There is a three-word bumper sticker on my car: “Don’t Raise Bullies.” I got it from the Stand Up Foundation. I rarely talk openly about the bullying I endured. When I do, it’s from a great emotional distance, and with a twinge of self-deprecating humor. It’s time I come out and write about it publicly. It’s time to name names. It’s time for me to stand up and forgive.
Here are a few choice memories pulled from my childhood Rolodex:
- Third grade. School bus ride. I’d taken two of my father’s art instruction books to school to show the art teacher. I was interested in human anatomy and learning to draw figures. I’d begun work on a male nude—DaVinci’s “Vetruvian Man”, and wanted to show my progress. I was proud of it. I’d worked on the symmetry using my father’s drafting tools. I took it out to scan it one last time, making sure my drawing looked like the one in the book. Reid Butler, a fifth grader, lunged over the seat behind me, snatched my drawing and the book out of my hand and waved it over his head, proclaiming me a “faggot” for drawing pictures of naked men. That was my first introduction to the word. He crumbled up the drawing and bounced it off my forehead. The bus driver stopped the bus, confiscated my art book and proclaimed it was “Not something I should even have, much less bring to school”. I was reported to the principal’s office where I was paddled for bringing “pornography” to school. The fact I was bullied, shamed and called a “faggot” at the age of nine was never addressed. My mother, though humiliated, stood up for me nonetheless. She left work early the next day, and stood in our driveway as the bus pulled up to let me off. I was surprised to see her there. She boarded the bus and shouted, “I want to see Reid Butler!” With some reluctance, Reid stood up after a few other kids snickered and pointed him out. She pointed the long, elegantly polished nail of her index finger at him and proclaimed, “I know your mother, and I know your father. I know where you live. I know they didn’t raise you to be a bully or use words like “faggot”. If you ever insult, bully, or touch my son again, the next time you see me will be when I am on your doorstep.” I wish I could say I was proud of my mom at the time, but I was embarrassed and horrified that she had to defend me, and that I wasn’t brave enough to defend myself. Today, I am grateful.
- Fourth grade. Bathroom stall. I walked in to use the toilet. Reaching for the toilet paper, above the dispenser was my name spelled incorrectly—“Keven Varner”—with a cartoon face sucking on a cock next to it. In another, different scribble next to it, the word “FAG” in all caps. I was upset my name had been spelled incorrectly. I was more upset that soap and water and vigorous scrubbing with my tee shirt couldn’t erase it. Even if it had, the memory remains indelible.
- Seventh grade. School commons, 8:15 am, before homeroom. Students gathered in the commons before first bell to mingle. I was bending over to get something out of my book bag when I heard a hiss and then felt a push on my back which sent me sprawling to my hands and knees…and then smelled something awful on my jacket, my clothes, all over me. When I got up, I was surrounded by a full circle of other kids. I was in the center. Some of them were holding their noses, some of them were pointing at me. All of them were laughing. Eric Preston had doused me with “fart spray”. Eric and his friends were slapping themselves on the back, cackling at what they’d just done. When I removed my blue Members Only jacket, there was a yellow sticky note affixed to the back with the word “FAGGOT” written in black felt marker. I stuffed my jacket in my locker. The locker smelled like fart spray for a week. I never wore that jacket to school again. For years, I had a recurring nightmare that I was surrounded by a crowd of hecklers, pointing at me and laughing, as I stooped on the 50 yard line of a gigantic football stadium. Until I went to college, I kept the sticky note in my nightstand, hidden in a little wooden box as a reminder.
- Eighth grade. Last day of school before summer break. School stairwell landing between the second floor and the first floor. I passed Craig Ferree and Michael Hemric leaning against the second floor lockers on my way to the bus. Craig made a loud kissing noise at me as I walked past. I remember being too happy about it being the last day of school to let anyone get to me—all the other kids had left and were milling about in front of the flag pole, hugging their goodbyes, waving to their teachers and friends. I paused on the landing between the 2nd and 1st floor and looked out the big picture window for a moment, enjoying the quiet before joining the other kids and heading home to six weeks of freedom. Craig Ferree leaned over the railing above me, hocked up a mouthful of mucous and spit, and shot it down on top of my head. “Faggot” he said. Then Mike Hemric echoed, “Cocksucker”. I ran down the hall to the first floor bathroom, washed the spit from my hair, face and neck and wiped off with a handful of brown paper towels. I missed my bus and called my sister to come get me. When she asked me why I missed my bus I lied and told her I stayed after school to say goodbye to all my teachers. She believed me.
