Thirteen years ago Matthew Shepard was clinging to life as a result of a brutal, anti-gay attack. The voices of my mom and brother still haunt me: "That could have been Mark." It was only a few weeks prior to Matthew's attack that I was contemplating suicide, having endured years of anti-gay bullying and torment.
Even though it was over a decade ago, I vividly remember the harassment I endured: older boys pushing me against the metal lockers pretending to rape me, carvings in my desk that said "fag," my German project defaced with "Mark loves men," the spitballs hitting the back of my head on the bus, my heels being kicked as I walked down the hallway, teachers turning around when they saw me in fistfights, and the police telling me there was nothing they could do.
I would skip gym class because "the fag" was never picked to be on anyone's team, and once, other students had urinated on my clothes and put them in the shower. I would hide behind the school on the stoop, even as I heard the muffled announcement through the intercom, "Mark Snyder, report to the office." I would stay home sick until my parents received threatening letters about how many days I could legally skip class.
My father's black, shiny handgun to my head, I painfully decided not to take my own life but to make one last plea for help. Fortunately, my parents heard me and helped me find a public school in a bigger, slightly more liberal town. I had to get permission from both school boards, and my parents had to pay tuition because the school was not in my district.
The new school was better but not great. I still had death threats on my car, and I still felt incredibly isolated. I didn't attend most school events or go out with friends in the evenings. I spent most of my time searching for other gay people on my dial-up modem. During my junior year I took a leap of faith and wrote a letter to Emerson College in Boston begging them to let me complete my senior year of high school with my freshmen year of college. They heard my cry for help and accepted me into college without a high school diploma. They saved my life.
Perhaps it was because my parents were taking out a home equity loan to pay for it, but I like to think my plea for help, and the fact that Emerson used affirmative action to ensure people in rural areas and LGBTQ people were given a fair chance to succeed, played a role in their decision to accept me.
The year I went to college, as I was becoming an activist with the help of Boston's local LGBTQ nonprofits, such as the Boston Alliance of LGBT Youth, I heard the alarming news that a man in my hometown was beaten into a coma in an anti-gay attack. Once again, I found myself thinking, "That could have been me." He died not long after.
In the 11 years since then, I've been working in communications for the LGBTQ movement and tattooed the word "Sissy" on my arm, and my own father began coming out as gay after his own suicide attempt. He is incarcerated now, and I have been supporting him mostly through letters.
So by 2010, when Brandon Bitner, who attended the very same high school at which I was so tormented, killed himself due to anti-gay bullying, I was not surprised, just deeply saddened. My heart aches for the thousands of youth still facing violence and feeling alone.
I am so grateful that my father and I are survivors that I feel an enormous responsibility to make it better for all LGBTQ people and their families, especially youth.
In honor of Matthew Shepard, please join me in supporting the Make It Better Project, launched by the GSA Network, so that we can finally conquer the isolation and violence.