In interviews with reporters and on panels at mystery conventions, I am occasionally asked if I experienced any discrimination connected with my being an openly gay teacher while having twenty-three gay-themed mysteries published. Mostly things were good. Only a couple letters to the superintendent who was very supportive, and lots of positive feedback from my colleagues.
There was one essay from a kid, an eighth grader, who wrote in part the following: "I know he's gay because I know what his books are about. They're about gay people. I think my dad is right about what should happen to gay people, a bullet hole in the head." This student was in my class for a full year. I didn't read the essay with this comment in it until after the school year was over. I found this more sad than anything else.
So, except for these few blips, I always presumed the overall reaction to my being an openly gay teacher and gay author was reasonably benign.
Then the following occurred.
I walk to the convenience store down the street every day to get my newspapers and so I can claim I'm getting exercise every day. Yes, even in winter, I just bundle up and then bundle up some more and hope I don't slip on the ice. Tripped and fell once last year as I got distracted by a beautiful dog who was being taken into the animal grooming place two doors down from the convenience store. Just a klutz, no medical issues.
Once in a blue moon I run into former students. At least they introduce themselves as such, since some of them are now in their twenties, thirties, forties or even early fifties.
One Saturday a woman in her thirties who was chatting with one of the clerks at the store turned to me and asked the usual, "Aren't you?" and I said the usual, "I'm sorry I don't remember your name. Please tell me."
I wouldn't have recognized her in a thousand years. She told me her name, and she has a husband, kids, and lives in town. So, we chatted less than five minutes, and I walked back home.
That next day, Sunday, she's there again. She introduces me to the clerks at the store adding that she always liked me as a teacher and said I was always good to her and her friends. That was good. But the conversation quickly lagged, like one of those moments when you kind of don't want to be talking to this person, or at least can't think of anything to say, and are starting to feel uncomfortable. I finished the conversation and walked home.
The next Saturday, she was there again. She'd been chatting with the clerk again, but as I turned to go, she followed me out of the store. The weather was nice that day as it has been.
Over the few days of brief conversations, we'd talked about other students who were in the same year with her. I usually remember the kids from a particular year, if at all, as most teachers do, by the most rotten kids in the class. Since she was in her thirties, the people and events we were talking about happened years and years ago.
The most rotten kid that year was Biff.
The woman -- I've forgotten her name now -- and since she was married her name wasn't the same as when she was a kid, said that her husband had gone to a school in the next district over from mine. Her husband had been best friends with Biff and his cronies.
Then she apologized to me. She told me Biff, but not with her husband -- maybe I believed that -- came to my parking lot and flipped my car. She said she was so sorry for that, and she always liked me as a teacher.
I told her that no one had ever flipped my car, if she meant as in turned it over on its roof.
She said she'd always wondered if what they'd bragged about had been true. She then listed the other things they'd done.
These were all too true.
One time, my car had been picked up and moved about three feet from the perpendicular. I drove a high-mileage, small compact car so it was possible. Two other times the windshield was smashed. Another, nails in tires. A broken window in the apartment. Sand in the gas tank -- I got a locking gas cap in all subsequent cars. The list went on.
At the time, I'd called the police for a few of the incidents, but there was nothing to be done. I had no clue as to the identity of the perpetrators.
It didn't all happen at once -- in fact over about a four-year span.
Stupid me. All the little things I dismissed or didn't pay attention to. I asked once at the place where I went to get replacement tires, wasn't it odd that I was getting nails in my tires so often. Couldn't someone be sabotaging them? The clerk at the time said no, they must be nails from construction sites. Much as I might fantasize about studly construction workers, I'd never so much as gotten close to a construction site and certainly have never driven through one.
The woman reiterated that they used to brag about what they'd done to get the fag.
This all happened after the books had come out.
Teenage homophobia. A form of intimidation and bullying.
I never put it all together. The incidents all happened too far apart for me to connect them.
I think on some of those interviews and panels I may have said something like, 'oh I was pretty lucky, there wasn't much of a problem with homophobia, only a few letters from parents, and then I'd tell the story about the letter.' Turns out there was constant homophobia of a violent and dangerous kind, and I missed it.
The woman at the store apologized several times. Repeated that her husband wasn't involved. Named the names of kids I'd long forgotten who'd helped Biff.
So, yes, the bullying of a teacher. And I was too naive or stupid or arrogant to see it. What a fool.
She was so was so nice and so apologetic.
I ask myself how I couldn't have put it together. The basic fact is, I didn't.
The apology happened recently. The events she was apologizing for happened in the early '90s after my first books came out. I ask myself have things really gotten better for us? I often think they have, but then there are headlines about another gay teen committing suicide. I imagine they are getting better, but then I still see us as the only minority whose rights are put to a vote. I try to remember that in all the years between Dred Scott and Brown vs. Board of Education, African Americans mostly lost court cases. When you are in the middle of a storm, it always seems a long way until the end. But there are signs of hope for us, some large and global, some small and personal. I think about the president and the ringing phrase in his inaugural address, "From Seneca Falls, to Selma, to Stonewall," and I have hope. I think about the Illinois senate taking a positive vote for marriage for us on Valentine's Day, and I believe there is hope for us in this world. I listen to, instead of further scorn and derision, a woman making an apology to an author many years later, and I believe things have gotten better.