I just finished reading an article in Rolling Stone called One Town’s War On Gay Teens. It’s about a school district in Michelle Bachmann’s Congressional District where fervent evangelical encouraged bullying ended up driving gays and lesbians underground and eventually led to seven teenage suicides. It’s really sad. Especially since school at this age is hard enough.
While reading it, I thought back to my own experience and the time I grew up in. The time, location and circumstances we experience while growing up end up shaping, in many ways, who we will become. I don’t mean our entire personality. But, if we have a childhood experience filled with trauma, the resultant adult is more likely to experience more hardships than say, a child who has experienced more love and support.
I didn’t have an awful childhood. And my middle school and high school experiences looked almost nothing like what is detailed in the article I linked to above. But, I had many challenges. I was born in 1973. In 1980, I was seven years old. Our family had moved from Huntington Beach, CA to the more inland and isolated town of Hemet, CA. I’m a child of the 80’s. And so, along with a taste for very moody alternative rock, I also grew up with a certain understanding of what it meant to be gay.
I’ve written before, that I understoood from the very early age of five, that I knew I should have been born a girl. But, I didn’t tell my parents that. Everything I saw in popular culture and my local surroundings, was that this was bad. I was told it was bad to wear clothing that I felt comfortable in. Feminine men were lampooned. Society mocked Boy George and anyone else who dared to challenge gender norms. This was the time of the AIDS epidemic. An actor I had never heard of, Rock Hudson, had contracted HIV and died of AIDS. There was a lot of confusion. Did only gay people get AIDS? Was AIDS delivered by “god” to teach gay people a lesson about their “lifestyle”?
Most of the bullying I experienced was in elementary school. I was already shy and withdrawn. I didn’t have many friends. I think bullies can smell weakness. One of the earliest bullying I remember was from a kid named Chris Clark. And later by a weight lifting jerk named Roy Fleener.
I quickly learned that too avoid the bullies, I needed to toughen myself up. I needed to teach myself to be a better boy. I literally beat any feminine traits I had out of myself. I watched boys and tried to be like them in every way. I laugh now when I remember trying to get Billy Idol’s raised lip look just right. For some reason, I thought that would make me look tougher.
I ended up entering the dreaded 6th grade as someone else entirely. I wasn’t me, that’s for sure. I didn’t smile. I erected a wall around myself. I had few friends. I didn’t try to make any. I kept to myself, mostly. But, after awhile, I got just what I wanted. People left me alone. But, that made me more miserable.
Sure, the bullies left me alone. But, so did everyone else. I think I must have scared anyone and everyone away from me. I never smiled. I was already incredibly shy. So, I wasn’t going to walk up and start talking with someone. The only solace I had was in the pool.
When I was in high school, we didn’t have anything like a gay/straight alliance. If there were gay people in my school, I could only guess who they were. They certainly weren’t going to tell anyone. There was one guy we all kind of thought might be gay. But, I’ve since found him on Facebook. He’s happily married with children. So, apparently there was one straight guy who liked to act in the school’s theater department. And there was a really butch young lady in junior high, that might be gay. But, nobody dared ask her. She might beat you up. I really only knew one gay person growing up. And back then, I didn’t know she was gay. She was on the swim team and later came to some notoriety by winning an Olympic medal in water polo.
I was told recently that things have changed quite a bit for kids growing up today. A friend of a friend is a teacher. He told my friend that there are several transgender kids in his high school. LGBT kids don’t have the kind of fears that we had way back in ancient times when KROQ played The Smiths. And that’s a good thing. I think having several out famous people as role models helps. It’s still harder for LGBT kids. Especially in certain parts of our country and world.
I’m glad things appear to be changing. When I look at where I am today. When I look at what I’m trying to overcome, it heartens me that kids growing up today, will most likely not be hindered by so many of the things I’m still trying to overcome. Sure, the religious right is more vocal than they were years ago. But, it appears that most of the country is not on their side.