Friday, October 1, 2010

There But For The Grace Of God Go I

For those of you who stopped by this post looking for some food love or good recipes, they will return in due time. I am plagued by something that I must address so this post will not be food related in anyway. Bear with me. This one's a long one.

18-year-old Tyler Clementi. 13-year-old Seth Walsh. Billy Lucas, 15 years old. 13-year-old Asher Brown. 19-year-old Raymond Chase. These are the names and faces(top to bottom right of page)of the teenagers who committed suicide in the past three weeks after enduring horrific harassment and bullying. For being gay. Asher shot himself in the head, Seth and Billy hung themselves and Tyler leapt off the George Washington Bridge. Raymond's death was literally being reported while I wrote this. Think it was unnecessary of me to point out the methods of their suicides? It's ugly, all right....just like the ways they were harassed, from daily beatings to viral videos. For being different.

This could have been me. The title of this post makes me a tad uncomfortable because it seems to imply that I had a bit more grace with God than these boys did. In all honesty, had I endured the horrific details of what these boys went through, I can only hope I would have found the fortitude to withstand it. I did suffer my share though and since I have been fortunate enough to still be here, I can at least share some of my story.

My seventh and eighth grade years were two of the toughest years of my life. I'd known since I was in elementary school that deep inside, I had feelings for members of the same sex. Growing up in a religious household in a small town in West Virginia, I'd convinced myself that this was only a phase and I would eventually stop having these "God forsaken" thoughts and feelings. I, of course, never stopped having them.

I was different and despite my attempts to convince otherwise, my differences were obvious. I sucked at sports, thought gym class was a daily fresh hell and just wanted to hang out with girls....and not to date them. I was steadily morphing from somewhat popular kid to complete outcast. The growing feeling of attraction to men combined with the expected awkwardness of that age (acne, puberty) was tripping me out and not in a good way. I was feeling ugly inside and out and the bullies zeroed in on me. I was different, for sure, and failing more and more to hide it.

The harassment primarily began in gym class. Taunts of queer and faggot would pepper my day. I got pushed around in the locker room. I didn't fight back because I didn't know how so I retreated and tried to avoid them and at that point, of course, it's too late....they have you in their sights. The name-calling and nastiness crept out from gym class and started following me down the halls, in front of friends and in the classroom. Sure, some teachers stood up for me and others, well, they were coaches, so some of them just stirred the pot further. The summer would come and I would retreat to my beloved public pool but that summer, the bullying hell continued. One antagonist just started beating me up because he could. He would die falling through a frozen pond some months later. Another took my arm behind me and pinned me to the wall and told he if I didn't admit to being a faggot, he would break my arm. Two guys his age actually came to my rescue that day and smacked him around. When I returned to school for my eighth grade year, I was psyched to see my rescuers in one of my classes, thinking we would be great friends and that they would be my protectors. Before that first class ended, they joined several of their buddies in making fun of me, the "four-eyed faggot". Needless to say, I was crushed.

As eighth grade progressed, the bullying intensified and soon, one particularly sadistic fellow harassed me to the point that I was outright terrorized. He followed me to my locker and outside at every opportunity and instead of just beating me up, he threatened me endlessly....he would make my life miserable if I didn't do anything he told me to do. He followed me everywhere, constantly harassing me and was bound and determined to break me....and I was already pretty broken. He called me at home and threatened me repeatedly over the phone until my Mom told him she was calling the police. I stopped her from doing it as I feared the abuse would just get worse. Finally, I started feigning illness to get out of school and after more harassing phone calls, I literally made myself sick. Call it psychosomatic or whatever, I'd mentally convinced myself that I was so sick that I was even hospitalized. In the course of the hospital stay, it did not escape my notice that the doctor whispered to my parents in the hallway that this was all in my mind. In the following days, I was submitted to an EEG, Cat scans and psychiatric evaluations. Didn't matter....as long as I didn't have to go back to school.

