Friday, October 21, 2011

Open Forum Friday: Bullies

Yesterday was Spirit Day, which supports young LGBT victims of bullying. I kind of forgot, for most of the morning and afternoon. Don't judge. I have a difficult enough time remembering what day of the week it is, with my vagrant's schedule.

I somehow coincidentally ended up wearing a purple shirt anyway, and was wondering why I was getting extra smiles, here and there. I actually had decided it was because I was looking extra-extra-foxy when I heard something about it on the radio. Then I thought back and realized that all the young people smiling and nodding at me and catching my eye also had on items of purple clothing, and went back to feeling shlumpier. Or maybe just single-extra-foxy.

I wish I had a heartrending story of being bullied for my sexuality, when I was growing up. I really don't, and it's not because I was super-butch. It's because early on, I seemed to catch flak not just for perceived effeminacy, but for everything. If my hair was too short, I got picked on. If my hair was too long, I was teased. I was teased for wearing trousers with cuffs a half-inch too high above the ankles, teased for wearing big bell-bottoms that swamped my sneakers. (Perhaps quite rightly, for the latter offense—but my plea is that it was the goddamned nineteen-seventies at the time. That's how we rolled.) I was picked on for being bad at sports, for being good at math, for reading. I was picked on for carrying my books wrong, for wearing glasses, for not having the right friends.

I was picked on for so, so much that by high school I learned to blend. I learned to become invisible, in fact. I flew under everyone's radar. And if the only white kid in an all-black inner-city public high school can get through his entire time there without anyone noticing, well, I did a pretty good job.

The only thing close to a bully I had was a boy named James. James didn't go to my high school, but I ran across him in a lot of my extra-curricular activities closer to home; he lived in my neighborhood and was in things like the citywide orchestra and the clogging group to which I belonged. (Let's just drop that. Please. No, seriously. Shut up. Forget I said it.) And James was, to put it bluntly, a big old 'mo. He had enormous eyes with curly eyelashes and the most chronic case of proto-gay face that I've ever seen in an adolescent. Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. You do.

James was effeminate in speech and in mannerism. We weren't particularly friendly. That mostly was because every time in orchestra he'd see me sitting with my French horn, he'd turn and whisper to the girls in the flute section, where he sat (do I really need to say anything, here?), telling them how gay I was. Then he started bringing it over to me, after rehearsals. He'd march over with his flute in his hand, surrounded by a posse of other flautists, and said something like, "We all know you're gay. You'd be so much happier if you'd just admit it."

I've always been candid that my response to confrontation, and my instinctive reaction when I'm upset, is to turn into a giant icicle. My ice princess ways were learned in middle and high school. I wouldn't defend myself. I wouldn't fight back. I'd just go cold, and silent. Invisible. When James would make me the center of attention, laughing and pointing and asserting his superiority over me because he knew what I was and he knew what was best for me, I wouldn't dignify him with an answer. I'd put away my horn, collect my music, and as he and his mean old flute girls would follow me around and giggle and call names, I'd think to myself, This kid is only saying these things to me because he's afraid to say them to himself. I knew a self-loathing gay boy when I saw one.

James tortured me on pretty much a weekly basis until I skipped the eleventh grade, at which point I saw him infrequently. But I hated the sight of him. So much that my stomach would clench into knots at his approach, and remain tense and upset for hours after. I got off lucky, though. I never had anyone lay a hand on me, ever, through school. I never had a teacher single me out for my sexuality—except a couple of instances when I was mooning over girls. Which I occasionally did.

To escape notice, I managed to give adults the impression I was responsible and didn't need looking after, and I assured my peers I wasn't a threat or competition. That's how I flew under the radar and got away with more than I ought.

In honor of Spirit Day, one of my readers emailed me a short testimonial about a bully in his life, though, and I thought it was so moving that I'd like to share it.

Eric was my bully

I don't think Eric even knew I was gay, since I didn't really understand it myself for several years. But I was already on my way. I liked gardening, and reading, and The Sound of Music. I wasn't robust and energetic. I didn't like sports, instead I played checkers after school with a friend of my grandmother.

Eric I both moved to the same small town when I was in grade two, he from central Europe, me from a few hundred miles away. He was taller than me, he was bigger than me, he was blond and pretty and lean while I was short and chubby and had brown hair. Most people in the class gravitated toward him, even me, probably in some sort of pre-adolescent crush. But, with nearly 40 years of hindsight, Eric was insecure, he needed someone to bully. I was that person. He banged into me, he knocked things over, he quietly threatened me where no-one could hear him. He chased me after school, though what he'd have done if he caught me, I don't think either of us knew.

