Readers may have noticed that we’re boiling over here over the fact that three gay kids that we know of have killed themselves this month, having been bullied mercilessly to the point that they felt they had nothing to live for, and that their only escape would be death. Dan Savage has stepped into the fight with his new YouTube project, It Gets Better, wherein successful, happy LGBT people talk directly to the kids who are in the middle of what can be the hell of middle and high school, with that simple message: “It gets better.” And he’s right. Any kids reading this: it does get better. From my 7th to 9th grade years, I was bullied and harassed day in, day out by a bunch of malcontent assholes who, for whatever reason, saw me as a weak link and thus an easy target. For some of them, calling me a “faggot” twelve or thirteen times a day was just What They Did. That’s quite a hell for a kid who, up to that point, wasn’t much interested in “people” in the first place. Going to school became a daily fight, and what I wanted, more than anything, was to disappear. I was fortunate, though. I was never seriously physically harmed; the administration and teachers at my public schools at least sort of tried to do something about it; I had loving parents who fought for me like wolves, even when I wanted them to back off; and I had music as an escape. One of the unfortunate aspects of being bullied is that you often feel like you’re the only one, but the truth is that there are always others dealing with just as bad or worse.
Kevin Dean is a personal friend of mine who graduated from the same private Christian high school I did in Memphis, Tennessee. [Readers might be interested to know that this is the same school where Michael Oher, whose story was told in The Blind Side, went. That was a few years after us, but the point is that this was a Good School.] When I attended that school, I had somehow ended up on the other side of the social divide, had lots of “popular” friends, and was able to finish my high school years with relative ease. Little did I know that, before I came to that school, my friend Kevin was one of those who had it worse than I ever did, much worse, at the hands of people who probably didn’t have the first clue what they were doing, but because of the way they were raised — again, Christian high school — obviously got the message that it’s okay to pick on/beat the shit out of the ones they perceived to be weak, different, “faggots,” or anything else that didn’t conform to the norm. Would my experience have been more like his if I had gone to the [to use the word loosely] “Christian school” instead of the public school when I was younger? I don’t know. Kevin wrote this essay last year, about his personal experiences with bullying, in the wake of another gay teen suicide, Eric Mohat, aged 17. In its original incarnation, the second part of the essay was Eric’s story. I’ve updated it, with Kevin’s permission, to include the stories of the boys who have died this month in Indiana, California and Texas. I think you should all read it. It’s after the fold, because it’s not short, but read it, print it, share it with your kids, hell, share it with other people’s kids. And let them know that yes, it does get better. Kevin can be reached here, and if you have a story to tell, send it to me.
Bully: A Story in Four Acts
by Kevin Dean
I’m in gym class, 5th period on a random Tuesday of my 7th grade year. The gym teacher, a mammoth black man who seems completely disinterested in anyone who isn’t on his football team, has stepped out of the locker room for over five minutes. My classmates are becoming rowdy, snapping each other in the face with towels and slamming lockers. One boy is showing another boy a cigarette he has in his pocket. These are the times I start to get worried.
I’ve just transferred from a smaller satellite school to the main campus of Briarcrest and I only know a handful of people. I’m scrawny, with big frizzy hair and braces. My parents aren’t the richest people in the world, so I am wearing jeans from JC Penney and an Oxford shirt from Sears. I have enormous feet, which my mother has trouble finding shoes for. The ones we settle on are white clunky off-brands, and they make me look like I have robot feet, especially with my tapered leg jeans.
To make matters worse, I’m slightly effeminate and incredibly shy. I don’t like sports, and I don’t make friends easily. Not only am I dealing with the average teenage angst, I’m also questioning my sexuality, looking at boys in ways I know I shouldn’t. I’m horrified someone might find out my secret, so I tend to stay hidden as much as possible. I have three or four friends that I sit with at lunch, but other than them no one really knows my name. I’m not sure I want anyone to know my name.
