Monday, December 12, 2011



Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Has there ever been a more inane commonly quoted expression? Few of us can definitively point to the spot where Joey Biagetti bruised an arm after we dropped the easy-out pop fly that gave the other team the winning run. We may, however, remember his brother Lenny calling us “uglier than dog shit”. Whether it’s five or fifty years after our escaping from school, we recall the most menacing putdowns. We’ve all had our names made fun of. Weight, degree of attractiveness and intelligence are all common sore spots as we navigate our way through childhood and adolescence. Often, it’s not so much about what was said, but who said it and where it was said.

Back then, we could all point to the easy targets. They were the ones who would wither and weep. The reaction was the payoff. When I was growing up, parents offered children two common “strategies” to react to those who taunted, teased, pinched, punched and bullied: (1) Just ignore it; or (2) Fight back. From what I observed and from my own experiences, neither tactic proved effective. Ignoring had the effect of internalizing the growing anguish and fighting back invited an even stronger physical response from the adversary.

Somehow, most of us made it through. When I read the comment sections related to online articles about teens who commit suicide after being bullied, some of the reactions perplex and sadden me. The line of thinking goes like this: I got teased, I didn’t take my life; people can’t be so sensitive. If most of us have gone through some degree of harassment, shouldn’t that foster a greater empathy rather than a dismissive judgment?

There is a term I learned during my first year of law school: the eggshell plaintiff. Some people crack more easily than others. If we are already aware of one person’s greater vulnerability, then our behavior is expected to change. If not, we are liable for our actions. You handle a box marked FRAGILE more carefully. Greater care is required with certain people as well. Children understand this at a fairly young age. They know who is more sensitive. They know that a joke made to one peer will be viewed as a putdown to another. It is clear from who the taunter/teaser/pincher/puncher targets that he is also highly aware of these differences in people.

Aside from the common subjects that irk us, there are certain topics that generate even greater sensitivity. An ESL student will be more sensitive if people make fun of his accent or his cultural background. A child of a different race is rightfully offended by comments about skin color, particularly if he is in the minority in that particular environment. The same goes for someone struggling with his sexual orientation.

I have worked with children for many years and, while having friends is important at any age, the need to belong becomes even greater when they reach twelve or thirteen. They become aware of whether they are popular or unpopular. The group way of being is more important than the individuality that adolescents are simultaneously trying to achieve. Walk through a mall or down a school hallway and watch how teens form packs that are seemingly unaware of others trying to pass by. Listen to how they talk louder than necessary. It is, in part, to impress their group but also to let others know that their commentary, however trivial, is more meaningful and more animated than anything happening on The Outside.

The dynamics of adolescence create the perfect storm for a person trying to understand his sexual identity. Just as the young teen boy grapples with the fact he may like boys in a different way from just being friends, he also feels that need to belong to the dominant group. Of course, the easiest way to belong to the dominant group is to be like the dominant group. Gayness is an obstacle, even a burden. While we all can identify teens who confidently, even defiantly, break free from social expectations, they stand out because they are the exception. The rest of the teens who know deep down that they are different struggle with the angst. Why me? Why can’t I be like everyone else? For a teenager who thinks he may be gay, each option brings its own problems. To come out presents the significant risk of external turmoil in the form of rejection, ridicule and physical harm. To suppress one’s identity deprives the individual of the rites of passage that come with teen dating. Moreover, the person faces internal turmoil from lying to oneself, to one’s family and friends. The gayness becomes something that is hated and resented. Either path brings long-term implications.

I do not mean to dismiss the challenges of other minorities, but a black teen has a black family that has (hopefully) instilled a sense of pride about his race. This teen can talk to his family when someone makes a racist comment. Beyond family support, there are also resources at school. He can get the support of a teacher and/or principal. He has observed the dominant white society make at least passing positive mention of his race on Martin Luther King Day and during Black History Month. Yes, racism still exists but there are opportunities for redress or, at least, a sympathetic ear.

A gay teen typically does not have gay family members in his household. His family has not modeled a sense of gay pride. He is unsure of who to talk to at school for support. How does he even raise the subject? What good will it do? Conversely, what harm will it do? Most likely, he has observed many incidents in which “gay” has been used in a derogatory manner.

“That’s so gay.”
“Don’t be gay.”
“Shut up, gay boy.”
“Ew, how gay!”

Rarely would a student correct the person making the comment. Teachers and administrators are often selectively deaf.

The putdown, no matter how indirect or seemingly disconnected to sexuality, means little to anyone who is not gay. Whatever. Shrug it off. Easy to do when the comment has no relevance to one’s true identity.

One’s homosexuality is a not something clearly known at birth, at five or ten years of age. Understanding, accepting and loving oneself as a gay person is further muddled by the frequency of the gay putdowns and jokes. Peers are not the only ones who exhibit homophobia. A gay kiss on television continues to draw criticism from groups that purport to advocate for family values. Many religions and denominations denounce homosexuality. Politicians still use homophobic stances to gain votes and to deepen campaign coffers. Homosexuality is portrayed as sinful, sick and a danger to the ideals of society. How does an isolated gay teen tune out the hateful rhetoric? How does he find vindication when homosexuality remains fodder for scathing “humor” and much-publicized slurs from celebrities who later retract their remarks as if they were mere slips of the tongue, on a par with an unexpected belch at the dinner table?

There are many who wonder why an apology is not enough. They wonder why gay teens and twentysomethings can’t be more resilient. Just ignore them. Show your inner strength. These people are naive. They do not understand the long-term process most gays and lesbians have to work through in coming to terms with coming out. Am I gay? is a question that can take years to figure out. It is a question the person usually has to figure out while alone and isolated. Once a person gets to “yes”, the Now what? takes at least as long to figure out.

The vulnerability remains during the entire process. This is why even the most confident, out gay teens suffer setbacks. External ridicule and hatred can reignite self-hatred and despair. In those moments, an “It Gets Better” video may only frustrate the teen. You don’t understand! This is different. This is worse! How does an inconsolable individual find comfort in heartfelt testimonials of hope that may not come until five or ten years later? How does he hold on?



Rick Modien said...

Well done, RG. I'm proud of you for digging deeper into this issue. Through your words, you're creating a better understanding of what bullying is all about, and showing not all forms of bullying are equal.

For example, I really appreciate the difference you draw between being bullied because you're black and because you're gay. I can relate to not having any support system whatsoever when it came time to dealing with what I was going through as a young kid, who knew he was different and needed to feel okay about himself and his future.

It's easy to group all bullying together and to say it's all the same, but you and I know from personal experience that's not true. There is nothing morally wrong with being black (although there was a time when being black was considered wrong), but the whole argument against being gay is that it's morally wrong. What do you do with that when you're fifteen, isolated, alone, and just want to fit in somewhere?

And I LOVE what you said about all the slips of the tongue lately, where well-known people from highly publicized walks of life say something derogatory about gay people (usually using the f-word), then apologize as though it were nothing. Do they do it knowing they'll only get a slap on the wrist? Perhaps. But, as far as I'm concerned, their insensitivity and insincerity mark them for life. Some may easily forgive them, but I won't.

Excellent job. A pleasure to read. I look forward to the next instalment.

Rural Gay said...

Hi Rick. I greatly appreciate your specific feedback!

I think we would both agree that there is more support for young gay men than there was when we went through the process, but I still believe the teen years can be just as brutal. Too much homophobia is sanctioned by religion and politicians or ignored by people who remain clueless about how random "That's so gay" remarks beat down questioning adolescents who continue to feel completely alone.

The fact that It Gets Better a few years down the line is no consolation when self-hatred and the hatred of others wound so deeply in the present.