With bullying and teen suicides continually in the spotlight, I was honored to have been asked to write a preface for a new anthology, Letters to My Bully, which examines this topic in great depth. My own Letter to My Bully was incredibly difficult to write, as was the video to make, as it took me back to those difficult days of high school, where I was nervous just to walk across campus. How someone deals with such experiences can shape their adulthood, for better or worse. I asked Letters to My Bully editor Azaan Kamau if she would be willing to share her inspiration for the collection, as well as her views on other issues the LGBT community is facing, and am grateful that she took the time to talk.
It was your vision that led to the creation of this anthology, Letters to My Bully. What inspired you to compile people’s stories?
Back in October 2010, I wrote and published a book called Got Homophobia. I was so outraged by the staggering numbers of youth who felt they had no choice but to commit suicide, and felt it was time for us to start the healing process. As adults we subconsciously carry our childhood baggage into adulthood, and that baggage shapes us. Letters to My Bully was born of necessity to heal the bullied, addressing the issue head-on instead of sweeping it under the rug. I wanted to send the message that you can survive this–that there are other options beside suicide.
Were you yourself the victim of bullying?
Yes, and I share some of those experienced in the book’s introduction. (more…)
My partner and I are white gay dads with two amazing sons, both of whom are African-American. This season, we finally gave in to their many years of begging that we allow them to play tackle football. We’d previously refused, thinking them too young. We were concerned about not only the possibility of physical injury to the boys, but also the enormous time commitment it would take. Now 10 and 12, we decided that the time was right, and finally acquiesced. What we failed to consider, however, was how our unique family structure might factor into the dynamics of such a macho team sport, and the potential for consequent emotional injury.
While the kids have practiced the last several weeks, loving and hating every grueling moment, last night found one son’s team on the field, in the middle of a drill, when one of the assistant coaches yelled, “What are you? A bunch of pansies?”
I heard his words, echoing across the grass, and felt like I’d been punched in the gut. All those taunts through the years stay with you, even if you’ve risen above them. I immediately walked over, called my son off the field, and told the coach we were done. We were going to switch teams. And he let us go…
Kearian Giertz is the gay Fullerton, California, 17-year-old who made national news headlines last week, following his disqualification from a school contest for his statement supportive of marriage equality. During an annual rite of passage at his high school, known as the Mr. Fullerton Contest, Kearian was asked, in front of an audience, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?,” and expressed his desire to find his life mate and be legally wed, only to find himself disqualified by a school administrator, who had his microphone cut off. Upon hearing his story, several elements stood out to me as intriguing. First, compared to my own angst-ridden life in high school almost 25 years ago, it was refreshing that this young man felt comfortable enough to proclaim his desire to wed another man. Second, I was impressed by how quickly the high school responded to his disqualification, firmly supporting Giertz’ right to free speech and calling the administrator’s actions inappropriate. Lastly, I was struck by how, upon being disqualified, instead of reacting with the expected anger and hostility, the teen and his friends chose a more peaceful option, turning this disqualification into a teachable moment.
Having recently written my own letter to my high school bully, I was curious as to how today’s youth were coping with harassment on campus, as well as in their daily lives, and sat down with Giertz, fellow out-teen Blake Danford, and heterosexual, LGBT-supportive Katy Hall, all friends since 7th grade and now Fullerton Union High School seniors, to discuss what it is like to be out and gay in school, as well as the event which propelled them into the headlines.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: First, let’s start with you, Blake. When did you first realize you were gay?
Blake Danford: I first realized I wasn’t really attracted to girls around 4th grade, but came out as gay in 8th grade to a girl in my English class, who was a lesbian. Eventually, I told a few others, about 5 people total, but it wasn’t until my freshman year I began telling even more people.
Edwards-Stout: At what point did you tell your family?
Danford: I came out to my mom in my sophomore year.
Edwards-Stout: And she’s been supportive?
Danford: Definitely. I think it was actually harder for me, as I was expecting her not to be. It was almost like, “Wait, are you really okay with this?” Her support almost seemed fake to me. My parents divorced when I was three, so I’m still not completely out to my dad’s side of the family, as we don’t see them. Anything out of the norm is not okay with them. I’ve had them tell me, directly, that if I ever “became” gay, they’d kill me on the spot. And I assumed that was how everyone would be, so my mom’s support really threw me. But I’m really glad her support was genuine.
Edwards-Stout: Kearian, what about you? Did you always know you were gay?
April 9, 2012 | Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: bisexual, bullying, fullerton, gay, high school, it gets better, kids, lesbian, LGBT, role model, southern california, teen, tolerance, transgender, youth | 4 Comments »
I have hated you almost every day since we first met. But for different reasons altogether than you might expect.
I still remember the terror I felt, every time I approached the soccer field. It was junior high, a difficult time for almost everyone, but for me, especially so.
