoke as Shepard.
“It’s closure for me,” he said of the chance to visit Denver and potentially meet Shepard’s mother Judy, the foundation’s director and board president, who is scheduled to speak at the gala. “It ties my bag of emotions shut.”
Traveling to Colorado will also provide Stallman a chance for some role reversal. Instead of looking up at a plane, he'll be on it.
“When I go on an airplane I wonder who’s underneath me," he said. "Is there someone like me thinking about leaving and dreaming about their future? ... Is there someone like me thinking about airplanes and trying to make their time bearable in a small town?”