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The Bullying Years: A Survival Guide for Gay Kids

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Dear LGBTQ Kids,

Words are strange. They can be used to express love and encouragement, or they can wound like a knife.

Even more confusing, over time, the meanings of a simple word often change. The word "gay" used to mean "carefree" and "happy." Now it means homosexual.

Similarly, in the early 1900's, the word "bully" meant "superb" or "wonderful." In fact, former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt was famous for complimenting people, describing them as "bully chaps." Today "bully" means "a person who is habitually cruel or overbearing, especially to smaller or weaker people."

The problem is that words often change faster than attitudes.

Fifty years ago, gay people were considered by society at large to be abnormal "sexual deviants." Homosexuals tended to stay locked away in the closet, hiding their sexuality, marrying a person of the opposite sex just to keep up appearances, and living terribly unhappy lives. Back then, if a gay person dared to declare his or her sexuality openly, they were likely to be shunned by society, mocked, arrested and often killed.

Sadly, many Americans' attitudes remain stuck in a "last-century" time warp about being gay. They cling to negative attitudes about gay people, despite wider societal acceptance and scientific studies proving their bigoted beliefs wrong. Often, this is because they have deeply conflicted homosexual feelings themselves. And these are the very same folks who tend to become bullies.

Just look at virulently "anti-gay' hypocrites like the Reverend Ted Haggard and former Republican U.S. Senator Larry Craig -- both public figures with homosexual feelings carefully hidden beneath a cloak of intolerance, citing "religious scripture" or general "morality" as an excuse for their shameful hypocrisy.

This letter is to demonstrate to you, and to anyone facing the awful daily reality of ignorance, bullying and hate, that being gay is absolutely normal. I wish - when I was growing up - that someone had the courage to say to me what I'm about to share with you.

I'm a medical doctor and a gay man. I've specialized in caring for gay people for over 25 years, both as a primary care physician and as a friend.

In my long career, I've struggled mightily to help my patients and friends survive the worst years of the AIDS epidemic. Unfortunately, hundreds didn't. That was horrible enough. But at least the suffering and loss was caused by an unthinking and terrible virus. It wasn't intentionally inflicted by other people.

What breaks my heart today -- a generation after we first learned of AIDS -- is witnessing what prejudice and bullying can do to your health and happiness. It hurts. Really hurts. Both emotionally and physically.

That's why so many people suffer from anxiety and depression and, tragically, some turn to drugs, alcohol or have risky sex just to numb the pain. Or, most horribly, some people choose not to exist...

When the world tells you that your very being is "a sin against nature" and your Church, your family, your teachers and your classmates join in that hateful chorus, you might begin to think that your life really isn't worth living.

Maybe you shouldn't have been born. Maybe you aren't worthy of experiencing love and happiness. Maybe you deserve to be picked on just because of who you love and desire.

Except for the fact that the people who tell you this nonsense are wrong. Dead wrong. No matter how many Bible passages they quote or how much "morality" they preach, you are every bit as much a normal, moral, healthy human being as anyone else.

Every legitimate scientific study and modern medical textbook supports the fact that gay people are born gay, that you can't -- and shouldn't -- be changed, and that this is absolutely normal in nature.

Cats and dogs, elephants and bears, birds and fish, and every other imaginable species on earth demonstrate instinctive homosexual or transgender behaviors. It's called "biodiversity."

As an Ivy-League-trained medical doctor and scientist, I can't believe that either the Divine Creator or millions of years of human evolution got it wrong. You're an essential part of the fabric of life, for a reason.

God made you special -- that's why you're not like 90% of the human population. And no amount of ignorant Bible thumping, political hypocrisy or cowardly bullying can change that fact.

Your right to exist, just as you are, is absolute -- it's not up for anyone's approval or for a vote. I've learned that the bullies who tell you otherwise are either immature morons or bald-faced liars. Tune them out. As former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wisely observed, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

In a hopeful note, the mainstream media is finally calling these haters out for the damage they inflict. A surprisingly positive editorial in the ultra-conservative newspaper -- The Washington Post -- asked and answered a crucial question: "Where do bullies get their ammunition, the hurtful slurs that eat away at the self-esteem of those who are gay or lesbian? What makes someone feel it's okay to verbally and physically harass, maim or even kill?"

The editors concluded "one source is politicians -- who continue to espouse their belief that being gay is an immoral or unnatural "lifestyle" choice that can be changed at will. As long as such dehumanizing ignorance and intolerance go unchallenged, the horrors and suicides will continue."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Quindlen reminds us that "fashions in bigotry come and go, but the right thing lasts." And take it from me, being true to yourself is the right thing.

So, here's my survival story. I grew up as a skinny, pimply, near-sighted gay kid in urban Philadelphia. I remember feeling really lonely, ugly and scared, terrified that the world would discover my awful secret.

Despite being blessed with loving parents and a respectable IQ, my inner life was both confusing and painful. I didn't know anyone quite like me, and so I grew up believing that I was somehow "defective."

Kids are unusually perceptive about anyone who seems "different." Even though I had no idea what "gay" was, my playmates and schoolmates seemed to have ESP-extra-sensory perception.

They called me "faggot" and "sissy," not because I'd ever shown desire for another boy, but because I wasn't like the other boys -- I was sensitive, intelligent and I wasn't really interested in sports. In my neighborhood, that instantly qualified you as a "fag." The worst label imaginable.

I used to pray that, one day, I would wake up and be somebody very different -- a popular "guy's guy" who fit in with the crowd. Or, on particularly bad days, not wake up at all...

When I was a kid, the gay rights movement was still in its infancy, but I remember reading and watching news stories about seemingly magical places like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City -- places where gay people lived their lives out in the open, happy and with dignity. And this reality became my secret weapon against all the bullies -- quite simply, I had hope.

I endured those tough years of loneliness and name-calling by working hard, fending off the bullies with wit, humor and inner toughness, and by being one of the smartest kids in the classroom. I far preferred being called a "nerd" or a geek" than being singled out as a "fag."

In college, my pimples receded, my skinny frame filled out, and I discovered my inner strengths without being judged constantly by other kids. I went on to become an athlete, a doctor, a writer and a civil rights activist.

I've saved hundreds of lives in my medical career and brought love, pride and joy to my parents, my husband, my patients and my community. If that isn't a life worth living, I'm not sure what is.

I'm now legally married to the man I love and, most importantly, I'm out to the world. I've earned the respect of my friends and my family -- something I never imagined possible in those early, "ugly duckling" days as a confused kid and a tormented teen.

So, when I look back, I'm glad that I didn't become someone else and that I did summon the courage to wake up every single day. My life is precious -- both to me and to the world -- and so is yours.

A wise philosopher once wrote, "Youth is the one period in which a man can be hopeless. Every difficult episode seems like the end of the world. But the power of hoping -- through everything -- the knowledge that the soul survives its pain; that great inspiration comes with age."

So, take my advice. Stay tough, stay hopeful, stay healthy and stay alive because, I promise you -- as a gay man, a medical doctor and, most importantly, as a survivor -- it absolutely does get better.

With love and respect,

Gary R. Cohan, M.D., F.A.C.P.
Beverly Hills, California

P.S. If you are experiencing bullying of any kind, there's help just a phone call away. Call the Trevor Project at 866-4-U-TREVOR or visit their website for live chat at www.TrevorProject.org. Trained, volunteer counselors are there for you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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