When I was a kid, my cousin and I were walking alongside a busy two-lane stretch of road near the local high school. We had been playing in the woods, I think and were on our way back to his house to see if we could scrounge up some bagel bites or pizza pockets or some other similarly unhealthy snack that kids have loved since time immemorial.
Lost in conversation, neither of us heard the truck coming, nor noticed the chorus of drunken male voices roaring along on the wind along with it. What happened seemed to occur in flashes. I saw a bag of ice tossed by long, tan arms within the truckbed as it passed. I saw it connect with my cousin’s head. I heard a man scream, “Die, you faggots!”, I heard other men laughing. As I stood in shock – pained as if the bag of ice had hit my own head – my cousin shrugged it off, wiped a thin trail of blood from his brow and kept walking, apparently used to such treatment. It had been a glancing blow that could have been a concussion or worse had the bag been tossed merely a second sooner. I knew though, that it was the word and the laughter that stung even deeper. I don’t think either of us spoke much about it for the remainder of our journey home, nor ever again. For both of us, it was one “faggot” among many.
We grew up in the south during the 1980’s. Our homes were among a sprawling metro-Atlanta that contained trailer-parks and upscale neighborhoods crammed so close together that it was near impossible to know where the poor neighborhoods ended and the rich ones began. I distinctly remember a huge, 4-bedroom home at the entrance to our neighborhood directly across the street from a trailer whose occupants bathed in the local pond. I know they did this because I bathed with them once. I was upper-middle class at the time, but lived and played in the same woods they did, where class and the size of one’s house mattered not one bit. We all watched out for the same snakes and played in the same mud.
I was smaller than most children, a fact which became particularly obvious when puberty hit and, though my height caught up, the rest of me did not. Instead of the hulking physique so many other young boys became suddenly gifted with like a mutant super power, I had thin wrists, knobby knees, pale skin that could manage a tan but never hold onto it for long, big eyes over a hawkish nose and acne like there was no tomorrow. My lack of “masculine” development partnered with my lack of interest in sports – particularly football – immediately placed me aside from the confident, popular kids. I say immediately because it seemed very immediate to me. I left sixth grade for summer break, then came back for seventh grade and discovered that the boys I once played in the creek with were now six feet tall, tan, drinking and smoking dope like there was no tomorrow, had ALL gotten laid over the summer and had traded their GI Joes for football gear.
I didn’t get rid of my GI Joes until I was 29, so you can see where this is going.
Seventh grade was also when I encountered my first real bully. I won’t name names since some of my readers likely knew him and possibly still do, but I will go so far as to say that he had an androgynous male name, so for the sake of this story, let’s call him “Kim.” Kim did two things to me during his stint as my primary bully during 7th-9th grade. He introduced me to adolescent cruelty – hatred of perceived weakness fueled by a bully’s own insecurity and fear that they, themselves are weak – and he stripped me of my identify. Kim removed my name, refused to say it, and taught others in the loudest voice he could manage that he had found the biggest loser in the school and his name was not Robby, it was “Mouse.”
Kim called me Mouse because he decided that I never talked. I say “decided” because Kim had only met me about a week before deciding that I never talked and had therefore had virtually no chance to get to know me or witness any topic which typically sparked conversation from me. No, since I wasn’t participating in the heated football, who-passed-out-where and who-screwed-who talk, Kim decided that I must therefore never talk and labeled me as such. Quiet as a mouse. Looks like one, too.
Kim didn’t just bully. Kim delighted in introducing me to his equally insecure friends, literally by grabbing me in the hallway and pointing at me and proclaiming that he had discovered an amazing, defenseless creature just waiting to be mocked and shoved around, just as many of these kids went home to older brothers and fathers who shoved them around.
My attempts to speak to my defense and assert my true personality were ignored or – even worse – laughed at, as if the cute puppy had just attempted to bark a human word. No one came to my defense. Not a single soul, yet everyone witnessed my forced transformation. Kids I grew up playing with just seemed to accept that the Robby who used to invite them to build forts by the creek and told wild stories during sleepovers had been replaced by a “Mouse” who didn’t talk and was now the school pariah. That was the betrayal that hurt the most. The fact that no one fought for me. No one told Kim who I really was. No one thought I was worth it.
So I accepted my new reality and became the mouse that Kim wanted me to be. I stopped talking. I no longer raised my hand in class. I no longer spoke to anyone at the lunch table. When I got home I only hung out with neighborhood friends who were younger than me and therefore not a part of my school experience and didn’t know me as “that quiet freak.” Social anxiety sunk its ugly claws into me and I became convinced within the span of a year that I had nothing worthwhile to say, so I may as well play the part they wanted me to play and wait until those painful, isolated years were over.
Since then I’ve told this story to many friends who were not there and many of them say, “I would have been friends with you.” But I feel that it’s important to point out that no one did. No one came to my rescue. If anyone wanted to get to know me, no one ever really tried. During my highschool years I knew a grand total of three other boys who knew me when I was younger and would say anything to me at all. One I virtually never saw due to simple conflicting class schedules, one had been isolated since middle school due to behavioral problems and the third eventually asked me to stop sitting with him because I didn’t fit in with his new friends. That was my freshman year. For three years after that I sat alone and spoke to no one.