Since the coach has left, the boys are getting rowdier and rowdier in the locker room. These are the times that I know are the worst for me and anyone different. Without structure and an authority figure to guide them, the locker room can quickly become a Christian school version of Lord of the Flies. I know that in the few short weeks that I have been to this school this is the perfect opportunity to be bullied. The nerds—like me—are shoved into lockers, forced to lick toilets, hit in the face by a sucker punch for no other reason than to have a good laugh at someone else’s expense.
I know this all too well. Last week, a boy had given me a wedgy so hard that it had ripped my underwear and bruised my testicles (Mark Hodges, wherever you are, I hope you get yours ripped off in a horrible accident.) I had gone home that day without telling a soul what had happened. I didn’t want to be a snitch, and I didn’t want my parents thinking I was weak. I was a sensitive kid, yes, but I didn’t want them to know that I was incapable of defending myself. I didn’t even tell the few friends I had. They didn’t seem to be bullied like me, and I didn’t want them thinking I was beneath them.
Now, every moment alone without the security of a teacher I would tense up, scared for my safety and worried I might be humiliated again in front of my classmates. I had trouble sleeping at night in the 7th grade, worried about the next day in gym class or Tennessee History, the two classes that had the highest incidences of Kevin smackdowns. I would walk to my classes fearing that some bully—or even some of my old friends from elementary school—would tear me apart in the halls, pull my pants down in front of a group of girls, or something even more terrible that I hadn’t even thought of yet.
As I stand at my locker changing out of my gym clothes, I hear a kid we’ll call Phillip’s voice behind me. Though I hadn’t fallen victim to Phillip’s wrath of bully terror, I had witnessed him trip a kid in the hall, humiliate an overweight girl in the middle of the cafeteria, and put gum in my friend’s hair. He was terrible, and he was mean, and he made many people’s lives miserable in 7th grade in 1992 at Briarcrest Christian school.
I turn to look behind me, and I caught his eye. I quickly turn back around, hoping he wouldn’t target me. “Hey you,” he says. I don’t respond. “Hey you! Ichabod Crane!” I had been given this nickname in my Tennessee History class a few weeks prior, and it had unfortunately stuck. (Three years later it would be shortened to Ichy, which was even worse). Though I laughed with the other kids about this nickname originally, I knew they were all laughing at me, not with me. They laughed at the fact that I was a poor kid in a rich kid’s school. They laughed at my big frizzy hair and my big nose and the way I walked and the shirts and jeans that I wore and the backpack I had and the answers I gave in class and….just everything. Everything was wrong with me, and everything was worth a good joke at my expense.
I turn around and looked at Phillip without answering. I’m sure he could read the fear all over my face. “You like Superman?”
Initially, I don’t know what he was talking about. I stare at him blankly for a moment. I think he might be baiting me, waiting for me to say something awkward or stupid so he can pounce.
He points to the Superman folder sticking out of my book bag. When I started 7th grade, I assumed that everyone liked comic books, and it was possibly the only way to relate to other boys. My mother and I bought lots of comic book pens and folders for me that year, and I assumed it would help create a connection somewhere. I had nothing else “masculine” to offer other boys, but at least I could talk comics. Or so I thought.
I nod at him. Literally, I was sometimes too afraid to speak in those days (can you imagine??) [Editor’s note: Yes, this is hard to imagine. Same could be said of me, though.]
“You see the movies? You know, those Superman movies?” he asks. He’s the epitome of Mr. Tough Guy as he says this.
Oh, sweet relief. Phillip was actually a comic book fan, and he was being nice to me. I smiled at him, ready to have my first real conversation with someone about comic books. I loved comic books and used to carry around Superman and Wonder Woman birthday cake toppers when I was only two. I watched Super Friends religiously, and I had every Super Powers figure that they created.
I was so eager to be accepted by someone, to not feel isolated, to not feel ashamed of everything I did and said and wore that I completely forgot everything at that moment. For a split second, the anxiety that had gripped me since the first day of 7th grade was gone. I could talk without stumbling or mumbling or feeling a sense of dread that whenever I stopped speaking, something bad would happen.
