Last year I was determined to write something for the DoS, about my own bullying experiences and my frustrations with common Christian attitudes on the subject. But I had to quit working on it, because it was messing me up, as I mention below. Mr. DM persuaded me that I had to forget about it for the time being while he worked hard to comfort me and reassure me of my worth and preciousness to him while I was drowning in memories of worthlessness. I wonder how many hetero-married women get roses from their husbands on that day!
So what you see here was 95% written then, as were the other bullying related posts which should follow this one shortly. I figure I might as well put them up now. They’re melodramatic and sloppy to the point of incoherence, but I just want to get them out of my system, so I can move on to blogging other things. (All the better that I put them up now, before anybody starts reading again!) So…feel free to ignore!
I’ve been reluctant to say much about the Day of Silence and bullying and gay youth issues. I mean, I’m fourteen years out of high school. I’m not close to any middle/high school age kids–my social circle is pretty sparse when it comes to the over-4-and-under-25 crowd. So I don’t know what it’s like today. I hear from conservative Christian media that things have been completely upended, that gays rule the roost now while Christian students are intimidated and muzzled by teacher and fellow pupil alike, that the Day of Silence really isn’t about addressing anti-gay bullying, which apparently no longer happens, but rather about persecuting Bible-believing Christian kids. I admit I’m a little skeptical. I know attitudes towards homosexuality have shifted enormously, but I also remember that conservatives were complaining about the gay takeover of the schools back when I was getting my eleven-year-old ass kicked for being such a dyke.
So, with the frank disclaimer that this may have nothing to do with the lives of young people today, I’d like to talk about my experience, and follow that with some other posts offering related thoughts about conservative Christian reactions to the Day of Silence, including the Day of Truth. Which, for those who don’t know, is a day (held around the DoS) where Christian students are encouraged to “respond” by letting people know that Change Is Possible. [2010 update: Wow. Exodus, having taken over the Day of Truth from the Alliance Defense Fund, has apparently removed the change stuff from the message, or at least toned it down!]
Also, I think my experience was pretty average. I know lots of people who have been through much worse. So I’m not trying to say I’m special or throw myself a pity party. I just want to give some background about where I’m coming from before I start tearing apart the sorts of things that Christians say on the subject. If I seem unusually angry or irrational on certain points, there are reasons.
I know I’ve said before I don’t want to talk about the bullying because I can’t do it without shaking. But I found that if I keep on pressing through, the shaking eventually passes. Sure, it’s replaced by severe headaches, insomnia, panic attacks, and out-of-nowhere fleeting suicidal ideation. But hey, my hands are steady enough to type!
So here we go…
I first learned words like “gay,” “lez,” “bi,” and “fag” in elementary school. They were insults, but not especially serious ones, and they had an air of ridiculousness and fantastical unreality about them, like dragons or unicorns. We knew what the words meant, but the possibility that boys could love other boys and girls could love other girls was beyond our comprehension. I don’t think hardly any of us knew any out gay people. There was a boy in my class who got called “fag” a lot; he was *really* annoying, lisped, sucked at sports, and had an obnoxiously protective mother. (Like, if he pushed you or pulled your hair, and you shoved him back, he would take this dramatic spill in the dirt and start bawling, and he would run and tell her and she would be all over you!) But I don’t think any of us seriously thought he liked boys.
I was a tomboy during those years, but nobody seemed to think this was a problem. Nobody seemed to think it was gay. I had plenty of male and female friends, and was on seemingly good terms with pretty much everyone. I did get called a “lesbo” once, but it was a friendly tease from an older girl, made just because I absentmindedly held a friend’s hand for too long. We all laughed about it together, though I suppose I did drop the other girl’s hand pretty darn quick.
But in sixth grade the world pretty much caved in on me, as it does on a lot of kids gay or not. I went from reasonably well-liked to despised in a couple of weeks, betrayed wholesale by my friends as they realized that in the tough social environment of middle school, they could not be seen with anything other than contempt for me. I wasn’t just excluded and ignored, I was actively harassed and bullied on a constant basis. And the worst of the bullying centered on the fact that I was perceived to be gay.
It hurt so badly in part because I was at that time secretly coming to terms with my sexual orientation, which was indeed unmistakably homosexual, struggling with shame, fear, and confusion in the anti-gay (though not very religious) world I found myself in. My peers’ homophobic remarks made me feel found out and exposed, as if I had “sick pervert” written in neon lights on my forehead. I don’t know how anti-gay bullying feels to a straight kid, but to a gay kid who hasn’t come out yet, it’s kinda like living the nightmare where you show up to class in nothing but your underwear, only worse, and endlessly repeating.