I feel that there is one more little fact that I should relate about Kim before he moves back out of this particular tale. One time – and only one time – Kim came bounding into the trailer where our social studies class took place, sat next to me and pulled out an issue of “Auto Trader” and – mystifyingly – spent the next hour leaning over to me, pointing out cars he liked and saying, “Dude, isn’t this one awesome?” It was at that moment that I realized that Kim thought he was my friend. He was trying to bond with me. I stopped hating Kim after that and simply felt sorry for him.
Kim stopped paying attention to me once our sophomore year of high school hit, but many of the boys he introduced, “Mouse” to stuck to me like glue. The Mouse title disappeared and became replaced with a simple, “Faggot.” I became the kid it was fun to punch in the middle of a lecture in some kind of game to see if I would cry out and interrupt the class (I never did because I was horrified of the attention it would bring). I became the kid it was fun to whisper to in class how much everyone hated me with the same enthusiasm reserved for a lover’s sweet nothings.
The worst was a time when a boy I had never seen before, a complete and utter stranger – one of the “punk” kids with a spiked collar and spiked hair – cornered me in front of some lockers (cliche, I know) turned his equally spiked pewter ring around with the spiked side facing his palm, then proceeded to beat me in the head with it until my skull bled, all the while viciously spewing how much he hated my stupid ugly face and wished that I would die so he and everyone else wouldn’t have to look at me anymore. This was a kid I had never even seen before, yet who my very presence offended so much that he would attempt to break my skull open and spill my brains on the concrete floor. After smashing me in the head several times in a crowded hallway, he wordlessly walked away with a look of rage and disgust on his face that would forever haunt my dreams and stain my sense of self-worth. The very next thing that happened was even worse. A well-loved math teacher walked around the corner at the very moment the nameless punk walked away. The teacher paused for a moment, made eye contact with me lying there in a crumpled heap on the floor, then kept on walking right past me, his face flush. Flush with shame? Irritation? Anger? I never knew, for that teacher that everyone kept on loving the next day just walked on and never said a word to me or anyone about what he had witnessed.
High school wasn’t an annoyance for me like it was for some kids. It wasn’t fun or academically challenging or filled with discovery. High school was a gauntlet. One that I dreaded returning to with all of my heart each and every day for four long years, six if you count the painful initiation into my new life that was 7th and 8th grade.
I will say that there were bright pockets during those years. Every once in a while I’d be lucky enough to land in a class filled with people who weren’t aware of my branded identity as the quiet kid it was fun to ridicule and kind of just ignored me or – in the best cases – attempted to include me in group projects. I was never any help because I had lost the knowledge of how to communicate back with my classmates, but I was happy for the acceptance nonetheless. I became known in those classes as “Robert,” since that was my legal name and I was too afraid to speak up and correct the teacher during the first day of class. That’s how “Robby” died, really. Robby gave way to Mouse which gave way to Robert which finally gave way to Rob in college when my first actual new friend decided that Rob sounded cooler than Robert. All the while…I was still being called “Faggot” more than anything else.
See, the word, “faggot” – at least among testosterone-pumping young men in the south at the time – only occasionally referred to homosexuals. A faggot was simply any male who was viewed as weak or effeminate. Calling a quiet, skinny kid “faggot” was delivered with the same shit-eating-grin glee that calling another kid “poo-poo-head” was when we were five. Except in the times when the name of “faggot” was delivered with a fist, a bag of ice or an upside-down spiked ring. During those angrier times (moments of insecurity-fueled rage in search of the most convenient target), I came to realize that “faggot” really meant “person who isn’t like me.” “Person I don’t understand.” “Person who isn’t what I was taught men were like and therefore needs to be punished.”
By my senior year, most of the “faggot”s had stopped and I simply became ignored altogether. I was okay with that, because I knew it was the end of this phase of my life. Whatever came next would be a fresh start with new people who would have no preconceived notions of me. Maybe I’d finally learn to talk to people again. Maybe people would remember my name. Maybe I’d finally kiss a girl and eat with friends at the lunch table and rediscover who I truly was. As luck and a certain amount of determination had it, all of those things happened. I fell in love – more than once. I learned to express myself through writing. I even reconnected with some of those people from high school I was so convinced hated me.
Truth was – some of them did. My lack of words scared them. This was a pre-Columbine era, but for some people, kids and teachers alike, a quiet brooding loner everyone knew was being picked on represented someone who might eventually snap, and was therefore best avoided. One or two of them did apologize for making fun of me or avoiding me. Most of them, I discovered much to my surprise, had simply never noticed. They remembered me from elementary school where we grew up playing together and going to birthday parties together and laughing together and those memories stayed with them more than what came after. For some, my six years of solitude would be later brushed off in conversation by “yeah, I remember you were quiet, but I didn’t really think anything of it.” Turns out, for a chunk of the population, I wasn’t the pariah I believed I was, just a kid they used to play with who didn’t say much for a while after that.
