It didn't take long for the kids in my high school to call me "faggot." What started as an insult in the corridor of the main building during my freshman year quickly echoed into four years of prank phone calls, threatening IMs, and physical assaults. However, Dan Savage's sermon is not a lie. It did get better after high school. But while my life changed in so many ways, when I reflected on those awkward years, I found myself furious and still holding a grudge. It wasn't until over 10 years later, when I came face-to-face with my bully at a small bar in Miami, that I found forgiveness.
High school wasn't the first time I was bullied. I had been called "faggot," "queer," "mariposa," and "flamer" at my small Catholic junior high school in Miami thanks to my overly styled hair and my obsession with Sailor Moon. It didn't end with name calling in junior high. During Ms. Boffil's religion class, while we were readying ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of Confirmation, the other boys would poke my butt with their Paper Mate ballpoint pens while softly chanting "fag" in my ear.
In the end we were all confirmed, and those boys smiled the brightest while posing for photographs with Ms. Boffil on the night of our Confirmation. I was left with a peculiar feeling after the ceremony. I did not sense the Holy Spirit's presence in my life whatsoever. However, I hoped that the other boys did, and that they would realize that what they were doing to me was wrong. They didn't. The bullying continued in religion class, but now it was more aggressive. They'd smack the back of my head, knock papers out of my hands, and push me out of my seat. Ms. Boffil never did anything to stop them, and I came to feel that nowhere was safe, not even a space for learning about God.
I found confidence during the summer before high school. The new school that I would attend was in Coconut Grove, and no one I knew was going there. I would finally be liberated from my tormentors. This newfound confidence translated into how I acted. I became extroverted, talking with my hands and letting my emerging lisp run free. I made bold fashion choices, frosting the tips of my hair and wearing tight tees from Pacific Sunwear. For the first time in my life, I was proud when I looked into the mirror, and I slapped a Sailor Moon sticker onto my new trapper keeper.
On that first day of high school, there was no one else with frosted tips. The metamorphosis I had gone through over the summer only made me a neon target at the new school. Words like "fag" and "gay" were reemerging. I dyed my hair brown and tore the sticker off my trapper keeper, but it seemed like everything I did, from how I wore my uniform to the way I walked, was deemed "gay" by my new peers.
"You walk like a pato," one girl told me. "Walk like a man. You don't want to be maricón, do you?"
She was right. I did not want to be gay.
Eventually I made friends in high school, but I didn't come out, and there were plenty of people ready to bully me. Some were overt about it, shoving me into a locker like a sad cliché. Others were more covert, sending me anonymous IMs with the word "pato." But there was one person whose bullying made me feel helpless, and I carried his cruelty with me through the years following high school. For the sake of this blog post, I'll call him "TJ."
TJ was not the meathead, Karofsky archetype that one normally thinks of when talking about bullies. He was a straight-A student, in AP classes, and constantly on the morning announcements for his accomplishments. If there was anyone who was going to be valedictorian of La Salle High School in 2002, it was going to be TJ. He was also charming and able to win over large crowds with jokes, and he sat at the head of his lunch table like a king.
It's easy to look back and assume that TJ must have been taking out some buried insecurity on me, but that wouldn't be true. In fact, he was the opposite of insecure: He was confident.
One morning during junior year, TJ chased me to biology class, stormed the classroom, and exclaimed in front of everyone, "You're a faggot, Paul."
Another time, an online message board was started as a gesture of rebellion against the school's administration, as demonstrated by the communist Cuba motif that it sported. On the board there was a whole thread dedicated to my sexuality, with the usual slurs being thrown around. Weeks after the thread was started, our dean pulled me aside to say, "Don't worry. They won't call you gay on the Internet anymore."
The founder of the message board was never revealed, but in my opinion, it was clear who had started it -- or at the very least, it was clear who had had a hand in its creation.
Over the years I forgot about the message board and biology class, but what stuck with me was the humiliation -- not the humiliation of being embarrassed but the humiliation of realizing that TJ had known me better than I'd known myself. He'd announced to everyone that I was a faggot before I'd had the chance to discover it for myself, and I'd had to defend myself without knowing exactly what a faggot even was. He'd forced me to say in front of everyone, "No! I'm not a faggot!" as if being a faggot were the worse thing imaginable.
I spent this past summer back home, finishing my first novel. My friend Karina invited me to grab drinks with her and a few other people from high school at a small bar in downtown Miami called Finnegans. We drank, laughed, and got along. No one called me a fag, instead congratulating me on my accomplishments. It seemed that any ill feelings were in the rear-view mirror.
Then Karina exclaimed, "TJ is on his way!"
I'd spent over 10 years playing scenarios of running into TJ in my head, ruminating on how I would confront him as an adult. Still, I was trembling with both fear and anger at the thought of seeing him again.
TJ made eye contact with me when he stepped out of the cab. I ignored him and went back to my conversation. The post-high school stereotypes are true. Bullies do become overweight. I don't say this out of spite but to demonstrate that from the second I laid eyes on TJ that night, he no longer seemed mythological. He looked vulnerable and unsuspectingly human. I continued to ignore him, and as the evening progressed, it began to feel anticlimactic. How could I not confront TJ? I owed it to my inner teen, who'd had to tear off his Sailor Moon sticker.
Karina was with him at the bar when I approached. We gave each other a half-hug. He knew that I was living in New York and mentioned that he'd gone to law school in Queens. I steered the conversation toward how great my life was, telling him about the book, the fabulous Manhattan parties, and how much I'd paid for my sneakers. In retrospect, I realize that showing off must have given away the fact that I had something to prove, but at the time I thought it was pivotal in communicating my self-respect. I kept mentioning that I'm gay to let him know that he'd been right about me back in high school. I am a faggot, and a proud one at that!
TJ said that he'd tell everyone in his office to buy the book, and he paid for my drink in congratulation. We took the conversation outside, and at no point did it feel right to tell him off. After several shots of tequila, we were left alone. In my drunken stupor I asked what else he was up to, and his reply was a clear effort to prove himself.
"I'm like Jay Gatsby," he mumbled, intoxicated. "I've climbed up from nothing to impress this girl."
I could have said something snide like, "I can't imagine why she wouldn't fall for you," but I didn't. Instead I placed my hand on his shoulder, acknowledging that the man I'd held a grudge against for so long no longer existed, and said something to the effect of, "Well, she's an idiot if she can't accept you for who you are." And we clinked our tequilas.
We forget that, often, it does not get better for bullies after high school. Where we spent years thickening our skin, they are released into the world no longer kings of the lunch table.
In the weeks that followed, I found myself silently rooting for TJ, hoping that he got the girl and learned to get over his insecurity. He's matured into a successful lawyer, and the girl would be lucky to date him. More importantly, I found forgiveness and closure. I no longer remember him as a monster but as a boy in need of love.
I originally published a version of this essay on Queerty. Karina sent TJ the essay, and he reached out to me. He praised the writing and my ability to be objective. He also apologized for his behavior during high school.
I felt uncomfortable receiving the apology. When I originally wrote this piece, I wasn't seeking an apology. What I wanted to do was remind all of us who have been bullied that it's imperative to forgive, and that bullies are human too. But even so, receiving that apology demonstrated TJ's character and how much he has grown since high school. And, yes, it got better for him after that night at Finnegans: He got the girl.
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