“I didn’t like the third or fourth movie. I really liked the second Superman, the one with General Zod. It was so cool,” I said with an overstated enthusiasm.
Wow. I had a new friend, perhaps one that could talk with me about comics regularly. Maybe he would start sitting at my lunch table with me. We could have sleepovers, and I could have someone other than my little brother to challenge on my Nintendo.
I never had close friends as a child. I had classmates that liked me, but I never really was able to find anyone that made me feel comfortable. I don’t think I needed another gay kid. I just needed someone different, someone who didn’t fit the mold that it seemed everyone else in my life fit neatly into. I was a weird kid. I had big thoughts and big emotions and enjoyed doing weird stuff that other kids didn’t like. I always wished that I had found someone who shared my interest, shared my weirdness, someone that I connected with on a level that extended beyond just being a classmates or a family friend.
Phillip’s smiling face, which I suddenly realized was a smirk instead of a warm smile, changed quickly. “Faggot!” he said, and shoved my face into the locker. My nose hit the lock, and I heard a crack. I also heard a group of kids laughing behind me.
Phillip stared at me laughing long enough to see the blood begin to drip from my nose.
I stayed behind in the locker room after the bell rang and had a good cry. I didn’t want anyone to see me crying, and I certainly didn’t want anyone else to know about my nose.
When my puffy eyes had finally cleared and my nose had stopped bleeding, I gathered my things from the locker room and made my way out into school, where I prayed no one else would notice me.
Part II. “Bullicide”
Eric Mohat, 17, was harassed so mercilessly in high school that when one bully said publicly in class, “Why don’t you go home and shoot yourself, no one will miss you,” he did.
Now his parents, William and Janis Mohat of Mentor, Ohio, have filed a lawsuit in federal court, saying that their son endured name-calling, teasing, constant pushing and shoving and hitting in front of school officials who should have protected him.
The lawsuit — filed March 27, alleges that the quiet but likable boy, who was involved in theater and music, was called “gay,” “fag,” “queer” and “homo” and often in front of his teachers. Most of the harassment took place in math class and the teacher — an athletic coach — was accused of failing to protect the boy.
“When you lose a child like this it destroys you in ways you can’t even describe,” Eric Mohat’s father told ABCNews.com.
Eric Mohat — whose friends knew him as “Twiggy” for his lean, 6-foot-1-inch, 112-pound physique — had a dry wit and musical talent, according to his mother, Jan Mohat. He had played piano for 13 years, enjoyed video games, anime, Harry Potter books and “cracking puzzles.”
“By all indications he was a very nice, typical high school kid, kind of quiet and shy, but outgoing with his little group of friends,” said the family’s lawyer Ken Myers. “He seemed to have a quirky sense of humor and was also very sensitive.”
Much of the taunting was related to him being considered gay, though Eric Mohat’s parents said the teen “didn’t identify himself that way,” Myers said.
“He may have looked effeminate, was in theater and would wear bright clothes,” said Myers. “He was a skinny kid, and so the kids found something that bothered him and went for that.”
The parents say Eric Mohat routinely ignored the teasing but complained to the teacher, who responded by moving the bullies’ desks.
Friends say bullying went too far after a 15-year-old high school freshman committed suicide.
The apparent target of bullies, high school freshman Billy Lucas had told friends and school administrators that he was happy in high school and was starting to settle in.
“He was threatened to get beat up every day,” friend and classmate Nick Hughes said. “Sometimes in classes, kids would act like they were going to punch him and stuff and push him.”
Chappel said that no one had been punished for picking on Lucas, and that bullying had not even hit their radar.
“Sometimes he created that atmosphere around him,” Chappel said. “Kind of like a little tornado because he went around doing things that made dust fly, I guess.”
Friends of Lucas say that he had been tormented for years.
“Some people at school called him names,” Hughes said, saying most of those names questioned Lucas’ sexual orientation, and that Lucas, for the most part, did little to defend himself.
“He would try to but people would just try to break him down with words and stuff and just pick on him,” Hughes said.
