I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio in a "Brady Bunch" 1960/1970s suburban atmosphere and attended the same Catholic school from grade 1 through 12. I remember knowing very early on, even before I had a word for it, that I was gay. In order to thrive and survive I also knew early on that I had to keep some of myself hidden from public view for fear of being beaten up and ridiculed. I was aware that boys who were effeminate were considered "less than," and that I would need to assimilate until I was able to leave Ohio for the big city.
As a boy, I was certainly "different" and struggled with being called names. I think, though, that I was mostly spared what many gay kids experience, because I knew deep down that I needed to "act straight" in order to fit in. I even courted the bullies in my school as a way to protect myself from being pointed out as a "fag." It seems in retrospect that I was pretending to be someone else for most of my childhood and adolescence.
It wasn't until I was 16 or so that I began to express myself and experiment a bit under the guise of the New Wave music movement (Adam Ant eyeliner and punky hair). I came out quite young for my generation. I told my folks that I was gay right before graduating from high school, which was kept a secret from the rest of the family until I left to attend Harvard University in the fall of 1981.
In my day, as they say, it was understood that boys were not to express themselves, and that if you weren't made of snakes and snails and puppy dog tails, then you were somehow not normal and not to be included. Instead of today's gay-straight alliance, my Catholic boys' school had boxing and wrestling as part of our gym program, and very little in the way of arts or creative encouragement.
In today's culture, the opportunities for young people to express themselves are infinite. Diversity is celebrated, and the issues are openly discussed. There are incredible organizations, like the Trevor Project, that are available to young LGBTQ kids to provide a safety net and social network. One would think that it's safer to grow up gay today than in the 1970s.
But today, in fact, it seems much more dangerous, despite the greater amount of information and support to kids and their families. My heart breaks every time I learn of another youth ending his or her life over bullying. It is not only the gay or questioning youth, either. It is anyone perceived as different or vulnerable. Therein lies the contradiction in our culture. We are encouraged to be ourselves -- "free to be you and me," as Marlo Thomas phrased it. And yet we are frequently punished for that very act of expression.
Sadly, I believe that learning to hide a part of myself saved me, in the end. While our culture promises to protect diversity, it feels that the last arena to find legitimate and cultural protection is the arena of being gay. To me, the bullying of a seemingly gay boy, in particular, has to do with the fact that being feminine is unacceptable in our macho culture, and that being called a "girl" or a "sissy" is a fate worse than death. Unfortunately, many chose death instead.
Much of the bullying comes from our society's definition of gender norms and what it means to be a boy or a girl. I remember as a kid that my best friend from the neighborhood had a sister who was a tomboy. She played sports but still had an insane doll collection. I was envious of her because she could celebrate all aspects of her personality without fear of being ostracized. I felt that being a girl was much easier than being a boy, because girls could be both feminine and masculine. Boys could only be masculine as narrowly defined by the culture of that day.
It seems that bullying reflects back to us the need for our culture to treat men and women equally and to honor the social traits that are associated with feminine and masculine equally. Until then, I don't see that bullying will ever go away. I would hate for anyone to have to grow up hiding a part of themselves. I knew that for me it was an act of survival. I pray that the generations to come will learn that giving a child the childhood he or she deserves is the greatest gift our society can bestow.
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