You see, I’d always known I was gay. Even in kindergarten, just looking at Jeff Hayward’s smile would make me happy, and I knew, intrinsically, that it was alright to feel this way—to love other boys—as everything about it felt completely natural and unforced.
In junior high, however, once placed on the same soccer team with you, everything changed.
What I had seen as natural and good, you were suddenly calling abnormal and detestable. Every “faggot” you spit towards me hit directly between the eyes, and the whispers, taunts, and dirty looks you and Mike Baker sent my way continually unnerved me, affecting both my sense of self, as well as my performance on the field. Because of you, questions about my masculinity hovered over me, and I would feel physically ill at the thought of another practice or game. I would choose different, roundabout paths to my classes, just to avoid where I knew you’d be.
In high school, while I went on to be active in theatre and academics, you and Mike continued to rise socially, becoming the big men on campus that I’d longed to be. You were even voted onto the homecoming king’s court, and as you took to the field, flashing your charming smile, all I could see was the sneer on your lips when you turned and glanced my way.
But that isn’t why I have hated you.
Just prior to our senior year, during summer break, word came that you’d tried to commit suicide and were in a coma. No one knew what had happened, but you eventually returned to school our senior year. You were just as popular as you had been before, and perhaps even more so, now that you had this added sense of intrigue about you. But despite your outright hatred of me, I still wondered about you and about what could have possibly led you to try to take your own life. You, more than anyone, seemed to have it all, and despite the way you continued to torment me, I felt a pang of pity for you.
The following summer, I got another call. You’d again tried to kill yourself, tying a noose from the garage rafters–only this time you succeeded. Your mother discovered you, hanging there, upon her return home.
I’ve written before about my friend Charles Perez and his NoShame Project, which is attempting to eradicate the shame around being gay. While the “It Gets Better” campaign tells people that, in time, their lives will indeed improve, NoShame takes it one step further, insisting that there is no shame in being gay in the first place, and it is the larger world around us we need to change.
The NoShame Project now has a revamped website, and I am happy to be one of its first contributors. Check out my post, below, and the NoShame website. Together, we can make a difference and build a more tolerant world where our differences are seen not as divisive, but as complementary.
The Unlikely Bully – Turning Terror into Triumph
by Kergan Edwards-Stout
I still remember the terror I felt, every time I approached the soccer field. It was junior high, a difficult time for all, but for me, it felt even worse.
I’d always known I was gay. Even in kindergarten, just looking at Jeff Hayward’s smile would make me happy, providing boundless energy which would propel me throughout the day. And I knew, intrinsically, that it was alright to feel this way—to love other boys—as everything about it felt completely natural and unforced.
But in junior high, things changed. What I had seen as natural and good suddenly was being labeled as abnormal—detestable, even. While I caught flak from many, and would dodge the verbal taunts at lunchtime, the worst offenders turned out to be fellow members of my soccer team. You’d think that, as team members wanting to win, Johnny Shea and Mike Trautman would have supported me, but every day I would face a barrage of insults, some veiled, some not, as we sat on the sidelines.
“Faggot” was spit towards me, with the kind of bile and hatred I could both feel and see, plain on their faces. Whispers and dirty looks on a daily basis would continually unnerve me, affecting both my sense of self, as well as my performance on the field. These questions about my masculinity hovered over me, and I would feel physically ill at the thought of another practice or game.
Somehow, however, I survived. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, keeping myself at a distance from all who would harm me. And, as the phrase goes, it did get better.
In high school, while I went on to be active in theatre and academics, Johnny Shea and Mike Trautman continued to rise socially, becoming the big men on campus that I’d always longed to be. In our junior year, Johnny was even voted onto the homecoming king’s court, and as he took to the field, flashing his charming smile, all I could see was the sneer on his lips when he turned and looked my way.
A short time later, during summer break, word came that Johnny had tried to commit suicide and was in a coma. No one knew what had happened, and he eventually returned to school our senior year, but I could sense something in him had changed.
The following summer, I got another call. Johnny had tried again to kill himself, hanging a noose from the rafters in his garage, and had succeeded. He’d also left behind a note, writing that although he did not like girls, he did not want to like boys.
As difficult as it may be to see at the time, our tormentors often have their own issues, to which we are not privy. Whether they are secretly gay, or filled with self-doubt, or are simply taught at a young age to hate, their anger and animosity is fueled not by us, but from something deep within.
I later learned that Johnny’s buddy Mike had a younger brother who came out as gay, and at our high school reunion, Mike sought me out, attempting to make amends for his past actions.
We all grow. We all have the capacity to change. The question becomes, how do we deal with abuse? Do we let our tormentors corrupt us? Do we turn into them? Do we hide? Or do we call out abuse for what it is, and insist that our lives not fall victim to it?
If you are experiencing harassment, in any form, take advantage of the resources in our community. Seek out a counselor or therapist. Find a support group, in person or online. And make sure that you use the opportunity to better yourself and those around you.
Take control. Don’t let the moment define you. Let it be you that defines the moment.
We can be so much better, if only we try.