Friday, June 01, 2012

Was I Bullied In School For Being Gay? Sort Of. OK, Yes.

(Here they are, identifiable by the ballpoint pen devil horns I drew on them in my yearbook. Fashion historians note the preponderance of rugby shirts, a huge fad that year.)

Bullying is so hot right now, I guess it's time to tell my bullying story. I was an easily identifiable oddball as a child in the 70s and early 80s, so of course I have a bullying story. How could I not?

I was not, however, bullied in high school at all. I can't think of a single instance. High school was my savior in a similar way that college is often a savior to kids who have bad high school experiences. Junior high, however, was a different matter, specifically seventh grade.

I became aware of "reject" kids early on in my education. I'm not talking about garden-variety misfits or "different" kids, but the really tragic rejects, the untouchables. They fascinated me, both for their intrinsic oddness and air of tragedy, but also for the way they were magnets for all of the worst behavior of my classmates. I never participated in the mocking or abusing of these unfortunates, but I didn't look away, either, or do anything to help them. I was never a reject, thank goodness. I was just an oddball kid, geeky and weird. I was unathletic but funny, and made friends easily. All was well at Sunrise Drive Elementary (1-4 grade) and Murphy Elementary (5-6 grade) in Tucson's Catalina Foothills district.

In 1977, however, I entered 7th grade at Orange Grove Middle School, and that is where my troubles began. I guess by that time I had gotten a little weirder, and my somewhat effeminate mannerisms and lack of interest in "guy things" raised red flags with some of the 8th graders, the typical alpha-jocks who dominated the school (shown above). I didn't like these guys right from the start; the way they swaggered around the school acting like they owned the place while picking on the rejects sickened me. And then, kind of suddenly, they decided, apparently en masse, that I was the new target. Lucky me. It wasn't really all that much, nothing physical, but it got to be relentless for a few months there: name calling, locker damage, etc. Eventually I started to suffer from migraines, and I think the school officials knew that it was because the teasing was reaching unacceptable levels, and I believe they more-or-less put a stop to it (I'm a little hazy on the details).

The one incident that really sticks in my mind happened in art class. I was off to the side by myself trying to glue together some nuts and bolts to make a sculpture, when one of the alpha-dicks, Tom (that's him with the biggest horns up top) wandered over to my table as his gang looked on. "Can I ask you a question?" he said in a seemingly friendly way.

"Sure," I answered.

"We were all wondering... are you gay?"

"No!" I answered with conviction. And at the time, that was an honest answer. I didn't know yet. I didn't even suspect it yet! I was, after all, only twelve, and not sexually precocious. I was only barely aware of the existence of homosexuals. The question shocked me; I wasn't expecting it at all. "Is that it?" I wondered. "Is that why they pick on me, because they think I'm gay? Why would they think that?" I pondered the question. I hated sports, was into art and theater, and hung around mostly with girls. Was that it?

I didn't change my behavior or manner to "cover up" these transgressions, and I dismissed the guys as assholes. But still, that question... it kind of became a little hot coal in my brain, always there to some extent, and occasionally flaring up.

I knew I would only have to deal with those boys a little longer. Shortly they'd graduate to high school, and they wouldn't be around for my eighth grade year, and I knew I was headed to a different high school than the one they attended.

So, really, not that big of a deal. Compared to other kids like me, I got off easy, but I don't think it "built character" or anything positive like that. And that question! It burned. It smoldered for years, maybe even decades, maybe even still. That question made something clear: "Gay" was bad. "Gay" was something to be mocked, something which set you apart from others, something which caused migraines, something to be avoided.

And, of course, as the years progressed, I realized that "gay" was something I was (they were right!), and something which, as it became increasingly evident, should be obscured, denied, and hidden (thank goodness for punk rock, the perfect camouflage). This persisted for years and years, and I ended up "coming out" long after I was already actively participating in homosexuality, which caused a lot of internal conflict and a lot more migraines. I know I would have come out sooner if I didn't have that little "gay=bad" coal tangled so effectively in my neurons.

So anyway, that's my bullying story. My story is mild –very mild– compared to what others endured, and fairly brief, only a few months. But those few months really packed a wallop in my developing mind. I got over it, but it took a long time. I can't say for sure that I ever got over it completely, as the profusion of words above demonstrates.