I cried, and ran away, and kept it to myself.

I was lucky. I was "able" to hide my sexuality until after I was out of school, and he was never up to the level of bullying that he could make me want to take my life. I have seen him once, since school, in a quick hello-in-passing. He may have no idea what an awful person he was, or maybe it haunts him every day. It doesn't matter to me any more. I hadn't thought about him in over twenty years, and I may not for another twenty.

It gets better.

Thank you, reader. I like your message, and I like the class with which you handle the memories.

I'm curious, for this Friday's Open Forum. Have you had a bully in your life, and if so, was your sexuality his or her primary motivating factor? How did you handle it? What would you have done differently, if you'd known then what you know now?

Let's hear your thoughts in the comments.


  1. I have never had a bully about my sexuality. By the time people in my school started to question my sexuality I had had sex with enough of the more popular girls to get that notion easily dismissed. But, like you, I was bullied my whole life about everything else. And what is worse, the first bully I ever had was my father. He would hit me and throw stuff at me and be physically terrifying if he were in a bad mood, but he didn't need to. His words were enough. From him I learned that I was ugly and stupid, and by the time I was in 6th grade, I believed it. I had even made horrible choices in friends, all of whom were just as mean to me. I was the group punching bag and didn't see anything wrong with that. It was bad to the point where I was considering suicide in Middle School. But I remember one summer I had gotten fed up and I left all my friends behind and made newer, better friends. I was still bullied for a while, but then in high school something apparently different happened: there were practically no bullies. All the cool kids were smart and we all looked out for each other. Bullies were a small, sad group. I still got shit from family though, and still sunk into a very deep depression in my senior year. It was just different. At least for me. Thanks for the post and for sharing Eric's story.


  2. I had some pretty nasty encounters in high school, but, luckily, nothing overtly physical. The worst was when I was being verbally bashed by a group of school football players in the weight room during gym class.
    I've had my ups and downs, but I can look back on it now and realize I wasn't the one with the problem. I look back on all my experiences in life and can truly say that I wouldn't be the man I was today without the bad (and the good and great!) momenta in my life.


  3. Mr Steed, you are always extra-extra foxy.

    I didn't confront physical threat for perceived faggotry until high school. Physical stuff first occurred in middle school, when the day after MLKing's murder I and one of my teachers were the only people to wear a black armband. He was shunned in the teachers' lounge, and I was pushed around and publicly threatened by a boy who bragged to his crew of his family's connection to the KKK.

    By the time in high school when I was occasionally punched to a chorus of 'Faggot', I already pretty much hated myself and my life for reasons in addition to my sexuality. One day when I was 12 I found myself in the kitchen holding a 10" serrated carving knife pointed at my belly crying my eyes out. My father (a Greyhound driver) was gone on a run somewhere, my sister didn't live with us any more, and my mother was outside mowing the back yard. Obviously my courage, had I any, failed me at the time.

    If I had a true bully in my childhood it was my father. I don't think he was particularly intentional in the stuff he did, and apart from a handful of occasions of terrifying physical violence his bullying was entirely emotional/psychological. I've hinted elsewhere at the dynamic between him and me, and I'm sure I'll write about it more at some point. I survived, against the odds, and I don't really know how. I avoided successful suicide. I endured, tried to act like I was living and somewhere along the way it turned out I actually was. I was a dense pup, like I'm a dense old dog now.

  4. I was never bullied and I never saw anyone else bullied or even bullies. We just didn't have that here I guess.

    Maybe when you live in a diverse area it's hard for any one person/group to stand out among the others and be noticed as different, so no one is bullied.

    But I did grow up in a different era and I know now kids today are way more violent and intense then the kids of my generation.

  5. It just takes me reading about others to really appreciate how easy I had it growing up. I had the easiest coming out possible. And with a only a couple of verbal "Drama Fag" taunts during my entire school years--nothing ever remotely physical. (And all the super straight guys in the Drama Department got called that, too--so it was almost a badge of honor.)

  6. I understand the whole bully thing and endured the abuse of others throughout most of my high school & college years. I was a baton twirler for my college marching band and everyone assumed that you are gay if you're a twirler (in my case they where right). I too learned to ignore their comment and became invisible to most people during that period. Thank you for you piece today and hope it helps someone who might be struggling with this issue.

  7. It's good that bullying is such a prominent topic these days, that people are aware of that. Even in Japan people begin discussing it.

    What is a clogging group?