- Tenth grade. My 16th birthday, January 13, 1987, approximately 8:15am. High school commons, before homeroom. My favorite band was The Cure. I’d gotten two of their cassettes, “Head on the Door” and “Standing on a Beach, the singles”, and my first pair of black Converse Chuck Taylors. I took Mom’s fabric scissors and ripped strategic holes in the sides, I took her fabric markers and drew the British flag across the back of the left shoe, and bought red glitter paint and drew the anarchy symbol across the back of the left one. The morning of my birthday, I put on my father’s baggiest cardigan, buttoned his white oxford cloth shirt, two sizes too large all the way up to the neck, put on a bolo string tie with a the bullet hole-smiley face pendant from the Watchmen comics holding it together, teased up my hair and gelled it, set a pork-pie hat on top of my head just like “Ducky” from “Pretty In Pink” (one of my favorite movies), tucked my black cargo pants into slouchy red socks and pulled my birthday present–the black Chuck Taylors– onto my over-sized and flat size 12 feet. I was happy. I was sixteen. I had my license. I had a car of my own, and I was going to drive it to school for the first time.I was talking to my friends Emily and Cookie in the commons before homeroom. Cookie was handing me a homemade birthday card when I heard, “Hey FAGGOT. Where the FUCK did you get those ugly-ass shoes?” It was Michael Hemric. He’d passed me in the hall for weeks, lunging at me, knocking my books out of my hand, sneaking up behind me and slamming me into the lockers, each time with the word “faggot” added to it like another hole-punch in my low self esteem card. I’d change my traffic pattern to avoid him. Sometimes I’d excuse myself from class, go to my locker before the bell rang, and wait outside the door to my next class just to avoid him. Sometimes I’d hide in the auditorium backstage, in the costume and prop room before school started. That morning he was standing with three or four of his cronies, redneck assholes, bigger than me, in the doorway between the commons and the hallway toward my locker. Michael Hemric knew where my locker was. He’d pushed me into it enough times to remember it’s location. “Flat-footed, cock-sucking faggot. Why the fuck are you wearing those dumb-ass shoes and that hat?” He called at me from across the commons. I looked at the floor and stared at my shoes. Suddenly I hated them. I wanted them to save me but they just stared back. I can still recall the cold panic that shot down my neck to my groin as Michael stalked forward and knocked my hat off my head. “I’m talking to you, faggot,” he spat, inches from my face. I was in the middle of the circle of shame again, just like seventh grade. How do they form so quickly? One moment you’re standing against a wall reading a homemade birthday card, the next moment you’re surrounded by the collective masses itching to watch a beating before lunch. I bent down to retrieve my hat and he kicked me in the shoulder. I was alone. My friends had deserted me. As I stood up, shaking, too frightened of what would happen next if I defended myself, he stomped on my right foot with his boot, and walked off. Theresa Neese, who I had known since second grade, and who was dating Michael at the time, walked over to him and told him to “leave Kevin alone. It’s his birthday”. I picked up my backpack and limped past and through the circle of shame, through the redneck pack of wolves flanking Michael Hemric, past Theresa Neese who was all of 5’2 and who stood taller than I did at my defense that day, walked through the shame and the label of faggot invisibly tattooed across my forehead. Hands shaking, I turned the dial of my locker, opened it on the third try. I wiped my nose and my eyes with the sleeve of my father’s cardigan. Inside the locker I placed my pork-pie hat. I bent down, unlaced the birthday present from my feet, took them off, and placed them in the locker as well, and spent the rest of my 16th birthday in my socks. When I drove home that afternoon, I rolled down my window and threw the shoes into the woods on the side of the road. It would be 20 years before I bought another pair of Converse Chuck Taylors. Today, I own four pair. Today, no one makes fun of me and gets away with it.
Today, no one abuses, makes fun of, or shames anyone in my presence and gets away with it. I am outwardly chill and laid back, intelligent, witty, funny, and grounded. Yet, lurking just beneath that placid body of water is a rage that churns from the heart of a deep, underground fissure. It’s a gaping wound that won’t heal. Just writing about it threatens to bring it spewing to the surface. One reason I am so outwardly calm is that I am afraid of my anger. I am afraid that I could see red and completely forget myself–even for just a moment, because that’s all it would take–and utterly destroy another abuser, first with words, then with my fist and feet. The same feet that were made fun of, the same fists that felt powerless, would take over all these years later, leaving destroyed cities in their wake.
I am here and now forgiving every “faggot” ever hurled at me. I am forgiving every push, every trip, every slam against a wall, and every name ever called. It’s not right, but it’s okay. Michael Hemric, Craig Ferree, Reid Butler, Eric Preston and countless other bullies, you abused me, but you did not beat me. You made me stronger. You turned me into a warrior. You honed me into the man I am today–compassionate, fierce, intelligent, empathetic, and above all, kind. Kinder than you were, and braver than you’ll ever be. Without you ever knowing it, I kicked all your collective asses over the years by learning to accept and love myself.
Yet, I’ve carried you with me all these years as well. You have, no doubt forgotten me. I cannot forget you and what you did to me. But I can lay down your weight. I can release the pressure valve on that deep fissure of anger in my heart, and forgive you. I can witness, and make sure the abuse stops with me.
To my gay brothers and sisters I charge you: Stop doing what the bullies did to you. Stop abusing each other. Stop gossiping, stop throwing shade and sarcasm. Stop causing emotional drama. Stop the petty, judgmental comments online and in public forums like Facebook where we hurl catty barbs, slice tiny cuts and chip away at the hard-won self esteem of our collective community from the safety of a keyboard or a smart phone.
If you don’t have something compassionate and useful to say, keep your mouth shut. Keep it cute or keep it mute.
We have been abused, and abusers long enough. It’s time we started lifting each other up instead of tearing each other apart one catty, toxic comment at a time. Let’s show the bullies we are better than they are and not allow self-loathing to destroy the best of us. Instead, let’s love with just one condition–that we are impeccable with our words and vow not to use them to spread emotional poison. If you’re carrying the weight of abuse and bullying, please talk with a trusted friend. Share your story. Release some of that pressure before it consumes you, and find someone who with whom to share your compassion and your love. Look in the mirror…that’s a good place to start.