Eventually, I did, though, and the bullying resumed like nothing had changed. I was getting physically ill time and again at the very thought of going to school and I started lying or in my mind, telling the truth to get out of it. My parents knew what little I would share about the harassment and finally went to the school guidance counselor with their concerns. The counselor, in turn, said the problem was me and that I was a liar. She was right in a way....I was lying to get out of school but it was because I was terrified to be there, not because I hated school. Unfortunately, I wasn't brave enough to divulge all of the details....with anybody. I was too scared of what might happen.

In the end, I'd missed so much school that my parents received notice that I was being held back to repeat the eighth grade. They were devastated and I now wore the failure badge to go with the rest of my shame. That summer was a pretty humiliating one, but I got through it and was soon to discover that my second time around was fairly sweet. I dug my new classmates and the main harasser was diverted to a girlfriend. I would go on to high school and as I entered those hallowed halls with Kristy on my first day, the greeting was "Hello Ladies!" as they tripped me and almost sent me to the floor. Welcome back to reality.

By the second half of my sophomore year, I was really starting to enjoy school again. My junior and senior years ended up providing me with some of the best memories of my life. I was not out though and that's why those glory days are good and bad: they were a blast but in my zeal to continue that acceptance, I buried those feelings of being "different" even further and in fact, achieved such an all-consuming deep denial, that I dated and had relationships with girls. The brain is a powerful and sometimes twisted tool.

That denial carried through to my late twenties and damn near destroyed me. Finally, exhausted and completely beaten down with dishonesty, I came out to my friends. My true friends essentially said, "No Duh" and accepted me and the ones that didn't just went away. This doesn't mean that the moment I was out, the heavens opened up and bluebirds of happiness danced around my head. There were many dark days ahead, but the process of self-acceptance had begun. I'd made that first step.

In time, I would slowly(sometimes very slowly) discover my true self and with each day, gained new friends and became a bit more comfortable in my own skin. Part of that self-discovery meant I had more trials to endure, but it put me on the road to recovery.

I soon met the love of my life and everything changed once again....for the better. Keith and I have been together for nearly eleven years now and our relationship is healthier and happier than ever. I'm living a life I never dreamt was possible, even in my best days.

My long-winded point is this: my life could very, VERY easily have gone the other way. I have been completely despondent and I know what it's like to think that death is the only way out. I really knew that feeling when I was that 13 and 14-year-old. Kristy recently posted a school photo of me during those times and seeing it choked me with intense emotion. Looking at that photo gave me such a visceral feeling of misery all over again. I realize I still have some work to do. Part of me wants to shun my 13-year-old self, because the misery is so unbearable. Part of me is so angry at my 13-year-old self because he just rolled over and took it and never stood up for himself, and for that matter, he certainly wasn't the only one being harassed, so why didn't he stand for his fellow victims, too?

Well. Whaddya know. How easily in my now settled, Zen life that I managed to slip right back to that self-loathing and self-blame for the way BULLIES and BIGOTS made me feel. It was NOT my fault and it was NOT these kid's faults. Some of you may be saying"Get a backbone!" but some kids are more sensitive or just may not know how to fight back. Worse, some of these kids may even have bought into what the bullies were telling them...that their differences made them outcasts or worst of all, unworthy of living. I know firsthand the damage suicide leaves behind for the remaining family members. Suicide is not the answer.

I'm telling you once again that I am living a life I never thought possible and one that I have such gratitude for. It's time for me to embrace my 13-year-old self and show my gratitude towards him for hanging in there. In the end, his struggles made my adult self a stronger, more vital person. I'm also grateful to my family and real friends who helped get me through many of the lousy moments....the ones I told them about, anyway. To be honest, I've never shared this story in it's entirety with anyone....not even my parents, my friends or Keith. I'd buried so much of it from denial or shame. This recent epidemic of tragedy just brought it all up again and this time I decided to let it all out...at 4 a.m.

It does get better. It may not be easy, and struggles remain..for our rights, for the acceptance to love and be loved....but it does get better.