  8. Your Grace, please see Should you ever witness it, think to yourself, "What charming folkways. So festively Caucasian!"

  9. Countesszero,

    I am happy to hear that. I know bullying and enforced conformity are big issues in Japan today.

    And I believe a clogging group is an Anti-Liquid Plumber group, dedicated to clogging pipes. Because there is no way it could be a group of people clog dancing that Rob was in. Just like there is no way I ever did bellydancing or took Cha-Cha lessens. Forget all about that.


  10. @Ace: You know you now have to write about why you undertook belly dancing, and to what uses you put those acquired skills.

    It's OK; you can tell us. You're among friends.

  11. Ace,

    I think we all know that bullies don't have to be of the Mean Girls variety, showing up only in high school. Bullies within the family are really the saddest bullies of all, I think. Standing up to them are more difficult than the ones in school, too—and they're also the most inescapable.

  12. VersBearCub,

    You make a really good point about how every experience—good or bad—make us into the persons we are today.

    It's small consolation for those who aren't happy with themselves, or who are enduring the pain of bullying in the present. But every message saying that it gets better is important.

  13. RedPhillip,

    Thanks for being brave enough to share those very personal details.

    I made some comments about family bullies upstream in the comments, and they definitely stand here. Your past experience makes me sad.

    I'm glad you survived, though, because your testimony gives hope to those who might not know how to survive themselves, or whether it's even a possibility.

  14. DramaFa...I mean, FelchingPisser,

    You know, I think it's reassuring that not everyone goes through a harrowing, bullied adolescence. I think promoting the image of all gay teens as bullied and tortured is just as misleading as insisting none of them are . . . or that they bring it upon themselves.

    Every portion of society has a spectrum of experience, and I am always fascinated to see it here in my blog.

  15. BlkJack,

    A lot of us do learn the art of invisibility during that turbulent age.

    Whether or not a stereotype is true or not—like all baton twirlers or gay, or all male flute players are gay—doesn't give anyone the right to bully or taunt because of it. It's a shame that some people feel free license to condemn because of these superficial things.

  16. Countess,

    I'd hate to show you a video like this one and have you think we had quite so much precision. Or that faggy handclapping.*

    *Please note that my employment of the adjective in that last sentence is intended to be ironic, given its use in a blog entry about bullying.

  17. Mr Steed, I don't see the bravery so much, but thank you. If I am in fact brave, as a few other friends have suggested elsewhere, it is accidental. As accidental as my survival to the present day.

    There is one problem with the 'It Get's Better' meme/campaign: it doesn't contain the proviso that while it does get better, it usually takes a hell of a long time. Especially if you're living in the timeline of a teenager. I realize that such mild subtlety is difficult to inject into a tweet or soundbite, but I'm not finding it much in longer-form material either.

  18. RedPhillip,

    You do pinpoint one of the shortcomings in the It Gets Better campaign. Often it does take a mighty long time.

    Another shortcoming I've always seen is that it's such a passive phrase, isn't it? Just sit back and wait. It gets better. We won't tell you when. You don't have any assurance it will. It's just something that happens, sometime. You don't have to do anything about it.

    I think, a lot of the time, you just have to make it better. You dig in your heels and make it happen. Not always. It's not a possibility for everyone. But sometimes, it's a hell of a lot better than waiting and hoping that someone else will do it for you.

  19. To add to what Scott said, I gave a talk before a reading in a bookstore a few years ago, in which I noted that creative endevours seem, to the layman, to be solitary, whether it's painting, sculpture writing, or what-have-you. The fact of the matter is, they are uniquely dependent on interaction with other people. With enough instruction, devotion, and practice, you can become great at nearly anything from acrobatics and baseball through computer programming to crime scene investigation, but there is no amount of training-in-isolation that will help you bring tears to someone's eyes via a poem, or create a painting that will make them miss their home. Unlike virtually anything else humans do, creating something that will speak to people, means knowing people. Our writing is a mix of the bigoted and abusive people in our lives as much as it is those that inspired us.

  20. Rob,

    "Bullies within the family are really the saddest bullies of all, I think. Standing up to them are more difficult than the ones in school, too..."

    That is so true, I am afraid, as is the hard to escape part. I have recently started standing up for myself against my family and all it has done is ostracize me from them to the point where I am not sure that I will be comfortable going to holiday celebrations any more. But I would rather spend Christmas alone than with people who hate me, as sad as that sounds.


  21. @Ace: I can guarantee you will not have to spend Christmas alone, nor with people who hate you.