I did achieve a wonderful closure of sorts with one of the guys. One day during my senior year of high school, I was sitting at home when I saw somebody approaching our house. It was Tom, and he rang our doorbell. I hadn't seen him in years. "Who's that?" my mother asked. "That's Tom Hodgson, the ringleader of the guys who used to make fun of me in junior high," I answered. "Do you want me to answer the door?" she asked. "No, I'm curious," I assured her. See, by this time I was a full-on punk rocker. I was "different" in a cool way, and I felt confident. So I answered the door and ushered the hated Tom into our living room. Our meeting went something like this:

"So what do you want?" I asked.
"Well, uh... so word is that you're way into the punk scene," he said (keep in mind Tom and all his pals went to a different high school than me).
"Yeah, so?"
"So do you know people in bands?"
"Yes, almost all of my friends are in bands."
"And you go to places like Tumbleweeds?"
"Yes, almost every weekend."
"How do you get in?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, some friends of mine tried to get into Tumbleweeds, but they wouldn't let us in because we're underage. How do you get in? Do you have a fake ID?"
"No, they let us in because we're punk rockers and we're friends with the bands*. They probably didn't let you in because you don't look the part. You probably just looked like jocks out to cause trouble."

Tom started to look mortified.

"So..." he stammered, his nervousness evident, "can you get us in?"
"You know, introduce us to people there, vouch for us?"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

"Yeah, I'm sure I could," I answered (somewhat dishonestly). Tom looked hopeful. "But why should I?"
 "Well, you know, uh... I mean, you seem cool and, uh..."
" Oh, so NOW I'm cool," I said, finally raising my voice. "NOW you want to be my friend."
"Uh... uh... uh..."
"You were such a dick to me in junior high! And now you want me to do you a favor?" I was almost shouting at that point.
"Uh... um...."
"Why would I want to help you get into Tumbleweeds? Why would I even want to see you there? Sorry, I won't help you."

Tom seemed dejected but resigned as I led him to the door. "Well, you can't blame me for trying," he said.
"You've really got a lot of nerve," I told him. "And if I ever see you at Tumbleweeds or anywhere else, I'll make sure everyone there knows what a dick you were to me back then. Because you know what? All those scary punk guys with the tattoos and mohawks used to be just like I was, picked on by assholes like you. Have a nice day!"

After shutting the door, I turned around to see my mother with the most shocked look on her face. "That," she said, "must have felt really good."

It did.

*Actually, half the time they wouldn't let us in, so we'd go around to the back and climb over the patio wall.


RandyH said...

What a great story, Princess. Thanks for sharing.

Hmmm. You give me an idea. Where are my old yearbooks?

HRH King Friday XIII, Ret. said...

This was an AWESOME post.

Anonymous said...

I love when closure happens like that. You busted his balls big time. I'm proud of you. Thanks for sharing.

Christopher said...

Sometimes I think bullies see that bully / bullied relationship as a form of friendship. I'm sure he thought you would help him out because you had been FRIENDS.

My town was smaller we only had middle school and high school and just 3 elementary schools. Bullying for me started in 5th grade, but then we got to middle school and were all the elementary schools were mixed together it got worse. Lots of teasing. I of course didn't help it. I was wimpy. I did things like where entirely pink outfits and insist the color was "rhubarb." Etc.

By the time I got to high school it was in fits and starts. I distinctly remember a kid just screaming "you are a faggot" at me over and over again the hall. My mind was like "um, what the hell is wrong with you." And then I walked away.

Now I'm Facebook buddies with a lot of them. People are feared. They were so excited to find me online ind that was it. No bullying. Just wanted to know what I was up to. Like we'd been old chums.


Reticula said...

Some guys think they're so cool they can do anything and people will still like them. And the sad thing is that a lot of bullies are popular; people do like them.

I'm glad you got your moment of revenge.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to ask if that's you with the angel wings. it a semi-bully and that's why his horns are on his shoulder. *shrug*

Frank said...

I was wondering about the shoulder horns, too.

You know it's funny, but in high school once I finally just said, "Yes" to the "Are you gay?" question, I had a much easier time. It took away some of the bully's power (though, like you, I got off relatively easily in the bullying department in the first place), I think.

Peteykins said...

I can't remember the reason for putting the horns on his shoulders. Probably just to mix it up a little. I doubt there's any significance to it.

Fran said...

As someone who has been reading this blog for a long, long time and who has met you, this post really touched me.

Jon said...

I loved this story. Thank you. Out of the blue, I was contacted last week by two different friends who wanted to thank me for helping me stand up to bullies. That was more than 40 years ago. I barely remembered the incidents but it was good to know I helped out. I do remember that these two guys got beaten up a lot before they became part of our group of weirdo friends. Within the group, we could be pretty mean to each other, but we would not allow anyone else to push one of our group around. I suppose we were a reject gang or something because I do remember us beating up some kids who were tormenting one of us. It was a lot of fun.

sfmike said...

I was bullied in high school not because I was a homosexual (I'm not sure it was even called "gay" among young people yet in 1970), but because as a precocious 13-year-old I wrote an opinion piece in our cute weekly student newspaper stating that maybe there were better things to be doing with our time than going to mandatory pep rallies for the football team. Say, laying on the lawn and looking at the sky and contemplating the universe, or maybe even studying.