So why relate all of this and what does it have to do with my life today? Well, I want the world to know that even today, living a life where I have friends who love me, a supportive family, the opportunity to share stories about what I love (the biggest of which – The Pull – was a product of those painful teenage years, by the way), and I live in a town full of artists and dreamers and skinny male rockstars showing me that I can be male and weigh 130 pounds and still be respected, even with all of this – I still occasionally get called “faggot” in the street.
Doesn’t happen often these days. In fact it’s rather rare, but the occasional pack of bros will pass me by, leaving a “nice jeans, faggot” in their wake or a “holy shit, I bet I could pick that faggot up with one arm,” I get a sensation like an old, abusive lover calling to me, one who used to make me feel worthless, one I once believed, one who I listened to entirely too much. One who I can finally now walk away from and pity instead of fear.
I wanted to tell this story today because stories of bullying and street harassment are becoming more and more commonplace in the small-but-crazy college town I live in and in the media at large. I’m not sure if it’s actually happening more or if the media is simply finally showing a light on it, but my news feed brings me at least one story of harassment a week. The target may be male or female, straight or gay, young or old, “overweight” or “underweight”, and in some cases even crosses the line into sexual assault.
Most of us are lucky enough to live and work among like-minded friends and colleagues – even acquaintances, depending on our social circles – who can be dickish or selfish at times but don’t regularly belittle others for their own amusement or that of their peers. The average person is aware of the need for compassion, or at least that compassion is something that they should practice, even if they fall short from time to time, which we all do. Yet all it takes is an encounter with one roving pack of assholes – and let me remind you that assholes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders and nationalities – looking to feed off of the adrenaline of proving their dominance over someone their warped perspective perceives as weaker to remind us that – for some – compassion is just a word.
It’s easy to shrug one’s shoulders and accept that bullies will always exist. It’s easy to think that society is just too messed up to change. It’s easy to believe that the best thing to do is just let the assholes stay on their side of town while the open minded people stay on their side and, during moments when the assholes drunkenly stumble across the figurative tracks to our world, just cross the street and ignore their drunken insults and cat calling. It’s easy to believe that that is all that one can do. Simply survive the gauntlet and wait for it to be over.
I don’t believe that, and I’m going to tell you why.
The first reason I believe that there’s hope is due to group efforts like this one:
Hollaback! is a website where victims of street harassment can tell their stories, share their experiences, and receive support. It offers advice and resources on how to deal with and react to everything from catcalls to full-blown sexual assault. By giving a public voice to those who felt belittled or attacked, they give those victimized an opportunity to realize that they are not little at all, but are, in fact, empowered to do the right thing, spread awareness and be the better, and yes I’ll say it – stronger – person than their attackers. Perhaps through tools like this we even have a chance to educate them, for I believe that education and awareness of the value of compassion is the one true weapon we have in the cultural war against bullying, bigotry and assault.
I’ll leave you by sharing a more recent experience that helped form that opinion and gave me hope. The scene was Dragon Con, the big sci-fi and fantasy convention held in Atlanta once a year. I was walking down the streets of Atlanta headed from one hotel to another, dressed like an Anne Rice vampire with a sword strapped to my side. The streets were lined with countless people in costume just like me…but also countless football fans in town for a playoff game celebrating and watching the geeks parade by with amusement.
I saw a trio of young, 20-something, slightly inebriated men stumble towards me and soon I heard the familiar call of “Hey! Look at the faggot going to his fairy ball!”
I sighed – wondering as I always do if this time might finally be the last – and kept on walking. Yet as I passed the young man by, something unexpected happened.
“Whoa, that’s such a cool sword, bro. Where’d you get it?”
I paused, surprised by the sudden change of tone.
“Got it out of a catalog years ago. First sword I ever owned.”
“That’s awesome. Tell me where you got that sweet coat.”
I told him the name of the store where I picked it up, then relayed the origin of my other accessories and articles of clothing as he asked with genuine curiosity.
“Great costume, bro,” he said, fist bumping me before stumbling off to rejoin his colleagues.
I resumed my walk, a smile of bewilderment across my face as I realized that the young man’s initial instinct to insult the skinny kid dressed as a vampire was just that – an instinct. Something he had probably been doing his entire life. Something he may have learned from his parents or his siblings or his classmates; that cutting someone down was the way to prop one’s self up. But beyond that instinct lay a deeper truth. He wanted to be dressed up like a vampire, just like me. Some might say that the alcohol was simply clouding his brain and causing someone who was truly an asshole at heart to act erratically, but I choose to believe that the opposite is true. I think that the alcohol caused the self-imposed “asshole veil” to temporarily fall away. I could tell that when he asked about my costume, he genuinely didn’t even remember what he had called me just moments before. He was just a kid talking to another kid about something they both thought was cool.
I remembered Kim, sitting next to me in class and leafing through his issue of Auto Trader, gently elbowing me in class while the teacher spoke, desperate to show me the car of his dreams and hoping that I would nod in approval at his choice. In a different world – one where someone had showed Kim the value of compassion and accountability for the effects of his actions early on and dispelled within him the instinct to hurt others in order to prove himself a man – Kim could have been…he should have been…my friend.