  22. Ace, sweetie,

    I know it's easier to say than to do, but now's the time to put your foot down about the holidays, and say what you will and won't tolerate if you show up. And by now, I mean pre-halloween. Start hammering home the ground rules so that by the time the holiday arrives, they'll have them in their heads.

    If you don't go home--I know you're making friends there, and I suspect they'd be glad to spend the holiday with you. Even if not, it's the idea of spending a holiday alone that's worse than the actual thing.

    It sucks that your family doesn't appreciate you for the wonderful guy you are. It sucks when any family doesn't appreciate its members.

  23. Kevin Shea,

    That was a beautifully-stated comment. Thank you a thousand times.

  24. Rob and RedPhillip,

    Thanks for your comments. I wasn't trying to sound "woe-is-me" about the situation, but I appreciated the support all the more because I didn't expect it. And Rob, you're right. If I start putting my foot down now, then by the time the holidays arrive, they will at least be ready for me. And it would not be my first holiday alone or with just one friend. I don't mind that so much. I will be fine. Warmest thanks.


  25. Lieber Herr Steed. I will never ever look at you the same way. Also, did you know the French Horn is actually a German instrument? Do you still have one?

    Ace, it's always easy to comment from the outside but maybe the people who come into your life willingly and the ones who accept you the way you are, are your true family?

  26. Of several bullies tainting my life, my father was most chronic. Some chronology seems fitting.

    INFANCY: Daddy Dearest ("DD") would blare our small apartment's television when I needed to sleep, unmoved as I cried and my mother pled.
    ABOUT 18 MONTHS: Quarreling with Mother, DD seized and flung a crucifix, which struck my head. I recall the
    blurred image of a torchère and the sound of wailing--disembodied, not grasped as mine. I more or less understood my
    mother's response: "Now look what you did!" (Why did I feel no pain? Was I stunned?)
    TWO: My eyes began crossing. The doctor attributed this to trauma. Two surgeries remedied only the appearance, and I
    never developed binocular vision or depth perception.
    EIGHT: DD threw me into a floor-to-ceiling window and shouted, "Look what you made me do!" Long-sleeved corduroy
    and a screen miraculously saved me from injury or death.
    13: DD struck me with my briefcase, which held several textbooks. At school, I had to lie about the knot on my forehead.
    15: When DD threatened suicide and went to get his shotgun, it was I who ran for the bullets and hid them, presumably
    saving his life (among others?). Mother and Sister were busy crying in their bedrooms--a tactic, perhaps.
    16: DD backed me up against a wall and struck my temple with a sidelong blow, fracturing two fingers and punching in
    the drywall.

    The above is just part of DD's physical bullying--abuse, surely. And there was plenty of the verbal sort, such as him saying I used my hands "like a monkey". DD would call me "a nance," [dated Brit slang for sissy?] or claim that I
    "flounce[d] around the house". He further told me, in so many words, that I would end up homosexual if I rejected him.

    (Oh, what choices!) Rarely did "garbage mouth" and "that pimply-faced adolescent"escape DD's rebuke.

    Like many of us, I got the male script late. I was mostly bad at sports, as much due to weak eyes as to avoidance of what aped paternal brutality. I did not always move, gesture or speak as expected. When I would mix from time to time with socially-scripted boys, they inevitably bored, sometimes repelled me. I preferred to read, identify plants, collect butterflies, and, it so happens, play the flute (a separate comment). I may have "blended in" somewhat by underachieving in elementary school.
    Particularly during "the hormone years," I had my share of related taunts from peers. Few compared to what I was
    suffering at home, however. In high school and college, I sometimes fought back with words. (At other times, I would try either to blend in, or to
    ignore the cruelty.) When a pair of remedial-level twins teased me in Gym about "play[ing] [their] skin flute," I shot back,
    "In your case it would be a skin piccolo." As a college Freshman, I silenced a macho pretty boy who accused me of "show[ing] every sign of being queer" by rejoining, "What makes you such an expert?" and walking away.

    Some recover from abuse and are spurred to achieve. I, however, have yet to conquer low self-esteem and self-destructiveness, to which I apply the concept of internalized abuse. (Namely, I took up where DD left off.)



    How to rewrite this history? When I was a child, there was no system for reporting and ending parental abuse. Gays were considered outcasts, homosexuality a mental disorder. Bullying and teasing were condoned and enabled. Nevertheless,if I had today's insights back then, I might have ceased trying to convince my emotional side that I *deserved* maltreatment. My head might have seen dysfunctional coping and my father's toxic psyche for what they were. My heart might have begun to feel that I was a gifted soul, worthy of self-confidence/esteem. I might have laid the groundwork for prosperity. I might have accepted, as a college Sophomore, that the two hunky, oddly-inseparable football players rooming next door were lovers--as a mutual acquaintance later conveyed. (Ah, but how could such men's men be . . . queer?!)

