It probably won’t surprise anybody, but my gravitas found shape in some pretty grim experiences as a young person. Growing up in a Latino/Irish Catholic family during the 1980s meant that I heard clearly and frequently that being gay was not an acceptable option. Compounding that was my father’s alcoholism and abusive tendencies, which were themselves compounded by his irregular income. Having enjoyed a pretty solid middle class existence through elementary school, my entrance into middle school coincided with my family becoming broke, erratic, and unpredictable. For the next ten years we would be perpetually wondering if our utilities would be shut off again or how ends would be met. We walked on eggshells in the hopes that my father wouldn't have an outburst. To say that my home life was not a supportive and safe environment is a bit like saying the Titanic had some minor design flaws.
I can’t pinpoint one particular incident when the school bullying started, but it is worth noting that we are not talking about an occasional scuffle or a few harsh words from time to time. It was a daily eight-hour marathon of intense harassment starting in the seventh grade. I became a master of time management having been able to pace my walk to the bus stop so that it was only a minute or two from the time that the bus would arrive (as I was certainly going to be tormented, probably beat up, if I dared to show up too early). For those who have never been fortunate enough to take a school bus, let me tell you how lucky you are. They are basically rolling sardine cans of torture. The bus driver is usually too focused on keeping the thing on the road (and probably nursing a hangover) to intervene in what is transpiring in the rear of the bus.
At one point, a new driver did try to impose order on the bus by instituting a seating chart. The “cool” kids (and being “cool” and being a bully often went hand and hand in middle school) protested against such an arrangement. “There is a fag on this bus,” one of them told the bus driver, “and we shouldn’t be forced to sit with him.” My face flushed as I tried to meld with my current seat. “Well,” the bus driver said, “what you will learn when you get older is that the fags are the ones driving the fancy sports cars while you are driving a bunch of brats around in a bus.” As empty as that sounds in retrospect, that was the closest thing to a defense that any adult offered me during the entire time that I was in middle school.
Not soon after the seat reassignments, I remember exiting the school bus one day and suddenly feeling something damp hit my cheek. Then something else wet hit my face immediately after. The intense New Mexico sun was already burning holes in the asphalt, even at 8 in the morning, so it couldn’t be rain. As I looked around quickly, I realized what was happening. The other boys in the school were spitting on me. The door to the bus closed and it drove away as I was surrounded by hacking and spewing. I pushed my way through the crowd and went to the restroom to try and washout the gobs of phlegm that were enmeshed in my hair. I considered myself lucky that none of them followed me to the boy’s room, as it was a place where I was usually guaranteed a beating and therefore avoided it at all costs during other circumstances. That pretty much sums up my middle school life: literally spat upon. Friends became a concept totally alien to me as I had zero (not a single one).
At home, I learned to avoid my father until he was safely passed out for the night. During the day, I avoided anywhere that was public, including the lunch room. To be honest, I didn’t really have money for lunch anyway. The library became a refuge where I read silently. Most of the rest of the students, it seems, had no interest in books. Reading offered not only an immediate escape, but I also had sense enough to know that education might just be a long-term salvation and perhaps the key to that promised sports car.
The library seemed like an ideal hideout until the school librarian asked me not to return anymore because my silent reading bothered her. With such an astounding adult staff, it’s a real mystery why my middle school continues to be considered one of the worst in Albuquerque to this day. After being booted from my haven, I spent my lunch time roaming the school grounds with my eyes firmly fixed on my shoes and not speaking to anybody.
High school promised a change. Well, it seemed like it might offer a change at least. The school was extremely large (my graduating class had 1,200 people) and there were assurances/expectations that I would find my niche. . . or at least one friend. Those hopes were quickly dashed on day one. Things couldn’t have been worse as I had the very bad luck to be assigned P.E. as my first class of the day. Without skipping a beat from middle school, I was instantly surrounded by another group of bullies (or occasional bullies) who asked me on that first day, “Are you a faggot, Faggot?” It made me wonder what it was about me that they had so quickly noticed. It was the first moment that they had ever laid eyes on me and yet they were already singling me out as the target of ridicule and harassment. It would be years before I was willing to really admit my sexuality to myself, but these folks were dead certain of it. When the first day ended, I remember going immediately to my room and crying. My mother diagnosed my tears as a product of being overwhelmed by the change. I knew, though, that I was more overwhelmed by the lack of change.
The bulling continued for all of that year, especially in P.E. No matter the sport we were supposed to play, my tormentors found unique and novel ways to use the equipment against me. Field hockey, which we played on a freezing patch of mud, became a venue where they would intentionally send the ball my way so that they could “legitimately” smack me around with their sticks. Volleyball, which I had until that point always imagined as a nonviolent and potentially fun sport, offered opportunities for them to spike the roughly covered ball directly into my face at full force. And those were my “teammates.” Tennis left me covered with welts from being pummeled with a barrage of yellow balls. “Dodge Ball” could only have been invented by a sadistic, homophobic jerk.
