My first crush was on a bully. And it was probably not you.
Last Fall, the nation was gripped by reports of young gay and lesbian people committing suicide. Although this is sadly nothing new, this was the first time perhaps many people became exposed to the issue of higher rates of suicide for LGBTQ youth. A report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force recently profiled even higher incidences of abuse against Transgender persons.
"Bullies," such as Dharun Ravi, Tyler Clementi's roommate at Rutgers University, whose abuse helped to incite Tyler's death, have had their actions come to greater prominence and national disdain. Some of the other prominent suicidal deaths have also focused on the actions of others who abused them. In light of these deaths, schools have reviewed their anti-bully training and policies, and calls have gone out from all corners to end bullying as we know it.
I, too, became involved in the anti-bullying campaign supported by some parents, teachers, and students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, which I wrote about last year in these pages. But I did not pause to remember at that time that when I was 12, I developed a crush on a bully.
He wasn't the first bully I knew, by any stretch of the imagination. I remember one of my childhood acquaintances, a year younger than myself, gutting a living toad with a fork when I was about 5 years old. It was one of the worst things I have ever seen in my life. Several years later, this same fellow walked up to me in the hallway of our elementary school with a strange, big smile on his face, and proceeded to punch me, hard, in the stomach. And what do you think he turned out to become? A serial killer who had his start with small animals? No. A dentist. Bingo. Mind you, a few years after that, I hatched a scheme not much better, and tried to pay 2 friends a quarter each, to catch frogs so that I could cut off their legs (the frog legs, not my friends' legs) and sell them to the local grocery store. I doubt that I would have found any humane way to have done in the frogs. Thankfully, they refused the money, and saved me from becoming a frog murderer.
This bully wasn't perhaps even the first boy I had a crush on. That could conceivably have come as far back as age 3, when I had a fascination for an older boy on a dirt bike. Once, when I was about that age, I remember going up to him and his friends, who were sitting in a grove of trees, and announcing to them that my Mother had told me I could spend 5 minutes with them. I don't know if she had actually said that, or if it seemed to me like a convenient lie. As soon as I sat down, I heard, "Well, time's up." I'm sure many wouldn't think of this as a "gay crush," but there you have it.
I did have a number of crushes on girls throughout my younger years, at about the same time most boys were just interested in playing baseball and riding dirt bikes, which I enjoyed very much as well, but when the boys started to take to their bike rides with girls, I turned inward and started playing the piano, which carried me sexlessly through my teenage years.
I met this particular enthralling young bully while playing baseball, probably when I was about 9 or 10. I don't remember him being such a particularly dreadful person at that point in his development, but my memories are sketchy. He was my age, and liked baseball too. He also liked to beat kids up. I hear that once he beat up someone's kid sister.
In a few years, after my hormones started going completely kerplewie with puberty, I remember watching him walking down the hallway, in a white button-down shirt, like he had been enveloped by a cloud. I had a feeling of exhilaration, fear, and a longing that caught in my throat. The next year, in gym class, I saw him without that shirt, or anything else, on. I had an electric shock go through me that I have since heard described as a spontaneous orgasm. The only time in my life. It was literally shocking, and told me this was no ordinary feeling I was having.
Needless to say, I never said a thing about this crush, to him or to anyone else in my class. This is the first I've put it out there, not quite "Boys in the Band" style, sitting around by a phone late at night and calling our old crushes up, but it has met your eye, dear reader. This was a big part of my life for a few formative years.
When we were sophomores, he used to stab me with pens in my legs. I guess I was hoping it would have been something else besides pens with which he was stabbing me. My health teacher gave me permission to beat the shit out of him, but I didn't. I was still somehow in his thrall, and at the same time I couldn't hurt someone to whom I was attracted like that.
How do we come to be attracted to people who treat us like shit? At the very least, the issue of who is a "bully" and our relationship to them, is complex. I can only think that I knew what I was, a little gay homosexual faggot, and that somehow in my complicated understanding of myself at that age, I deserved to be beat up. This wasn't long after Boy George, one of the first gay cultural icons, released "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me." Boy George creeped me out, and I didn't want to be anything like him. But something resonated with me and this song, even at that age. The names of derision for people who looked at other boy like I did, as well, resonated in me, and I sat in it all like a lobster starting to be steamed in a deadly stew.
