From 1983-1991, my twin sister and I were relegated to a Catholic elementary school. For us, this felt like a fate worse than death...obviously it was not. It was, however, with little exaggeration, some of the worst years of our lives. Looking back now, I remember this time comically as one of those really old, black and white movies where the nuns and priests are super mean -- less Trouble with Angels and more Doubt. And I would not be that far off! Our 3rd grade nun actually did hit kids with a ruler if she felt so inclined.
My sister and I got in trouble, not infrequently, for questioning the doctrine and those spreading the good word. In 4th grade, I was told by a priest that if I missed mass one more time, I was going to hell. Had I known then what I know now, I would have let that priest in on a little secret -- that would be just one of many reasons they could find for my one way ticket south. I was not scared of his mortal threat; I was infuriated! It's safe to say that this experience, among many other more informed reasons, has influenced my agnosticism.
To make matters worse, during those years, my sister and I had very few friends aside from each other. We were made fun of, called names, and bullied relentlessly for being "different." To start, we were twins, a fact outside of our control. Adding to that, we were tomboys, playing hockey in the street with the boys and preferring GI Joe and Transformer action figures over Barbie...and so the vultures attacked for eight formidable years.
Our grandmother would tell us over and over that it would get better. Once we were in high school, and as we got older, she assured us...and, thankfully, she was right. We were extremely lucky to have her -- someone to give us hope, to tell us it would get better. Others are not so lucky.
Suicide is a big concern for adolescent youth who are bullied, and though suicide never once crossed my mind, many kids, teens, and young adults go through similar experiences alone. Sadly, suicide may seem like their only escape. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24, and those who are bullied are two to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than those who are not. That's why it's so important for them to hear that it gets better. It is hard to believe that through the haze of depression, sadness and loneliness, but it does.
My high school experience was the complete opposite of my grade school experience. The public high school my sister and I attended was a melting pot (or salad bowl, if you prefer) -- with peers in every size, shape, and color. And my sister and I, we ate up every drop of it! My high school years were nothing like the stereotypical tween Disney movies or the 80s classics. I don't remember there being the blatantly popular kids, or the ultra-jocks, or the air-head cheerleaders. I just remember everyone hanging out together, acknowledging each other -- or maybe that was just my experience. I was friends with all types of kids; I did not discriminate, and I had a better high school experience because of it. I learned to accept and appreciate everyone because of their differences, not in spite of them, after all, that is all I wanted in grade school.
In high school, feeling more comfortable than I had ever felt in my life, I "came out." I was very lucky in that my parents were incredibly supportive. Both were unquestioning Catholics, but, above all else, both were unquestioning parents who loved me and my sister (who eventually came out as well) unconditionally. My dad took a little longer than my mom to come around, but not much. And once he did, he was all in. He volunteered at every event we were involved with, every AIDS Walk, every Gay Bingo. He even received one of the first honorary gay person awards for straight family and friends because of his dedication to us and our community. And my mom, well, she loves all people, and she definitely loves us. I remember fondly, her taking us to Toys-R-Us when we were little and allowing us to buy whatever we wanted. She never questioned why we were playing with GI Joe action figures or building rocket ships (yes, I was always a science geek) and helicopters (and my sister always wanted to rescue things - she is a retired Fire Fighter who now runs her own Emergency Relief organization) out of Legos.
It was also during high school that I started volunteering for the organization that produced the Philadelphia AIDS Walk and it changed my life. I found a community of people who accepted me for who I was, a community who were dedicated to making a difference, and who would ultimately become my extended family - a family I have had for over 20 years, a family full of different. I have been shaped by these people; I am who I am partly because of them.
Thirty years after my tumultuous grade school experience, I have come into my own. I have met and legally married my wife who I have been with for over 15 years. We have watched and participated in the fight for marriage equality in our state and around the country (#commonwealthequality). Like many other same-sex couples, we had a commitment ceremony long before we were able to legally marry. Ten years to the day after that, with our daughter as our witness, we were legally married. It has been an amazing ride!
It pains me beyond words that other kids and teens, especially LGBT youth, are so distraught because of the malicious acts of their peers or family that they resort to ending their own lives, never having the chance to experience it getting better.
My sister and I experienced suicide loss personally 17 years ago when a friend of ours (my sister's best friend) took his own life. He was the first openly gay police officer in Philadelphia. I don't know why he did it, but I do know that his death destroyed his parents, who still to this day struggle with his loss. I wish he would have reached out, that someone would have told him it gets better. I wish I could tell all of the kids, teens and young adults struggling with who they are, what they're feeling, or how others treat them, that there are people who know what they're going through, that there are people who care, and that it will get better.
Contrary to popular belief, suicides peak in the spring and summer, not in the winter or during the holidays. But since the holiday season is upon us, take the time to reassure those of the younger generation who you are spending time with, and who may be struggling with various aspects of their lives, that it does get better. Reach out to them, talk to them, and most importantly, accept them, because it is the different in all of us that makes each of us special.