I wasn’t out in the sense that I hadn’t made any declarations. But I never bothered to deny the accusations either, partly because they were true, partly because I was butch enough (in a skinny-drowned-rat-with-a-swagger sort of way) that no one would have believed my denials, and partly because I turned beet red and stammered every time a pretty girl spoke to me. (It was all I could do to avoid getting caught staring at her chest if she had any.) Sometimes I would play chicken with self-disclosure, dropping hints, *almost* telling. So, for example, in 8th grade I told a classmate who asked what I was going to be when I grew up that I was going to work for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. (Yeah, I know, Nostradamus I ain’t!) In the middle school peak bullying years, I never bothered any girls or did anything intentional to make anyone uncomfortable. (I did go through a little bit of a leering-and-harassing phase later in high school, after I came out.) But it didn’t really matter what I did or didn’t say or do, because it seemed that everyone around me had decided I was a big homo.
So, what did my bullying experience entail? I heard every insult about homosexuality that you could imagine, and many more that you probably couldn’t (adolescent and teenage boys have exceptionally colorful imaginations and vocabularies regarding these things), often accompanied by barrages of punches and kicks. Thankfully, the effects of those never went beyond moderate bruises. I was spit on. I was sexually harassed (sometimes with certain male anatomical regions pressed up against me or shoved in my face) with remarks about what I really needed, along with charming sweet nothings excerpted from the lyrics of 2 Live Crew. And I was threatened with everything under the sun, including death. In retrospect it seems ridiculous, but at the time I took the threats seriously and lived in terror. I was shocked by the intensity of the hatred I encountered.
At home, when I wanted to get some fresh air or walk the dog, I had to do so in the back yard, hidden behind the house, because otherwise the neighborhood kids would invariably line up along the curb to taunt and threaten me from the street, sometimes even in front of my family. (My family, as I’ll describe below, tended to respond with embarrassment and shame.) I loathed and feared time without adult supervision. The bus ride to and from school, lunch, recess, the time between classes, all were a pit of endless torment.
My misery came more from the universality and constancy of the bullying rather than the intensity of any one particular episode. I don’t have the horrific stories some have of nearly getting killed, or getting seriously injured or raped. But day in, day out, many times a day, every day without fail, I was reminded both verbally and physically that I was disgusting, worthless, and queer, and it really got to me.
I tried to escape when I could. I joined the art club (even though I don’t have an aesthetic bone in my body!) so that at least one day a week I wouldn’t have to take the bus home. I set up chairs for band practice during recess time so I wouldn’t have to go out with the other kids. I stayed inside whenever I could. When I had to be in public, I tried to make myself disappear, become invisible. I would hide behind the rest of my family when we went out together. I would run from the front door to the car when we left the house, and did the reverse when we came home. I begged to stay home from school at every possible opportunity (in my defense, I did feel genuinely ill all the time thanks to the bullying) and had my wish granted often enough that my report cards were full of complaints about my absenteeism.
But only so much physical escape was possible, so I had to complement it with mental escape. And while I’m embarrassed to be so dramatic, there’s only one way to put it: I died inside. Often days would go by without my ever opening my mouth to speak–I spoke so rarely that my voice felt rusty with disuse when I did. I stopped playing even solitary games. When I got home from school most days I would sit on the floor of my room and just stare into space, opening and closing my fists, hating myself, hating everybody, hating everything, and trying to numb out to get away from all that hatred. And I would do that for hours and hours on end, coming out only when summoned to eat dinner or do chores.
It didn’t last forever. Most of it stopped after three years, though there were occasional reminders throughout high school to keep me in my place, and sort of a grand finale one night at the end of my senior year, when a bunch of neighborhood guys–I’d guess about a dozen–drunk with end-of-school-year revelry came to my house, gathered underneath my bedroom window, and kept me and my family awake and trembling for what seemed like hours with a rousing chorus of taunts. It felt almost like a lynch mob.
But by then it didn’t hurt so bad, in part because I had made some friends again and had found the strength to really come out.
Well, maybe that’s not quite right. I liked (and still like) to picture myself as having emerged unscathed from that adolescent-and-early-teenage hell, but I probably just got a lot “better” at transmuting pain and sorrow into a slow-simmering anger. I remember when I was 18, in the middle of an argument over who was going to use the phone, my sister called me a “f***ing bulldyke.” I beat the living daylights out of her as I yelled “There’s a lot of people I have to take that from, but I sure as f*** don’t have to take it from you!” Which suggests I was still carrying a bit of baggage from my victim days.
