In honor of Pride month last month, and the theme of acceptance and love among people, we are going to use today’s post to learn a little bit about me. It’s not a particularly fun topic but it’s something that I see happening a lot online and in person, and have experienced first hand.
That topic is bullying. I think a lot of people have been bullied or seen someone get bullied, and unfortunately, it still tends to be something that people see as unpreventable, or even worse, as a part of growing up. In order to help facilitate a change, I’m going to talk about how being bullied can affect someone, and how it can last much longer than the actual act of bullying.
If you didn’t know, I grew up in Florida, which was and can still be very much a part of the “South” where looking, sounding, or acting different can single you out for ridicule. Toxic masculinity was very much alive and well then, and still is in some parts of the South, and I am reminded of that every time I visit home. To be a boy or man in these parts of the South, you have to be physically strong, never show any emotions or talk about any problems that can’t be fixed with force. You can’t be different, or defying the established norms.
When I was younger I looked nerdy, had a higher pitched voice, and wasn’t interested in traditionally masculine things like sports, girls, or other “male” activities and interests. Because of this, I was singled out by my classmates in middle school for being weird. Popularity and respect were very important in school, and fitting into the traditional male and female roles were what was expected of kids, not only by your classmates and peers, but sometimes by faculty and teachers as well. Sticking out from the expected norms would result in ridicule.
That ridicule came in the form of what was seen as a terrible insult, and that is being gay. As an 11 or 12 year old, it was hard to truly comprehend what being gay even meant, let alone how you could be considered gay just by how you talked or what you were interested in. To be singled out as a “faggot,” which was my bullies’ word of choice, for having glasses or a high pitched voice, or reading instead of playing football, was awful, and in reality, nonsensical. I didn’t know who I was yet, I wasn’t sure what being gay even meant, but it felt like I had been labeled by my peers and that I was stuck with this label. How do you convince your friends and classmates that you aren’t something that they say you are? Why should you have to convince anyone? Why should it matter? These were the questions that I constantly asked myself. The words gay and faggot were used as an insult, not because of their actual meaning, but because of the meaning that it was instilled with by my peers: that you didn’t belong, that you were different, and that you were to be excluded.
No matter what I said or did, these bullies continued to put me down. If I got so upset and cried, then they would tell me “See? You’re crying like a little faggot!” If I didn’t say anything and tried to ignore them, then they would double their efforts until I yelled or cried. I felt ashamed at being unable to stop them or defend myself, and I began to hate myself. I spent the first year of being bullied trying to ignore it, trying not to let it affect me, but I wasn’t able to. My grades started to drop, I became easily agitated and I began to turn to sarcasm and aggression to make up for how I felt I was being seen. My teachers noticed, and eventually there was a conference with my parents. But how do you tell your parents that you are being bullied and are too weak to stop it? I wasn’t able to, and I felt like all I wanted to do was die. I pushed through middle school with anger and hatred for myself and my tormentors, hoping high school would be better.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get any better in high school, even though I left my bullies behind. I still looked different, I still sounded different, and my interests were just as far from “masculine” as could be. I had grown my hair long, I wore girl’s jeans because I was so skinny, I painted my nails black and used eyeliner. New kids replaced the old bullies, and new insults joined the old. All it did was reinforce how worthless I felt like I was. My grades didn’t get any better, and I continued to hold onto the anger of being bullied. For me it seemed like no matter how I acted, people still saw me as an other. I built walls around myself, and looking back now, I see that a lot of my behaviors were in reaction to being called gay or being treated like I was unwanted. I became verbally aggressive, using sarcasm as a weapon against anyone I thought would judge me. I did reckless and stupid things for laughs because I felt like people liked me that way, and that was better than being excluded. I essentially created an entire persona to show the world how “straight,” “cool” and “masculine” I was, and I kept it up all the way into college. And it was toxic, because it never let me be me. I never felt comfortable in my own skin because I was terrified that maybe the bullies were right. Maybe I was gay, maybe I was a loser or a nerd, maybe I was an outcast who should be shunned; this terrible thing that everyone hated.
Sometimes it can be hard to explain how the word gay can be so ridiculously insulting, so I’ll give you an example from my life. In 9th grade, I was on my bus with my girlfriend, and there were two boys who would constantly harass me at school and on the bus ride home. On this day, my girlfriend and I sat through them kicking our seat, hitting us with their trash, trying to smack us with their backpacks from behind us, and just ridiculously mean words and behaviors. After 40 minutes of this, we got to our stop and got off the bus to leave. One of the boys tripped me and I fell forward, and caught myself on the seat. What happened next is not something I’m proud of, but I turned around and swung at the kid: it wasn’t the correct response, and I’m sure many people will say I was now the person in the wrong, but imagine being 12 or 13 and having to deal with that situation daily, for an entire school year. I lashed out in anger. We got into a fist fight that was eventually pulled apart by the bus driver and the police were called. We were asked to explain what happened; the bully talked to the police first, and told them “He called me gay so I had to fight him.” That was all he said, no further explanation. The police turned to me and asked for me to explain myself, “Well now, son, did you call him gay? Because you shouldn’t be doing that.” I had to then defend myself, explain what had happened, and also explain that I hadn’t called him gay. The police found his initial response as justification for a fight.
People seem to think that once you are removed from a bad situation, things can begin to get better, but that’s not always true. After graduating high school and beginning college, I struggled with my emotions, my anger and my feelings of self hatred. I can now openly talk about what has happened to me, and yet I still feel very close to how I felt when I was originally bullied. To be labeled and viewed as something negative is completely destructive to a child growing up. To have to be afraid of what you look like, how you dress, how you sound or what you enjoy doing is something truly horrific. I spent my entire adolescence learning how to close off all my of feelings and emotions, because letting any of those out might mean someone would hurt me for them. The fact that the word gay can be used as an insult is something truly terrible, because it’s making how someone feels seem incorrect. It’s taken the past few years for me to be able to even begin letting go of some of the hurt that I feel, to let the anger I often feel for myself go away.
It’s a difficult process, and it isn’t fun. People talk about triggers and how they can make you relieve traumas, or make you feel those same feelings again. Despite knowing that the word gay is just a word, and has no negative connotations, I still get upset sometimes when people ask if I am gay. Why should you question anyone’s sexuality, or label them as anything without knowing them? I’d like to say that now, as a 26 year old in 2018, I don’t feel bullied anymore, but that isn’t true. I still get comments from people about my appearance or assuming things about me, and Sam has gotten DM’s regarding me as well. Why, in a time where we all face so much adversity, do we need to continue to use words as weapons against others? Just because someone’s hair is long, just because they don’t fit your idea of what a man or woman should be, doesn’t mean that you should criticize or question them.
It’s hard enough to feel safe and understood today, and I don’t want anyone to feel the way I have for the past 14 years. It’s time we stop isolating and hurting others because we don’t understand or like how they are. It’s time to give people respect for their interests, to show them compassion and understanding. I hope that by writing about this, I can help at least one person realize that the bullying does end, and that it doesn’t have to define you, no matter how difficult and impossible it seems now. And I also hope that those who may be bullying others can see this and realize how much you are hurting other people. All it takes is a little kindness to show everyone the respect they deserve. Let’s just be better.
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- July 20, 2018