Friday, October 01, 2010

Why It Gets Better

I am spending time late nearly every night standing in the bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror and practicing the motions of running a razor blade across my wrists.

I think that I can work myself up to the moment when I'll be ready to puncture the skin and finally feel some relief. I want every thought in my head to drain away. I want the punishment of what feels like every day to abate. It seems to be the only thing that might help. I am vaguely aware that there are people who will be upset if I succeed in training myself to do this. Mostly, however, I am focused on peace. No more confusion. No more sadness and frustration.

I never did succeed, of course, in the fall of 1985 when I was only 12 years old. And when I do look back on that season these days, at 37, I often try to close out that image of myself in the seventh grade, so miserable and lonely that I saw no other option for dealing with the confusion of my own sexuality, which was forming too clearly inside my head. While my family and neighbors chose to quietly accept or ignore the fact that I was likely gay, many of the kids with whom I went to school were less gracious and understanding (and less apt to simply turn a blind eye to it). Like so many kids who have questioned or who are questioning their own sexuality, I was taunted on nearly a daily basis. Sometimes it was just a look. Other times it was a steady stream of being called "faggot" in gym class or as I walked home from school, taking different, complex routes every day in the hopes of shaking the boys that took to following me and threatening to "kick my ass." I could never adequately express what was happening to my parents, and while some teachers would try to nip the taunting in the bud, there's no way to stop the moments that happen between two individuals out of earshot and eyesight.

The topics of my being bullied were spoken of occasionally by the small circle of friends I did have who would come to my defense, often just telling anyone who threw an insult my way to "shut up." I was even part of a school group that was supposed to counsel our peers on how to deal with the pressures that come with this maelstrom of developing bodies and school. But every night when I got home, I'd sink further into what felt like quicksand in my head. "Why me?" I wrote in my journal. "What did I ever do to them? I hope they die." They didn't, of course, and the irony became that if it was going to be them or me, I figured it might as well be me.

It's impossible to not think of this as I read news reports of the four boys and young men who have killed themselves over the last two weeks--all of them bullied or shamed in some way related to their perceived sexuality. In 1985, of course, it was rarer for boys of 12 or 13 to announce that they were gay--at least in my working-class neighborhood where there were no openly gay adults, and where the only mention of homosexuality might come from a disparaging remark or someone happening to mention a news story about AIDS (which, of course, equated being gay with being dead).

Watching the video that Dan Savage and his partner of 16 years, Terry, recently made and posted on YouTube and reading the letter that my friend Rick Andreoli wrote to his young self in a series titled "Writes of Passage" on, I can't help but wish I had things like this available to me that fall, instead of a school counselor who was unable to talk to me about anything other than why I was "mad" and suggesting to me that I needed to take up hobbies that would make me develop "good kinds of friendships" with other boys.

Society has evolved drastically over the last 25 years, and gay kids have so many more resources available to them on a local and national level, especially with great organizations like The Trevor Project, which counsels LGBT and questioning kids. For many of us now in our 30s and older, it sometimes feels like even kids who are being picked on or harassed should just instinctively know that there are resources out there for them. This is the Internet Age, after all. Surely they can connect with others like them who can help them out. I/we made it through. Clearly, however, they do not, whether by virtue of geography, socioeconomics, or the fact that the areas in which they live are infused with politics, religion, and rhetoric that teaches them to hate themselves.

I cringe inside, still, when I read a news story about a young person who has taken his or her own life because of harassment based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation. I have that moment of wishing I could have swooped down and spirited them all away to a safer place and taught them what their lives can look like if they could only go on living. It's hard for these kids to see the future. It's even harder for them to understand what it's like to no longer feel trapped.

As Dan and Terry point out in their video, it gets better. But there are so many reasons why it does. It gets better when you begin to learn to love yourself in even the smallest ways, to find a way to help yourself when it seems like no one is there for you, to foster those friendships and family relationships you do have (even if it's only a very few) as best you can, and express your feelings to those people--to acknowledge you are afraid and find a way to move past it. Yes, plenty more could be done to combat bullying, whether through schools or, more importantly, within families who don't see the harm with the terms "boys will be boys" and "you know how kids are." And of course, making any kind of counseling or mental-health services available to kids with practitioners who are sensitive to issues of sexuality would be productive, if not outright transformative (and further illustrating the need to overhaul this country's way of dealing with health care).

It was the presence of two friends in 1985 that made me finally stop drifting into the bathroom to practice cutting through my skin every night. One of them, I am no longer friends with; the other is still a part of my life. They didn't provide me with any concrete help at the time per se. How could they, being only 12 and 13? They just knew that they liked having me around, reading my stories, and that we made each other laugh. I knew it wouldn't end what was happening to me, but--for better or worse--I decided I needed to see what would happen next year, the year after. I wasn't going to be in middle school forever, I realized. If I "succeeded" one night in the bathroom, I would never know what life beyond that would be.