  28. I take your "Do I really need to say anything . . ." about catty, obnoxious James as literary shorthand for, "This one merits no objectivity." But I needed to see you add that presuming all flautists gay is a stereotype.

    J. P. Rampal--justly named "The King of the Flute"--was not gay. Neither is James Galway, his equally famous pupil, nor is Andrea Griminelli (who could easily model). The flute is a soprano instrument--often sweet-toned, seldom
    overpowering; to associate it with femininity is understandable. Then again, playing it well requires an athlete's lungs. On the Rock side, moreover, there is Ian Anderson. His tone is chiffy, dark, freely tuned--not at all prissy. Anderson's
    eccentricity is no sissy's.

    Had I not been lucky enough to learn the flute (well) and experience a trove of music from its golden age, I might have become suicidal. Learning to appreciate beauty gave me refuge from the ugliness of physical and psychic pain, including
    sexual guilt and shame. (So did studying Botany.) To this day, Common Practice Era music gives me reason to live, even as others in my shoes might see none.

    To me, James did not *deserve* to play the flute. He was beneath it, even if he led the section (which I doubt). I just wish that others could experience the instrument synesthetically, as I have: On first hearing it live, I visualized silvery-
    blue skies. Was that effeminate? Maybe; but why does bucking the social script's safety and paying the price in abuse show less strength than conformity? Since when was strength effeminate?

  29. 9:45+ Anonymous,

    I'll address you in two comments, if I might.

    It's tough for me to draw a line between the garden-variety schoolyard bully, which I was addressing in my entry and for which Spirit Day was founded, and chronic child abuse, which is what you're describing in your response. Yeah, the latter certainly shares some elements with the former, and it absolutely involves someone bullying another. The child abuse you describe is much more insidious and vicious, not in the least because it involves someone much older and physically more powerful than the victim, but because unlike schoolyard bullying, it's inescapable.

  30. 9:45 Anonymous,

    I'm addressing the flute player issue separately. Any reader who ascribed to my off-the-cuff remark a genuine intent to disparage male flute players would be doing me a disservice. The remark already carries several indicators of its facetious and ironic intention; it is of a literary trope in which the off-handedness of the remark was intended as a reflection of my juvenile perception at the time, and also as a self-deprecating recognition of my own vulnerability to accusations of effeminacy.

    I'm going to say what I say here, without much in the way of remorse; to worry endlessly about causing offense only results in stifling the impulse to be honest. When I make such remarks, however, I tend do so by including the appropriate ironic flags. I trust that in the future you will understand that my ultimate aim is not to divide, but to unite.

    Anyway, it very may well be true that there are straight male flute players out there. I have a lot of experience with instrumentalists at the middle and high school and early college level, however, and I can safely say that they're the exception and not the rule. It's like trying to make the claim that there are more straight male organists than gay (and I have a hell of a lot of organist readers).

    Even so—so what? The sexuality of the performer doesn't make any difference to the music, the instrument, or to the audience listening to both.

  31. One say it better: "To worry endlessly about causing offense only results in stifling honesty." I, turn, also feel a need to clarify.

    Nothing I wrote states, implies or insinuates that you were being divisive. While the "trope"'s facetious/ironic aim is clear to you, and was not entirely unclear to me, "do I really need to say anything here" is present-tense and non-specific. How it is appropriately flagged with several indicators remains less than clear to me -- who am respectably literate and a close reader of texts. (Perhaps this is a failure of language, not intellection.) Moreover, my point was only that the most successful flautists need'nt be gay. Neither of us knows a statistically significant sample, incidentally.

    One does not quite understand why, if a performer's sexuality is so unimportant, you assert that personal experience supports an ironic, facetious remark. But perhaps you like to be ironic about being ironic, and perhaps that, too is a literary trope.

    The sexuality of a performer can matter to the audience, if not in a negative sense. Plenty of us will be more likely to attend a performance by one or more of our own kind.

    9:45 +

  32. 9:45+ Anonymous,

    And I was careful not to say that you were definitely one of the 'any readers' who might read my intent as divisive.

    You did call me out on it, however, and in the context of your revelations it's nearly impossible to feel anything but uncomfortable about having made a casual passing remark that elicited, more or less, a lecture. I would simply like to be given the benefit of the doubt in future rather than be presumed politically incorrect.