I think I made a critical error when writing "What Happened When Children Were to Blame for a Hate Crime." As true to that night's story as I was, people seemed to perceive that responding to our young neighbor's homophobia with compassion was a natural, easy choice. And, though I do wish that I could make a cake out of rainbows and smiles and we would eat and all be happy, I also really wanted to go back to grade school and teach him some playground justice.
Seriously, in that first moment, when I realized that our humanity was no more than material for a practical joke, I was livid. I wanted to throw a brick right back through their window, a cinderblock painted six shades of pride with a note attached that cursed his probably-closeted self to remember this moment when he comes out in five or ten years.
Luckily, we were short on cinderblocks and, waiting two hours for the police, long on time. Somewhere between blaming the parents and writing the letter, I remember saying, "I never would have done something like that," -- which is true; I was a pretentious little stickler for rules -- "I never would have thought something so terrible," -- which is false; I myself collected some pretty terrible thoughts as a kid. I didn't always bake cakes of rainbows and smiles; I used to hide behind my own living burn book.
I had gone from homophobic jungle freak to shiny Instagram gay.
At 12, I had a sleepover with my best friend. Let's call him Dan. Dan innocently suggested that we put both of our sleeping bags together to make a bigger bed. After he left the next morning, my parents sat me down and demanded to know what "happened" that led to us sleeping side by side. Suddenly aware that sleeping next to another boy was cause for concern, I felt the need to make a cover story that we were wrestling and fell asleep mid-play. You can imagine how that backfired.
Later that month, I championed a campaign at school to prove that Dan liked boys. I created a fake AOL Instant Messenger screen name and pretended to be an older guy at school that was interested in him. And I printed a few copies on my parents' inkjet to share. A little harsh, Gretch.
At 16, sitting in the passenger seat as my father drove our "embarrassing" Suburban, I was ignoring his attempts to make small talk, offering only the occasional eye roll. My phone rang, and I answered my friend's call with a, "I can't talk now; my father is here. You know how intrusive he is." Dad slammed on the brakes. "That's it. No more secrets. You think you're so smooth? You're not smooth enough to hide the gay porn you open on the computer." I panicked. I quickly made a cover story that it was an email virus from all of these illegal song-downloading programs that I wasn't supposed to have. You can, again, imagine how that backfired.
Later that month, election month, I championed the Republican stance on gay marriage, claiming that being gay was a choice, all the while secretly hoping and praying that it was. I couldn't apologize to Ms. Norbury without being blamed for the whole burn book.
Flash forward to me at 24 years old, nearly about to shit a rainbow brick just so that I had one to throw through a window. At a child. Who wrote something on my door. In nothing more permanent than sunblock. And I realized that while burning down the building would clear the graffiti, so would a little water. With a little elbow grease, maybe a few other wrongs could be washed away for both of us.
Having occasionally been an accidental delinquent -- an eloquent, crafty delinquent, but a delinquent nonetheless -- I thought that this might not be attention-seeking destruction, but attention-diverting destruction. Maybe he was scared and needed to hide behind the first crazy idea that popped into his head, just like I did. Maybe he needed someone to humanize these issues, just like I did. I never had that person, and I wondered whether my own self-hate, turned outward-hate, could have been quelled years earlier.
My actions that night came from a place of sympathy, compassion, and understanding. It wasn't about making up for an assumed lack of parenting; I myself had wonderful parents who I now know were just in over their heads. Nor was it about some fair-trade punishment; I myself would have benefited from being held accountable for my serious actions, as well as the serious feelings behind them.
Perhaps it is narcissistically out of my jurisdiction to assume that my young neighbor may be battling some of the same demons that I did as a child. I'll probably never know, and I suppose it's none of my business, but I would be proud to be a real-life "It Gets Better" ad for a young guy who may be too afraid to identify with the campaign. Even if his subconscious is far less glittery than that, I still hope that he had some fragment of self-discovery, whatever it may be. I am twice his age, and that night certainly helped me remember that only after your inner hate comes out, you can too.
Watch the interview with YouTube vlogger Hank Chen that helped inspire this article: