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Fighting Back Against Bullies

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As reports continue to surface of gay teens taking their own lives -- even among those who are trying to help others -- we focus on passing laws, pressuring school administrators, challenging teachers and letting kids know that it gets better in the future.

All of that is important. But there's something missing in our arsenal -- at least in a prominent way -- and that is self-empowerment and, yes, self-defense.

My father taught me how to fight -- how to defend myself against threats and against physical attacks, but also how to feel confident -- from as far back as I can remember. The idea was simple: If you get bullied, if thugs at school pick on you, if they taunt you and shove you and hit you, you'll know how to pack a wallop that will send them running home to mom. And they'll never bother you again. More importantly, you can send the message that they better not mess with you long before ever needing to throw a punch.

The son of Italian immigrants and a man who grew up in the working-class neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Dad was actually empowering me to fend off those who might bully me for being Italian. In his day, when Italian-Americans were called greasy "dagos" and faced discrimination, that was a real issue. In my day, not so much. No matter, it was still invaluable for me -- I applied it all to being queer.

I knew I was different at the age of 6 -- I had crushes on boys in first grade (and on Davy Jones of "The Monkees") and I liked to play with the girls -- and I knew that most of the boys thought something was wrong with me. By sixth grade the more intense bullying had begun and I was called a "faggot" and laughed at. My heart sank and I cried myself to sleep many nights. The outgoing, vivacious me -- the true me -- was replaced by a fearful, reserved child who tried not to bring attention to himself.

But the moment a bully actually laid a hand on me, I felt enormously empowered in a way that said loudly and clearly: Mess with me at your own peril. And, quite frankly, any bully who was stupid enough -- and there were a few -- not to get the message from then on got the crap beat out of him. I didn't enjoy hurting anyone -- much less humiliating boys by having a "faggot" whip their butts -- and often felt enormous sympathy for them afterward. But I also felt empowered and in control. I felt that I could change the course of the treatment against me, which the school, teachers and parents just couldn't do.

Prior to taking matters into my own hands and following Dad's teachings of self-defense, I once even ran away -- in reality I just disappeared for a couple of hours into the bushes on the campus of St. John Villa Academy in Staten Island. Shortly after I surfaced, I confided in a male teacher how I was being taunted and shoved and kicked around. He had a tear in his eye; in retrospect I realize he was gay. He told me he'd tried to do whatever he could to stop it. But it didn't stop.

And so, I needed to do what I had to do to survive -- in the moment -- and not just hope for a better future and hope the adults around me would get their acts together.

What I did -- and what I'm saying we need to do for all kids right now -- is not so radical nor should it be controversial. It is in fact what the women's movement did in the 1970s, focusing on self-empowerment, building self-esteem and training women in self-defense. Martial arts training for women sprang up across the country, promoted by feminist activists of the day. Women enrolled by the thousands, determined to fight back against attackers, muggers, rapists and any men making unwanted advances, and also to feel empowered to stand up to men who demeaned them. It built self-esteem in an entire generation and forged a movement that helped future generations of women (many of whom would never walk into a martial arts class) to feel better about themselves and change attitudes so that little girls don't grow up feeling inferior to little boys.

Some research suggests that young people who stand up to their bullies are happier and more productive later in life. For reasons too numerous to go into (but which I will explore in subsequent blog posts), the LGBT movement has not prominently focused on self-defense (though there are programs that have been around for a long time). We put so much faith in institutions -- failed as they are -- and not enough faith in ourselves. When we only focus on transforming institutions and they don't change fast enough, it can send a message of hopelessness and despair to some young people.

With so many parents today accepting their LGBT children -- and in many of the high-profile cases of bullying, assault and suicide recently, the parents were accepting -- we should be telling parents, in addition to demanding accountability from administrators and politicians, to enroll their kids in self-defense and other self-empowerment programs. Self-defense doesn't mean hitting anyone who taunts you, nor promoting violence. It does mean standing up to the bullies and saying, 'I'm confident, I'm in control, and I'm not going to take it."

Yes, we need to change the world. But until then we need to build self-esteem. And that will in fact help us change the world.

See a slideshow regarding LGBT bullying:

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