I feel silly writing about this, that I’m making a big deal out of something that wasn’t, that everybody has it rough at that age, that plenty of kids, gay or not, have it a whole lot worse. But all I can say is that the experience devastated me, however weak or oversensitive that makes me.
I think part of what made the antigay bullying so awful was the way it dovetailed with my family’s and my teachers’ attitudes.
My teachers never actively joined in on the harassment or endorsed my peers’ actions, but they made tons of gay jokes and cutting remarks about homosexuality and gay people. The cool teachers entertained the class with their faggot impressions–homosexuality was hilarious to most adolescents, and teachers would exploit this to try to get on the kids’ good side. They also had a field day making fun of an openly gay teacher (lesbian, girls’ P.E., surprise surprise) in the school. In health class, when homosexuality got its sliver of curriculum time, the teachers would simply let the class have a free for all discussion, with no instruction or direction whatsoever. I think they were afraid of getting in trouble with parents if they said anything one way or the other But this just meant that the ignorant bigots in the class (and I don’t use those terms lightly or loosely) carried the day while I slunk deeper and deeper into my seat, wishing I could melt into the floor, while the teacher just sat there with his tranquilly neutral smile. In high school a friend reported that one of my favorite teachers (in an unrelated subject) lectured one of her classes (not mine) on the abominableness of homosexuality. When I tried to talk to another favorite teacher, she just laughed and told me I was just confused, that I wasn’t really “one of those people.” (I suppose she’s having the last laugh now, but let’s set that aside.)
My parents’ feelings about homosexuality were emphatically negative. I didn’t start coming out to them until high school, but my mom would scold me years before that for dressing and acting “like a dyke,” and for shaming her by being mistaken for a boy. She would drag me out on makeover expeditions to the mall and complain about me to the salespeople. Around the same time, when she gave my sister and me the “monthly-visitor”/facts-of-life talk, she warned us about lesbians, who apparently were fat, hairy, and ugly monsters who would touch and hurt innocent girls, so we should watch out for them and make sure to tell her if one of them came anywhere near us. My dad said very little on the subject, but what little he said showed disgust. My younger sister, bitter about the embarrassing disaster of a big sis she had been saddled with, taunted me homophobically and derided me for my failure to be a real girl. Later on, after I had come out at school, my sister complained to my parents about the comments about me she was having to deal with in school, and my parents responded by reprimanding me for my insensitivity and thoughtlessness in refusing to hide in shame. How could I do this to THEM? What were THEY supposed to say to people they ran into in the grocery store? How were THEY going to survive? My mom didn’t even want my grandparents to come to my high school graduation, despite the fact that I was giving a big speech and winning a whole slew of awards, because she thought that there would be homophobic heckling from my classmates, and she didn’t want them to suffer that humiliation.
(To be fair, my parents almost certainly did not appreciate the magnitude and nature of what was going on. My early efforts to talk to them about my troubles at school and my sexuality seemed to make things worse and not better, so after that I tried to keep them out of the loop as much as possible. If I had tried harder to talk to them more, maybe they would have understood better. They can’t be blamed for that. But I’m not trying to talk about blame here, only about what it felt like to be me back then.)
What I’m trying to get at is when it came to the anti-gay bullying, there was no refuge. Everyone I knew seemed to loathe gays. Not even my family was willing to be on my side! So I couldn’t rationalize my peers’ hatred away by saying, “Well, they’re just immature, stupid, sexually frustrated, insecure boys overwhelmed by a rising tide of testosterone.” The world agreed with them. Most days it all ran together–the bruises from my peers, my mom’s snarky laments about my looks, the angry preacher on the TV ranting about “lezzzzbians and homoSEKshuls,” the gay jokes from a teacher, whatever the news and the polls said about the American people’s persisting disapproval of homosexuality. Older, wiser, and with a bit of distance, I can sort out cruelty, ignorance, disgust, fear, awkwardness, and honest conviction into neatly distinct little piles. But at the time it pretty much all felt like hate. It felt like drowning in a sea of hate.
There was no one I could helpfully talk to. It would have been nice to have someone affirm that I did not deserve to be treated the way I was being treated, that it was not my fault.
If there had been a Day of Silence, it would have blessed me immensely. Just to know that someone cared. That someone thought that what was happening to me was wrong. And you know, it would have been especially wonderful to know that someone cared about anti-gay bullying in particular. Because frankly, so often I was made to feel as though my sexuality made me an exception to the human race, that I didn’t really count as a person. (Kind of like the fine-print exclusions on the back of a “30% Off Everything* In The Store!” coupon) So I’m not sure that a generic statement of opposition to bullying or a generic affirmation of the Golden Rule would have made much impact.