To anyone out there reading this: if you know someone or the parent, relative or friend of someone who is being harassed or bullied, gay or straight, please speak up. Be it advice, a listening ear or just a word of encouragement, that one word or gesture could literally be the difference between life and death.

There is help out there. Click on this link( http://www.thetrevorproject.org/)to learn more about or to donate to The Trevor Project, the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention among gay youth. Also, check out Dan Savage's It Gets Better video project on You Tube. One of my favorite shows is, of course, Glee, and Ryan Murphy says the theme of tolerance will be front and center this season....watch it!

It gets better.

13 comments:

Uncle T. said...

My analogy seems so trite in the face of the tragic loss of potential in these young men, but I can't help but saying that some of us are consumed by the fire, and some of us are tempered by it. The small town we grew up in is both a blessing and a curse, and I think that we all are victims of that. We had no role models, no one to point at and say "they're ok, so I must be ok too." G, The fire has obviously tempered you into a beautiful role model. I wish I could have helped you in those days, but glad now that whatever hell you endured, you are able to look back so eloquently, proving that time and love will overcome all things...even dodgeball!

Anonymous said...

Greg,
I am so very proud of you for being brave enough tell your story. Having lived through many of those later years with you, it broke my heart to see you hurting and withdrawn. I just wanted to be able to take the pain away, but just did not have the power to do it! (I tried, though, by golly!) So many of us did see the beauty in your sweet spirit, your wonderful laugh, and your passion for life, and I am thankful everyday, that you made it through and have the platform now to be an example of hope for others who are living the experience and see no way out.
Hugs and kisses to you from Belleville!
Christina Ellen

Holly Smith said...

I am with you Greg. I didn't really get bullied, but harrassed would be a word I would use for what I went through. Living in the small town like we did, I am amazed that I made it out alive as well. I feel for everyone who goes through this and feels like taking their life is the only way to deal with it.
You have written your story so beautifuly, and it touched me very deeply. Thank you for being the man you are!!!

Kitten said...

Your post took me back to elementry and high school. It has inspired me in a way to tell the story of what happened to me someday. I've been just devistated by all this news. It just makes me sick. My gay kids at school are harassed daily, and it seems like nothing can stop it. I hate it.

Connie said...

A million words are trying to come out of my mind at once and my fingers can't move fast enough to make any sense of it all. Some 43 years just passed before my mind's eye in a flash and all the frustration of those years returned in seconds. I'm not sure those frustrations every go away, but one thing is for sure, we can take a stance for those who will come after us. Above my own personal frustrations are those which took this reporter close to finding out why there was a rash of suicides in this small town in one particular high school class years ago and not being able to do anything about it.
I'm sorry Greg for the things you endured but know it only made you stronger. God took you to Keith because you finally asked for him and the reward is great.
This is the year anniversary for Dad's death and its been an interesting couple of days and I thank you for bringing my head back into focus. We need to do better for those who are fighting the life we've been through. It will be healing for both sides.
Thank you Lord for giving us Greg and keeping him in our lives. I love you.

Linda C said...

Greg - I had no idea! You are now such a warm, passionate person with an outstanding spirit; it's hard for me to imagine you every going thought that awful period when you were young. I would have guessed that you just sprung from a fountain of love and joy. I remember the first day we met and my feelings for you were ones of exceptional sweetness and fun. I knew from that first encounter that you were someone to get to know and love. I'm sorry that you had to go through the bad stuff and I'm sorry for those fresh young faces that you posted who didn't get a chance to turn out special like you. But know, you deserve every good thing this life has to offer - you bring joy to everyone who has the good fortune to cross your path.

Anonymous said...

Greg,
You asked me to read your blog, and for that I am deeply honored. I'm sitting here right now, kind of a puddled mess, because so much of what you shared is so familiar to me. While I didn't go through everything that you did, my Freshman and Sophomore years were probably the hardest I've ever had to endure. I was forced (or given no choice, take your pick), to attend an all-male Jesuit highschool, one that I was constantly and relentlessly hounded to the point of physical illness. In the course of one year I lost 40 pounds, from pure depression and fear. I wasn't out, yet everyone seemed to know more about who I was at that stage of my life. As with you, there are things that happened to me that I still haven't been able to share with anyone, and although I'm an adult now and my life is vastly different those old memories can still haunt me like it was yesterday.

