04/23/2012 11:57 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Confessions of a Queer Bully

Bullying makes strange bedfellows. Recently, in one of my classes, two students came to blows for being, in the words of one, "different types of gays." The conflict escalated, with the combatants, both men, debating the provenance of gay violence. While "not in my classroom" is the hokey but effective refrain that I usually reserve for such admittedly rare moments, I discovered on this occasion that I was simply too surprised, and too selfishly fascinated, to speak it. Instead, I said to the men, "Tell me more." Another chestnut, and one that I use when eager to encourage students to expand the parameters of class participation, "tell me more" elicited, in this instance, an altogether extraordinary statement: "There's such a thing as a gay bully, and that's what I'm dealing with today, in your class, and I can't take it anymore."

As a college professor whose college days are not distant, I can well remember the inane (and often self-serving) debates that raged between star students, wherein one would assume a familiar stance but hope to transcend it through sheer academic aptitude, to recuperate it through lawyerly precision and completeness, while the other would, to take a phrase that I hated, "play devil's advocate," and shout that Judith Butler was a dumb bitch, and hope to hell that a peer could appreciate the facetiousness of that phrase, the mock indignation of such an utterance.

This time, however, sarcasm seemed but a dream, and the dreaded upshot of in-class debate was not intellectual embarrassment but actual physical violence. When one young man brandished a fist, and the other slid forward on his seat, sleek as a fox, I first felt pride, for these were my kinds of gays, willing to shatter stereotypes with every Clint squint, staring each other down as if strapped to the saddles in an old Spaghetti Western. I then felt fear, for the physical well-being of both men, yes, but also for my job, my beloved but perilously untenured professorship, and for the poor, bewildered students who sat there waiting for me to resume my lecture.

Some of them, however, were smiling. I saw the twinkles in their eyes, the look that said, "Shit, man, these fags are gonna fight." I might have scowled at such faces, I'm not sure. The minutes that followed are a blur, except for the seconds that saw one man, the self-described victim of gay bullying, stand up, slip his naked iPad into a white canvas bag, and saunter out of the room, a Western hero in retreat. A few titters from the back row, some heavy, defeated breathing from the gay bully, and a scalding sound from behind the closed classroom door: the hero in tears.

My own waterworks would soon be loosed, though I kept my emotions in check until safely confined to my office. But why did I cry? Why was I, a professor who took pride in his capacity to extemporize, strangely unable to speak as two students, both self-identified gay men, made the atmosphere in a usually chilly lecture hall hot with dread and discomfort? What, really, had happened in that classroom?

For starters, someone had used the phrase "gay bully." The latter word, with its once-simple associations, has lately been transformed into a communal rallying cry, and one centered on the odiousness of homophobia. But a gay bully, a gay perpetrator of crimes of conscience, is a concept that no one wants to wrestle with, let alone acknowledge. Sure, the survival of angry (or simply cheeky) assessments of anti-gay bullies, the sorts of assessments that say, "He's really gay; that's why he picks on pansies," seems guaranteed in an age of aggressive sexual accusation. But what happens when both bully and victim are openly, vociferously interested in sleeping with members of their own gender? And what if, tracking the very topic of membership, one man says that another is "the wrong kind of gay," and thereby excludes him, excommunicates him from a monolithically queer country? That's far different from calling him simply unsexy, or uncool. It's the sort of move that I myself have made, and it's often a means of defining, and defending, one's fetish for fey twinks, or tough bears, or god knows what kinds of queers. But when does it become a bullying tactic? When does it reduce one man, or two men, to tears?

When I first tried to answer that question, alone in my office, I thought immediately of a moment from my own scholastic past: I was seated, eager and inquisitive, in a classroom at New York University. I was there to complete my Ph.D. in cinema studies, focusing on theories of gender and sexuality as they related to my favorite subgenre of documentary cinema: the American military training film. The class in question was called "Structures of Passing." We read and talked about men and women of color who could yet be considered white, and who often lived as if they were white, to sometimes devastating ends. We considered cinematic characterizations of "lipstick lesbians" whom straight men had the temerity to proposition. Suddenly, apropos of little more than the broad topic of lesbianism, a lanky, beautiful, stylishly dressed young man, a fellow student at the seminar table, said to me, "I might be willing to buy that you're gay if you say that you're a butch lesbian. That's the only way for you to make much sense."

I felt the blood drain from my face. The comment had cut to the heart of my concerns about my own self-presentation, about the fathoms-deep voice that I was desperately trying to lighten, about the fat tummy that wasn't sufficiently protuberant to make me a bear, about the big arms that weren't bulging enough to crown me a muscle queen, and about the emotional sensitivity that cancelled out my masculine physicality. A walking contradiction, I simply couldn't win. Comments such as my classmate's made me feel two inches tall.

Was this an instance of gay bullying? I think so. Today, I can look back on the incident and laugh at the other guy's gumption, all while recognizing that his argument, when viewed from any angle, was asinine; that he was the less-than-elegant loser; that I was his secretly superior victim. This is one of the perks of approaching middle age: you get to laugh at your detractors, or simply ignore the comments designed to cut you.

I couldn't laugh back then. I could only lower my head. Silently, I addressed the gay bully: "You get to be beautiful. You get to be slim and stylish. You get to use your melodious voice to make your classmates purr. Why punish me? Why bully me?"

But I didn't actually utter such statements. Instead, I said, with childish petulance replacing righteous anger, "I'm sorry that I'm not as faggy-fabulous as you, dude. So sue me."

A few of my fellow students laughed, though only, I suppose, at that archaic last line, an embarrassing relic from my mid-'90s youth, the litigious descendant of Pee-wee Herman's "I know you are, but what am I?" They weren't laughing at "faggy-fabulous," the hyphenated phrase that I felt best described my antagonist, and that I had chosen for its sheer naughtiness.

It got some gasps, from students who believed that I'd gone too far, that I'd inflicted pain, not just on my attacker but on everyone else, the gay students especially. Within seconds, someone was calling me a bully, me, the man who'd been attacked, and who was trying, however imperfectly, to fight back. "You sound like a bully," the student said, her blonde hair tied with ironic red ribbons, signifiers of a Swiss Miss innocence that, in this context, signaled the woman's awareness, and disavowal, of her own racial identity. Sexually, she was straight, she'd announced on more than one occasion, and her decision to adjudicate was born of an aversion to my voice. My hormonally appointed, deep speaking voice was villainous to her ears. She said, "It's because you sound straight that you can't say what you said."

I scanned the room for the disgusted looks that, I felt, the comment deserved. I saw only nodding, even beaming countenances, kids who seemed ready to declare their decision to likewise label me a bully. But what had I done? What were my crimes? One could say that I had simply, and shamefully, adopted my attacker's own approach, that I'd duplicated his snobbish refusal to see me as something other than a certain kind of queer. But that wasn't quite the case. Far from a facetious statement, "I'm sorry that I'm not faggy-fabulous" was, coming from me, deeply sincere. I was sorry; I am sorry. I stand on subway platforms flanked by fabulousness, by voguish clothes and clear skin. My desire, never hidden, always written on my face, is prosaic: I want both to be and to love such men. The fact that I infer homosexuality on the basis of their burnished appearance just adds to my self-loathing. I know better: they might be straight, and therefore even further from my experiential realm. But still I stand, with wobbly legs, while competing pinwheels of fear and desire spin in front of my face. I almost faint, every time.

I am not "fabulous." The man who bullied me was not "butch." We could level these accusations against each other, and also, I suspect, against ourselves. But must a qualitative valence always come to color such comments? Must a declaration of gay difference lead to the creation of a hierarchy?

I haven't been able to forget an even earlier incident, one involving two teenagers in a southern Maine middle school. I was one; the other was a rich kid who called me a Kmart gay. Though a marker of hipster chic today, Kmart was in those days, in my own social circles, still suffering from the legacy of Rain Man, the film in which a then-trendsetting Tom Cruise had cried, "Kmart sucks!"

The irony is that I did not buy my clothes at Kmart (though today I do, and passionately). No, I was the son of a hardworking, often struggling, but always elegant woman who made many of my clothes. The problem, for my gay antagonist, was that I wore them poorly. I didn't look good.

To make his point, he grabbed my sweater, a knitted number, numinous in my eyes because my mother had made it, and tore a hole at the shoulder. I punched his face and promptly ended up in the principal's office. Pointing to the tear in my sweater wouldn't suffice as self-defense, I could see immediately. I would have to tell of my terror of a fellow gay kid, of the low grade that he had given me, of the abuse and confusion that I was dealing with. I didn't even like -- I did not want to kiss -- this kid, and that was part of the problem. Wasn't I supposed to want him, this boy who seemed to share my stance on sex?