Some of you might be asking, wasn’t there a teacher assigned to this class? Were you just a bunch of little animal things let out without any supervision? Of course, the class did have a teacher of record: a relatively young man named Coach Sánchez who also happened to be in charge of the football team. Let me tell you, he either ignored the abuse I faced or tacitly approved of it. In that entire year, I remember him intervening just once. A group had clustered around me and had forgone any pretense that impending injury was just a result of athletic mishap. He disbanded the group and then roughly pushed me to a corner and asked, “Why do I have to defend you? It’s not my job. I have forty other students in this class. They're picking on you because it’s your own fault.” He was actually angry that I was “allowing” myself to become the subject of torment. I had heard of blaming the victim, but this gave me a new vantage point into that sociological concept.
It was at that precise moment that Coach Sánchez mysteriously burst into flames and melted into a bizarre waxy spot on the basketball court. Well, that’s what would have happened if I had strange mental powers at the time. Perhaps it is a good thing that I hadn’t developed those . . . yet.
Since Coach Sánchez apparently took the film Tea and Sympathy as the basis for his pedagogy, the rest of the year progressed with me living in constant fear and dread. Needless to say, his singular intervention only increased the torment. “Hey, fag” one of my tormentors told me as he pushed me against the gym lockers (the locker rooms were rarely supervised by teachers of coaches. Wasn’t that nice?), “Do you want Sánchez to take care of you? Does he know that you want to stare at his dick? Fag.” That showed how ignorant the bully really was. If I wasn’t clear in my own my mind about my sexual desires, I knew for sure that I had absolutely no attraction to Coach Sánchez (And, in retrospect, is that really what he imagined two gay people did together? Just stared at each other’s penis? Idiot.).
My freshman year continued to be painful and intensely lonely. During health class that year, my teacher informed us that having gay sex was a one-way ticket to death by AIDS. Listening to him made one think that a date with another man would start with dinner and a show and end in bodybags and morticians. I delved deeper into reading and was grateful that at least the highschool library stayed open during lunch.
My story didn’t include the nice ways that the media presents stories of queer youth on television. No open-minded and understanding adult appeared to save me from the bullies or offer much assurance at all that being queer was actually a good thing. No peer reached out a helping hand or words of kindness. Nor did my hidden fantasies, informed heavily by the media, come true with a white knight appearing on the horizon to rescue me. In the end, there was only me left to figure out what to do. I know that I would have been so relieved and comforted had the "It Gets Better" campaign existed when I was young. Even the assurances of strangers would have made a big difference.
True to the current campaign’s name, things did get better for me. Much better. Thank the goddess, New Mexico only required one year of P.E. I also slowly and consciously began to work on my own social skills and to actively learn how to make friends. It might seem strange, but after many years of being almost mute in public, it was tough to figure out how to hold basic conversations. Rightly or wrongly (Healthily or unhealthily?), I also learned to totally compartmentalized the chaos at home as well. I also started working which brought me into contact with people who were already in college. My real path to queer salvation didn’t occur until I entered university too, but I did manage to find a place for myself by the end of highschool.
Today, I might still be waiting on that sports car, but I have a pretty darn good life. My job is cushy and rewarding. I have lots of friends who adore me. Plus, I can be as out as I possibly can be, including in the classroom.
I am angry that my young GLBTQ brothers and sisters continue to suffer the same types of harassment that I endured. The bullying, isolation, and despair that GLBTQ teenagers experience in this country is tied directly to the ways that our lives are discounted in our larger society. It is a discounting that starts right at the top. President Barack Obama says that he thinks queer people should have some rights, but not equal rights and that heterosexual institutions need to be “protected” [apparently from us].
Keep in mind we are supposed to consider him our ally. What else can young people conclude but that queer people are less valuable? It seems to me that school grounds are simply enacting the inequalities that exist throughout our society. Indeed, recent news stories reveal that young immigrant youths are also being tormented and tortured on their school grounds. I would argue that it is a similar symptom of the way this country has demonized others and sent the message that certain people in our society are open targets.
I suppose the traditional ending to these types of recollections should include a wise and informed gesture to the idea that these are the things that made me who I am. Or, for those of us who were raised Catholic, we are to marvel that the challenges which did not kill us actually made us stronger. Well, if that were true, shouldn’t I have developed those strange mental powers by now? With all the shit that I went through, I should at least be able to levitate a table or something.