I hear from people of all sexual orientations this inclination to fall for those who hurt them, especially from women who endure physical and emotional abuse for years, from one person or from a variety of lovers or partners who seem to be similar. Women still often don't receive the best messages about themselves from society either, particular as sexual beings.
Reader, whatever your age, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, whatever your place in life, if this is you, nothing in you deserves to get you beat up. Nothing. Ever.
It wasn't as though I was never the bully myself. I will never forget kicking a little kid, maybe 2 years younger than myself, in the gutter in front of my house. He annoyed me, but he didn't deserve that.
I was a bully to the first boy who kissed me too. It was such a surprise, standing at the top of the stairs of the house I grew up in. I don't remember what I did at the time, but I did not react well. And a few years later I beat him up in an elementary school fight. He wasn't the only one, and I got beat myself a few times. And elementary school isn't that last time I could be said to have bullied someone.
But, seriously, nothing, no thoughts, desires, impulses, ideas, that take place in our minds, hearts, or emotions, deserve to get us abused. We do not bring abuse on ourselves. We do not deserve it. Nor do we have permission to abuse others. Ever. From anyone. Not even from God.
Many people are hurt at some time by other people labeled as "bullies" of all ages--random people, acquaintances, neighbors, professors, lovers & spouses, bosses, road ragers, clergy--and we are, sometimes, ourselves those who practice harassment, violence, humiliation, intimidation, and a variety of other horrible things against those we know and don't know, and sometimes even against those we love.
Is "bully" really a helpful term for those who are beating up, abusing, sexually harassing or violating, calling horrible names, stalking, embarrassing, and doing all of these things against someone in person, by text message, on Facebook, and in a number of other media in this media rich age? Isn't "terrorist" perhaps a better title, given that what they are doing is inciting terror?
It's easy to hate these people, especially when each of us probably has a seed of being one of these people inside of us. I know I do.
"It gets better" is an apt message--but it must go further. It must add the word "when." "It gets better when..." for example, when we treat ourselves with the respect, integrity, and love that we don't get from everyone else, and when, perhaps, we see that bullies are not necessarily a monolithic "other."
A recent scene in the TV series Glee's episode "Born This Way" features a reconciliation of sorts between Kurt and Dave Karofsky, whose violent abuse and threatening of death to Kurt forced Kurt's transfer to another school. Dave, as viewers know from pervious episodes, is dealing with some sexual orientation issues himself. But Dave can never again abuse Kurt, and must give himself some breathing space in his understanding of his own sexual orientation. He sees that he cannot continue to do what he had done, and admitting to that and following through were key for that reconciliation to work.
In real life, the abuse of Jamie Nabozny, profiled in the recent terrific documentary "Bullied," led to a nationally-profiled court case that turned on the honesty of one of those who had tortured Jamie on a regular basis, confessing his torture in open court, which honesty came even after high-ranking members of the Ashland, Wisconsin, school system had sought to cover up their complicity in Jamie's abuse by claiming never to have heard of it.
In each case, things got better when the truth was told, or at least understood by those who committed acts of violence, and when those who were abusers had an opportunity to step out of that role, which can be as stifling and life-draining as the role of "victim" that seeks to complement "bully." But sometimes even reconciliation cannot be possible or even desirable. Sometimes it gets better only when we can get some distance, and peace within ourselves.
We should not be our own judges, despite the fact that we often judge ourselves far more harshly than others would, and yet we should not destroy each other with judgment either. Yet there must be justice, for the person who is bullied, and for the bully.
Moving beyond the easy categories of "bully" and "victim" might be one way in which we can start to get that justice for both. Admitting truth of wrongdoing and seeking reconciliation may be another. The work of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is central to bringing to light this kind of truth about wrongdoing towards LGBTQ people on local and national scales.
Tomorrow I will explore the idea of honesty, admitting truth, in more detail, and how this has impacted my own journey in these last 15 years of being openly gay.