I am a 21-year-old college student at Radford University, in Radford, Va. I am from a place called Max Meadows, Va. Our community is itty-bitty and is mostly populated by individuals who have spent their entire lives in and around the area. It's a small town in the South, so, naturally, the way of thinking there is several decades behind other places in our nation. It isn't uncommon to encounter hate or discrimination; in fact, it can happen on a daily basis. As a gay male, I grew up in fear of how the community might react to my sexual orientation, so I kept everything all bottled up inside. However, I was perceived as being gay, and in high school that's all the bullies need; they don't care what the truth is. I went through elementary school, middle school and most of high school with very few friends. Many days I would make myself sick so that I could go home early.
I was called things like "fag" and "homo" every single day. I was shoved, punched, spit on, shunned and told frequently that I would be better off if I just killed myself. Sometimes I believed it. Once someone stole my backpack and urinated all over the inside of it. My locker was covered in shaving cream. I was hit with rocks and tripped, and my lunch and homework were stolen. There was nothing I could do to escape the torment of simply being what other people perceived me as being. My perfect grades began to slip downward. Even people who had claimed to be my friend turned their backs on me. Sleep became something that eluded me.
Books became my savior. Whenever I had free time, I read. Delving into a novel would transport me to another world, a world where I could forget about how much I was hurting. I learned to tune out the world around me and live in the worlds within the pages before me. Even now, you have to forcibly take my Kindle away from me to get to me pay attention to you. But there weren't always times when words could carry me away from the pain.
In high school my family moved to a different part of the county. I'm happy to say that I endured little torment at Rural Retreat High School, but my parents separated, and my dad began to drink, something I had never seen before. He became distant, and my mom lived far away from where I was. The divorce was messy, brutal and horrifying. I bounced around between each parent so much that I felt dizzy. All the while, I was dealing with the fact that something was "wrong" with me, something that my family and my religion didn't allow.
Why would the God that I had tried so hard to serve make me gay? Couldn't he have given me something else to deal with? I prayed constantly for him to take it away from me. My life was a constant internal battle. My heart was split into so many pieces, and they were all at war with one another. What more could I do to escape? Pain was coming from all sides: parents, self-hatred, church, failing grades. I couldn't take anymore.
The courts ordered counseling for my family. For months I would go to a lady named Heather, and she would try to get me to open up. I just lied, hiding behind the façade of my religion. But I'm sure she saw right through me. A balloon of emotion and truth was welling up inside me, and I wanted more than anything to burst it in that little room with Heather. But I never did. I wonder how different my life would have been if I had just confided my pain in her.
Finally, there was no more that I could endure. Suicide seemed to be my only way out, so that is the road that I decided to follow. Thankfully, I was not successful.
With nowhere else to turn, I moved far away and began to work. Being alone for a year forced me to be real with myself. Standing in the upstairs bathroom of my house in Beckley, W.Va., I forced myself to come to terms with who I was. Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I said, "I'm gay." It felt so good that I laughed.
I came back to Virginia and tried to make things better with my family. My dad was dating a really sweet lady, and I became close with her daughter. I told her that I'm gay, and she told my entire family. I haven't spoken to most of them, including my dad, since.
Homeless and alone, I showed up at my Aunt Rachel and Uncle Ronnie's house. They took me in, fed me and gave me a place to sleep. I never left. They are my "parents" now. I've never been happier. These are the two kindest people I've ever met. Retirement was treating them well, but the two of them started working again to help put me through college. Whenever I need someone to talk to, home is the first place I call.
Radford University is still in the South, but it is much more liberal than my hometown. I've been shown so much support there that it made me speechless at first. Family used to mean blood to me, but not anymore. In the Disney movie Lilo & Stitch, the Hawaiian concept of "'ohana" is one of the major themes. One of the characters in the movie explains it this way: "''Ohana' means 'family,' and 'family' means nobody gets left behind or forgotten." My favorite part is near the end, when Stitch is about to be taken into custody and he tells another character, "This is my family. It is very small and broken but good. Yes, still good." Aunt Rachel, Uncle Ronnie, Radford University, you're my family. Small and broken but good. Yes, still good.
I'm choosing to stand up as a Spirit Day Ambassador because I know what it's like to be bullied. I know the pain that LGBT youth are facing, the self-hatred and the disappointment. There is a real need for legislation against bullying, but even more so, there is a need for allies. We need people who are willing to stand up to the bullies when their victims cannot. So I am urging everyone to stand with me. Take a stance against bullying of all types, for all reasons. Standing up is going to be hard, but life begins at the end of your comfort zone. In the words of one of the greatest men to ever live, Martin Luther King, Jr., "the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
To all the bullied students: Don't wish your life away. Don't waste the beautiful individual that you are. Your heart is broken, but someone is waiting for you. They can mend your heart, and you can mend theirs. Don't let the bullies get you down. If I had let the bullies get me down, I wouldn't have this opportunity to reach out to all the others.