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