Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bully, Bully

Like many people, I have been haunted by the recent revelations of bullying of GLBTQ youth in schools and universities. These tragedies have shocked people, I think, because there has been a presumption that somehow homophobia had been “solved” in our society. Indeed, before these news stories broke, both hetero and queer friends commented to me that they had faith in the future because the younger generation was immune from the hangups of the bad ol’ days. “It’s not like when we were kids” was a common refrain. Having spent several years in TexAss and hearing from students there, I knew that the picture was not quite as rosy as everybody hoped.

Having previously blatantly plagiarized borrowed liberally been inspired by Dan Savage’s humor, I was drawn to his “It Gets Better Campaign.” This project collects videos from queer people across the world who want to offer words of hope to young people. If you haven’t done so, spend some time watching these stories and learn about how they lived through the bullying and found a better life.

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.


vuboq said...

I'm sooooooo happy you made it through the torment of your teens to become the Beacon of Gravitas that you are today. Huzzah!

I'm still trying to get a handle on my feelings about the It Gets Better Project ... more later, perhaps?

shaz said...

Brilliantly, and heartbreakingly, said.

One need only read some of the vile comments left on the It Gets Better videos to see there is still a depressingly long way to go.

squadratomagico said...

I'm sorry you had to go through that. Thanks for a moving tribute to your own resilience, and to the alienation and isolation too many kids still have to experience.

Why we allow high schools to remain the horrors they are is just beyond me.

Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

I can imagine this was not an easy post to write. Thank you for mustering the courage. I'm thinking you may have some super powers after all. Peace.

pacalaga said...

I totally read "Bacon of Gravitas".
Either you and these other kids went to/are going to school on Lord of the Flies Isle, or I lived in a happy place with rainbows and unicorns and marshmallow trees. My only complaint about the whole "it gets better" project is that it SHOULDN'T BE THAT WAY IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Sisyphus said...

I'm so sorry you had to go though that. No one should have to put up with that shit.

Mel said...

SC only required one year of PE, too, which was a mercy. I also had band as an escape, since there were enough other misfits that I fit in reasonably well. My parents were also always fierce in my defense, even when I was worried it would make things worse, and I went to a school with halfway decent administrators who would actually respond. I knew a kid, though, who was harassed so badly that he had to transfer, and I think he may have even had to transfer from that school. Now I see all those once-popular kids on Facebook, all fat and decidedly unfabulous, and, shallow or not, I'm glad I stuck around for that.

Roger Owen Green said...

Pretty brutal, GP. tho dodgeball's sadism knows no gender ID; it's sadistic, no matter what outside group you're in.

Will link to this!

Mark My Words said...

Thank you for your personal and moving story of bullying (peppered, as usual, with your wry sense of humour), and btw, if I had been in your school, you would have had at least one friend :)

I think the “It Gets Better” campaign is brilliant. The videos tell stories that need to be told, and that need to be heard. It has been a long time since I was a teenager, but even I watch them once in a while when I need a few words of encouragement, and to remind my queer self that I am not alone in my struggles. I sometimes can’t believe some of the hurtful antigay remarks on social networking sites, let alone those pronounced by certain public figures, these days. It is hard enough to listen to all that hate as an adult, with all my well-honed coping skills, that I can’t imagine what it must be like for a gay teenager these days. I certainly hope that it does get better.

Historiann said...

Wow, GayProf--now I completely get your admiration for Oscar Wao. Being a Latino geek is hard enough, but being a gay Latino geek in the 1980s was really a nightmare. (And although I was only a geek, and not gay or Latino, I totally agree with your take on school buses. As if middle school wasn't full enough of humiliation and pain!)

Thanks for telling your story here. I agree with you that we need NOT to be whiggish when it comes to understanding the actual experience of K-12 school. We must remember that the gay-friendliness of our college students now isn't indicative of the kind of change we want to see or believe in. They're just a slice of people their age, with more maturity and wisdom than even they themselves had back in middle or high school.

rawkusprof said...

Thank you for telling your story. I wish I was as shocked as some others at the torment you received, but my experiences in school differ only in details (and, luckily, my home life was better). I'm always amazed at our queer resilience, but, like you, am sick of watching young people have to be resilient in the face of daily violations to their humanity. Thank you also for making the connection to the torturing of immigrants and the general political climate that allows this.

I like the It Gets Better project-- it's an amazing oral history archive for one-- and have cried at many of the videos I've come across. I'm glad these stories are reaching a wider public and am certain they will save a few lives.

That said, I am troubled by some of its underlying assumptions: (1) it always gets better (esp. for transgendered people and queer poor people, this is not true); (2) kids have to wait for it to get better and we all can't do things now to MAKE it better; (3) we have to leave our communities of origin and move to the coasts for this triumphalist narrative to occur. That said, I did leave and it got better...

Sorry for the long post. You touched a chord.

GayProf said...

VUBOQ: It's true. If I wasn't around, who would spread the gravitas?

Shaz: Or you can read the comments posted on news sites as well. It astounds me by what people will say.

Squadratomagico: High school seems to still be a place where people like to imagine fantasies play out. Somebody in high school somewhere must be having a good time.

Roxie Smith Lindemann: Well, I have been known to use the blog as a form of cheap therapy.