We had only tentatively, in our limited teen lingo, spoken of being similarly different, of being gay. ("Chris gets a stiffy when he looks at you," said my enemy. "Good," replied I.) But no sooner had those discussions started than they were transformed into something sinister, something evaluative. I was bad and had betrayed my fellow fag. He couldn't relate. I was a Kmart gay.

I tried my best to tell all of this to the counselor assigned to my case. She couldn't help but correct me: "Now, Noah, you know you're not really gay." It was a statement that I'd heard before, from my mother, who'd reminded me that I was neither gay nor straight (since I hadn't hooked up with another person and so couldn't know my "true orientation"), and from my father, who'd suspected me of simply seeking attention.

In claiming that I was straight, most people were, I think, responding not to my reasonably butch appearance (my "manly mannerisms," a classmate had called them) but to my lack of any sort of boyfriend. To this day, I have not had a boyfriend, not really. No date has deigned to meet my parents, and so my parents can't put a face, can't trace a romantic practice, to my rhetoric, to the self-definition that I first delivered 16 years ago. To those who listen to them, my words are empty. I'm all talk.

I often wonder why I pine so prodigiously, or why I stare with a strange mix of disgust and desire at the gorgeous gays who surround me. I live in New York City; models and movie stars are in my midst. It must be that my history of being told that I'm not even gay is making me choke on my own lust, and in the one place where open utterances of same-sex desire seem all too acceptable. I'm fighting not religious bigotry but the blindness of liberals. I often wish that I'd been told that homosexuality is a sin, instead of that I was wrong, that I was somehow fucked-up, in self-defining as gay. I didn't get a very convenient demon.

To downplay the severity of gay bullying is to offer up a fairly familiar form of homophobia. It's to say that "the gays" are largely harmless -- cruelly queeny, sure, but scarcely bullies. Sticks and stones might break one's bones, but bitching is just good fun.

That stance, dependent as it is upon certain stereotypes, is bad enough. But to deny altogether the existence of gay bullying is another matter entirely. It's to betray a belief in the erotic basis of all inter-queer conflicts. Accordingly, if ever we quarrel, it's because we're secretly enamored of one another. This is the infantilizing answer that many a clueless parent has provided, and that mainstream (which is to say straight) romantic comedies have lately investigated. He hates you because he likes you; he hits instead of kisses.

Well, of course he does. He hits because he's a bully, and whatever desires are earnest and incipient in him must be sublimated to a simple recognition of his status as such. Perhaps my scholastic antagonists desired me. I doubt that they did, but I don't much care, in any case, because what matters, all that matters, is that they made me feel small, that their words smarted, that they seemed like bullies.

Anticipating the open declaration of one of my own students, I myself once said, "I'm being bullied, here in school, and it sucks." At the time, I was 14. I couldn't quite articulate the gay basis of the bullying, but I tried to. In so doing, I came out as gay, and was promptly told that I was straight, in what seemed to be the second stage of bullying.

That was well before bullying became such a common topic of conversation, before the endless op-ed pieces about how best to alleviate high school homophobia, before Clementi's suicide and the scores of videos alleging that "It Gets Better." But what, pray tell, is "it"? What's "better"? Those videos, too, seemed bullying; they made me feel such shame that I shivered whenever I watched them. Here were gay and gay-friendly celebrities saying that, as an adult, I would find a community of supportive homosexuals. I haven't found it.

I'm a professor now, a junior professor, struggling to succeed. I'm too old, and, as a professional, too remote, to enter eruptive classroom debates about gay bullying. But I'm not old enough to forget that they once involved me, as both victim and antagonist. "Faggy-fabulous" is a phrase that I once used; a "Kmart gay," the wrong kind of gay, is what I've been called. Gay bullying makes strange bedfellows, and that's because it comes in so many forms.

I met with my student, the victim, the one whose tears had inspired my own, during office hours, ostensibly to discuss his midterm paper. Predictably, he mentioned that he was having a tough time at school, "just in general." I didn't ask him to elaborate. I'm not qualified to offer social advice. Even if I were, to do so would be a perversion of professorial protocol. "The college offers services for those who need them" is a phrase that faculty members are encouraged to furnish.

I found myself saying instead, "I've been there. I had a tough time, too, but you're a terrific writer." I meant it, both the part about relating to the kid's concerns and the acclaim for his talent. As we continued to talk about his coursework, his eyes would light up, and then just as quickly darken. Delight over the promise of my complete understanding would be dampened by my professionally mandated reticence. I could lend a compassionate ear, but I couldn't tell him too much. For me, queer communication comes at a cost.