When I came home for the holidays this year I returned to the place where I first rode a bike, learned to read and write, and felt the magic of Christmas morning.
It’s also the town where I had a map in my head of which decorated streets to avoid—with those jolly Santas and blinking reindeer and solemn nativity scenes that spread the message of peace on earth—because I was certain the kids who lived there wanted to kill me. I only rode my bike at night, so as not to be seen, and I grew accustomed to ducking my head in the car if we passed by one of my taunters.
School was worse. I was jumped, hit, called faggot, threatened, spit on, kicked, in a cement prison that was inescapable until 2:30 in the afternoon. On the way home kids would be waiting for me on my street corner, in groups, not letting me pass until I admitted I was a fag or agreed to fight. When I begged them to let me go, they would tell me they’d get me the next day in school. I stayed home sick a lot.
The teachers were enablers. My P.E. instructor used to tell me to start acting like a man, in front of the other kids, and would make me run laps around the field when I didn’t play football correctly. He never once offered to help me learn, and he never once told my classmates to stop calling me a girl and a sissy. My eighth grade math teacher once called me a loser in front of the other students.
One of the kids who bullied me every day, and whose name I won’t reveal because of the irrational fear that he’ll find out where I live and finish the job, scared me so much with his threats of violence that I couldn’t even go to the mall to buy Christmas gifts without scouting out each store before I entered. I never knew where he’d show up. His best friend had killed his own father after too many lashes from a belt, and their continued connection made me believe that he, too, was capable of murder. Mine.
Any gay man who spent their childhood being bullied understands this particular horror, and none of us ever completely let it go. It defines our entry into the world. When people ask us why we didn’t speak out, they don’t understand our generation. I never told a soul. I don’t think I wrote about it until after I turned 40.
The thing about being bullied is that, not only is there immense shame in the victimization, feeling that you’re not man enough, there is also the fear that, should you report the incidents, you’ll be punished more severely. As such, we were quiet and we took it.
When my mother mentioned running into a close neighbor shortly after I arrived, I told her that her son used to terrorize me so much I’d come home and lock myself in my room, then cry all night.
My mother laughed. Not to be insensitive—hardly—but because she couldn’t fathom such a respectable neighbor’s son behaving badly. When I said that she should tell our neighbor how much her son hurt me, Mom said, “Why would I do that? It was so long ago.”
That’s the other thing about our generation of bullies: They are everywhere and they grew up unscathed. They are your husbands, brothers, best friends, neighbors, co-workers, politicians, celebrities, heroes. Maybe some of them are you. But it was expected. They were boys, kids being kids, children learning what it means to be a man. Dude, get over it and haze someone else in college.
I was one of the lucky ones because I had a loving family and a life outside the schoolyard. Many did not, and many boys were further abused at home. And as bad as my treatment was, there were children who got it a whole lot worse. Like every other crime, bullying has its degrees. Kids I knew from school were beaten to a pulp almost daily, punched repeatedly, stripped of their clothes in gym. Their youth was pulled out from under them because they didn’t have the know-how to be cruel.
There is a lot of hatred in the world right now, and much thirst for revenge. I don’t harbor any Heathers-like fantasies of blowing up my school or killing off those who tried to destroy me or hiring thugs to teach them a lesson. What purpose would that serve? If your answer is peace you’ve learned nothing of the world.
What I do dream about, my Christmas wish, is to face everyone of those boys—now grown men—and to tell them how it felt back then, how much it hurt, how much of my childhood was taken. I would ask them why they felt the need to bully me. Finally, I would reassure them that I survived, intact, and that I only wanted one thing from them; to promise me they’d teach their children that bullying of any kind is unacceptable.
Were that to happen just once, and if they did, just once, then there would have been meaning to my 20th century darkness. We’d be moving forward into a lighter world.
David Toussaint writes about subjects affecting older gay men. If you’ve got a “Daddy Issue,” let him know. --DRT
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
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