Pacalaga:That's the thing with the "It Gets Better Campaign." In some ways, it feels like small consultation to say that you have to live through years of torment until it gets better. I want things better now.

Sisyphus: Nobody should have to put up with it, which is why it is so frustrating that it continues basically unchecked in hundreds of schools across this nation everyday.

Mel: There is a certain schadenfreude in seeing how unfabulous some people's lives turned out.

ROG: Enjoyment of Dodge Ball could be used as a screening test for people with anti-social personality disorder.

Mark: Thanks! I could have used a friend, but probably would have suffocated you with neediness.

Historiann: There was something reminiscent about reading Oscar Wao for me. Well, except that bit about the prostitute.

Not only do I think we romanticize what happens in K-12, but I think there is also a faith that "family" is somehow always a positive force. Like most things in life, family can be positive but it can also be a source of problems.

Rawkusprof: I think your critiques are spot on the money. I am also troubled by the idea that queer teens should have to wait and endure before things get better (but, on the other hand, that might be the immediate reality and so is a message that needs to get out). So also I would like the stories of transgender youth highlighted in particular, who often face even more intense obstacles with even less support. As you suggest, things getting better often presupposes a certain economic and educational access. Finally, I have wondered why stories of immigrant bulling have been lost in this discussion.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful--and absolutely heart-breaking--post.
Being a queer teenager wasn't any fun in the '70's either. There was no place in my school, my family or my community for LGBTQ people.

While some of the "It gets better" videos on youtube are better than others, I appreciate the sentiments behind them, and find them encouraging in the face of all the prejudice and hate which still is being spewed by some public figures.

I particularly like the one you posted by Jason Shears. He says that he has turned his rage into a career. If all we queer academics do likewise, what a revolution in research and learning we could affect!

Anonymous said...

BTW, it would be great if you could do a post about being openly queer in academia, especially pre-tenure.

susurro said...

thank you for sharing your story, particularly in light of some academics who have taken the recent suicides completely out of the context of specific oppression into the context of "bad behavior in the digital age" that have left me so stunned that all I could do was point people to the it gets better campaign on my blog and the you can change it campaign on my twitter.

I hope that it is ok if I print this post out for my sexualities course. I'd planned to ask them to sit down and write a piece about their identity and bullying in whatever role they took (bully, bullied, observer, etc.) and discuss what it means to be on the outside looking in even now. I think your post gives a good first person narrative for such a story and coupled with the one I intend to tell in class about the first time my partner and my mother met, should at least get them thinking on the plane of humanity and connection rather than the revulsion that often typifies discussions of non-vanilla non-heterosexual-monogamous-church-sanctioned relationships (and I mean that literally, as in straight folks with a little kink or who don't go to the church and steeple, you ain't got no people here either).

we survived my friend. (and looked fab doing it :p )

tornwordo said...

You summed up my experience quite nicely. Eerily similar, sigh. Dodgeball HAD to have been invented by a homophobic jerk, so true. Part of me wants to take the high road and forgive and move on, but I will never forget the beatings and the kicks to the face while I was down. If I am ever face to face with those particular attackers again, I may commit a crime.

GayProf said...

Anon: Personally, I turned my rage into a blog.

I have touched on being queer in the academy on occasion, here and even a bit here.

Susurro: Well, given I posted it on the internets, it seems that it is open for people to use as they see fit.

We did survive and we are crisply pressed!

Torn: I'd really rather never encounter certain people ever again in my life -- ever. My anger, though, is mostly directed to both institutional structures and individual adults who knew about the torture and simply walked away.

brian said...

I am queer, but was never bullied for that.
I was bullied because I had been in a school district all my life and other African-Americans resented my ease and long time friendships with whites!
Go figure.

Frank said...

OMG is really my main reaction. I wish I could give you an Amazon hug, my Strong Sister. I'm so sorry you had to go through that, both at school and at home.

Though it certainly didn't feel like it at the time, I really was lucky. I have a great family who have always supported me. In school, I have to admit, for the most part, I avoided actual bullying. I was isolated and intensely discomforted in the dreaded gym class (and in NJ you took it all years), and got a few taunts, but I was never really physically threatened and certainly not SPIT ON! For the most part, I succeeded at being invisible.

That librarian, though, really blows my mind. How rude of you to silently read in her library! Who did you think you were? Hopefully, the library gods struck her down eventually.

Roger Owen Green said...

I did link to this article.

Off topic, I saw THIS and naturally thought of you.

Michael said...

Thanks for sharing your story. It certainly touched a chord.

I did not know I was gay in middle-school, but nontheless suffered (far less than you and others) bullying and harrassment (the PE stories in particular hit home) because I was a small, geeky kid. I too also wonder if, despite me not knowing it, others were able to pick up on my queerness somehow. I was called gay before I even knew what it meant.

Luckily for me, I had a good family life and by high-school did manage to find a good group of friends and teachers.

I have myself been conflicted over the "It gets better" campaign, over similar reasons espoused by rawkusprof and you here, but have to agree that doing something is better than nothing and the message of hope might be desparately needed by someone out there. This just can't be all we do to combat homophobia and heterosexism.

Appropriate verification: angstin

Josie said...

Well, that sucks big time. Sorry you had to go through that. I hpe things are better for kids these days, kinda doubt it though.