Your message is so wonderful, and it is true that things DO get better. I grieve not only for those kids who took their own lives, but for their families. We were both fortunate enough, at whatever points in our life, to have incredible friends, family and support from those who truly love us. I have only been with Joe for a year now, but I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have him in my life. I can only hope and pray that we last as long as you and Keith. Please, no matter what the future holds, don't stop being who you are, as it is clear to me that the world would diminished without your incredible mind, heart and prose!
Matt Johnson

Tara said...

I endured my share of taunts and hazing as an effeminate "boy" in my elementary school days. My means of coping was literally fighting back: Beating up my attackers as they began to throw punches at me. However that had its own peril for me as I learned to become more hard-bitten, more confrontational, more "masculine" in order to deflect the unwanted attentions and torments of the "normal" kids. My defenses though effective, became a peril in themselves. It was decades before I could be open with myself about who I was, and even longer before I could be open with others.

But I too am fortunate I "made it out alive" as it were. Those of us who couldn't tragically never got to experience the gradual but real improvement in life and living that being out and alive provides.

Lucinda Clark said...

I will not teach my child tolerance, for I do not wish her to "tolerate" anything. But what I do hope she will know is respect. If she does, she will know to appreciate those who dance to their own song, and in a perfect world she will be able to dance along with them and still march to the beat of her own drum. It takes a little bit of courage to embrace who you are when others don't agree, but it takes a whole lot more to hold the hand of another trying to do the same.

Thank you Greg, for helping me realize how important it is as a mother, to teach my child to respect the journey of others!

Willie said...

Until we can break the cycle of ignorance and prejudice( born of fear of the unknown) that exists in many American families, this will no doubt continue! Many of you knew my Dad. If it wasn't for his influence and teachings, there but for the grace of God, would have gone I, only I would've leaned toward the side of "redneckery" instead of tolerance! Thanx Dad (and all my friends who challenged me to accept them for who the are and were

Anonymous said...

Greg,

I have sure been thinking a lot about this post. Wanted to comment immediately, but know I am not that eloquent with words, and honestly just did not quite know what to say. I had NO idea that you endured such hell in the 7th and 8th grade. I remember you repeating the 8th grade due to illness, but never knew the details surrounding that. I think you and I became friends your second time through the 8th grade. You seemed like a much happier guy then. In looking back over it all.... I truly think most of the guys were jealous of you for being able to relate to and hang out with all of the girls. Those that bullied and harassed you... in my mind were probably facing their own type of "secret" and by targeting you it helped to steer the attention away from them. I wish I knew who it was that treated you so poorly, as I think I would have to write them a letter or say something to them publicly. There is no excuse for being inhumane or cruel to someone else. I am rambling now..... Just know that you are such a marvelous human being. You have an incredibly warm spirit and a joyful soul. You are very intelligent and talented in so many different realms... singing, cooking, photography, film buff, well read.... DANG! No wonder they harassed you! I am very proud of you for writing this post. I know it had to be difficult. I love your writing. It touches my heart. Keep on keeping on my friend.... Love, Meechelle

Anonymous said...

Thank you Greg for sharing your inspiring story. I am an educator and straight ally. I think we need more straight allies to talk about this openly. The more our GLBT kids know that there are straight people out here that love and accept them just the way they are the more they will develop the resiliency to accept themselves and reject the twisted view of a few. Things are changing, it is getting better, unfortunately way to slowly to save some precious lives. But we won't give up until there is true equality for all.

Dee Ann McKinney said...

What an amazing story of survivial. Was on this site because I was reading the posting from Keith's FB about 9/11. God bless both you and Keith. May other's find insperation in your story to not only surviive but thrive!

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