That evening we got a drunken phone call from a cheerleader's mother at my home wondering why I was such a hateful young person and maybe it would be better if I died. The next day my Phys Ed teacher slapped me around, and a group of junior varsity football players tried to jump me on the way to Spanish class after lunch. The teacher could see there was something wrong, and I was shaking at that point, so he sent me to the office where I told my story to a school secretary who had always loved me, and her response was, "Well, don't you think you deserve it?"

Thankfully, I was soon adopted by the cool stoners who hated the jocks, and by the time I was dropping out of school in my senior year, the jocks and the stoners had become one.

As for the first person who asked me if I was a "homosexual," it was my father when I was age 15 because my mother, snooping around my bedroom, had read something I'd written about something. It may have been one of the most uncomfortable moments in both our respective lifetimes. Your account of the continuing ripples from that accusatory "Are" question out of nowhere brought it all back.

sleepy in saudi said...

My daughter is in 7th grade and hangs out with the theater, band,and choir people. We encourage this as these kids for the most part tend to be more accepting of differences. 7th graders are some of the most brutal social terrorists on earth, (and now they're on facebook.) Thanks for the story and thanks to your mom for being a great mom.

the mommy psychologist said...

Fortunately, there wasn't facebook or Twitter in your bullying days. There used to be a time when you could get away from bullying. But it's not that way anymore. For kids that are being bullied, it now follows them home and everywhere because so much of the bullying happens online. Lots of kids turn to drastic measures to either protect themselves or hurt themselves. It is so tragic. I talk about online bullying and suicide here:

Peteykins said...

Mommy Psychologist, that's such a valid and interesting point. As an older hairdresser, I'm so accustomed to thinking how much easier gay kids have it today (support groups, gay-straight alliances, the growing destigmatization of homosexuality, etc.), and I still believe that's basically true, but the point you bring up is actually a case where kids today may have it worse.

Very, very interesting!

MrsTarquinBiscuitbarrel said...

What a wonderful, wonderful story, Petey! I'm so glad that you told old Tom where to shove it.

I was bullied all through school for being a four-eyed brain. Not a suspected lesbian, but the idea that anyone ever might want to ask out THAT GEEK was frequently a cause for harsh group laughter.

Went off to college and boom! Ms. Popularity!

Comrade Physioprof said...

Excellent post, holmes. We are of the same generation, and punk/alt/new wave music was an ego-boosting context for me, too. Dumb fucken preppy jock douches made me miserable in school, but at clubs in NYC I was cool (at least, I thought I was, and no one bugged me). Oddly enough, however, now many of my real close friends are the former dumb fucken preppy jock douches.

Anonymous said...

As John Lennon said of Nixon, "Time wounds all heels."

Aunt Snow said...

Your mom was cool.

For my kid it was similar - high school was OK, but middle school was awful.

I see others have asked it, but still - Who's the kid with the devil horns on his shoulders instead of his head?

Peteykins said...

I'm not going to name him, if that's what you mean.

Again, I have no idea why I put the horns on his shoulders. That was over thirty years ago!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Christopher (above) re:people from the past requesting on fb.

I won’t even go there with the details, but people who really screw you over feel perfectly confident in requesting you as an fb friend years later. Do they think we forgot???

samael7 said...

A milder case than some, perhaps, but probably all the more common for it.

Those little "hot coals" of doubt and self-consciousness can still long, long fuck up your trajectory into adulthood.

If ever I had a kid, I know one of the many additional parental worries I'd have would how to foster the kid's self-confidence without turning him into a conceited asshole. And if I had to pick a side to err on . . .

I would want my kid to be able to answer that kind of ambush Tom did to you with a "Yeah, so?" or "What if I were?" (Or for the truly confident and sassy, "Why, interested?").

surly said...

I love this post so much, mostly for the ending. Excellent writing.

Matthew said...

Great story. It's very intersting how it's the straight boys who know who is gay and who isn't. They TELL you you are. It's not fiction; this is just bald truth.

It's eye-opening as there are still huge portions of the country that claim "homosexuality is a choice" blah blah blah.

If that is the case, why are straight boys explaining to the gay boys in 7th grade that they are gay? They did at my school, and they meant it. It wasn't just to be hurtful; it's because we were, and they knew it. Hell, they'd seen us growing up K-6, by 7th grade and the advent of erections, they knew.

Boys know who is who at a young age. It's actual intuition, before boys are taught to NOT trust their intuition.

Your story is a testament to why openly talking about homosexuality in junior high should be mandatory at every campus in America (and by extension, the world, I suppose!)

Thanks for chronicling what happened to you.