The eighth-grader killed himself last week. He shot himself in the head after enduring what his mother and stepfather say was constant harassment from four other students at Hamilton Middle School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District.
Brown, his family said, was “bullied to death” — picked on for his small size, his religion and because he did not wear designer clothes and shoes. Kids also accused him of being gay, some of them performing mock gay acts on him in his physical education class, his mother and stepfather said.
The 13-year-old’s parents said they had complained about the bullying to Hamilton Middle School officials during the past 18 months, but claimed their concerns fell on deaf ears.
On the morning of his death, the teen told his stepfather he was gay, but Truong said he was fine with the disclosure. “We didn’t condemn,” he said.
Seth Walsh, a California teen who spent the last 10 days on life support after attempting suicide over relentless bullying because he was gay, died today. He was 13 years old.
Seth’s family took him off life support this afternoon, reports KGET-TV.
Seth was found Sunday, September 19, unconscious and not breathing, and it appeared he had tried to hang himself from a tree branch, according to police reports. He was rushed by helicopter to Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield.
According to reports, Seth was openly gay and was taunted by bullies for years, at school and at a local park.
He attended Jacobsen Middle School last year and for only two weeks this year, before being transferred to independent study — reportedly because he had been bullied relentlessly. But school officials at Tehachapi Union School District claim there have been no reports of bullying.
Part III. Return Of The New Friend
After spending the morning opening people’s eyes to my little nonprofit called Hope House, chowing down on BBQ nachos, and watching the trick dogs perform stunts at the Showcase of Dogs, I was in a great mood. Hope House was going to bring in a lot of money at this event, and I personally had enjoyed talking with so many fresh faces about the organization I love. I had dressed cute that day, and my hair looked good, and that pimple had gone away, and I had a new pair of shoes on that made my enormous feet look small. Hoorah!
And then….there he was. Phillip. Phillip Phillip Phillip. Now you’re probably expecting me to say that Phillip was overweight, disheveled, working as a gas station attendant, right? That’s how all of these stories always go. Nerd comes out on top, gets his revenge by being the best he can be. Bully gets fat, lives an unhappy, unsuccessful life, has too many wives and children he resents, and gets shamed in public through a series of slapstick mishaps. At the end, nerd laughs and it becomes a great story to share.
That’s not how this story goes. Unfortunately, I am not living “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” as much as I’d like to.
Phillip looked great. The slight pudge he had in high school was gone, and I could tell by the veins in his neck and arms that he was in perfect shape. He had cut off his wild high school mane of hair, and he was dressed in an outfit that seemed to have been plucked right off a mannequin at Banana Republic. He still had that confident swagger and those lips that at first seemed like a smile but at the right angle transformed into a devilish snarl.
He was with his gorgeous family. Two blonde daughters, both with dimples and curls. They both looked like the little girl on the side of the suntan lotion bottle. Their mother was a stunning lady, thin with great cheekbones and soft shoulders. She had a great sense of style, too. She looked like she had just gotten of the plane from Vail, with her Ugg boots and her faux fox shawl. The family looked like they had just stepped out of a fucking J. Crew ad, and I wanted to vomit.
“What’s Hope House?” his wife says to me. Like a robot, I begin spilling the mission and objectives of Hope House. The wife sighs and shakes her head as I speak. “Oh, that just makes me want to cry. Girls, this really makes me appreciate how much we have.”
I hate people who say this. They look at our clients and instantly think of themselves, instantly are grateful that they have wealth, health, a family who cares about them, etc. Because our poor little black children are only examples without dignity to them, the only thing that suddenly, urgently matters to them is how much they have. I get so frustrated when white people say this, as if to imply, “Thank God I wasn’t born black to a sick Mom!” They aren’t so much concerned for our children as concerned for the maintenance of their own swell lives, and hearing my speech about the indignities of being born into the wrong family—or the right family who just doesn’t have a choice in the struggles they have to endure—only makes them want to buy a house in a gated community more. When people say this to me, the whole “makes me thankful for what I have” speech, I instantly begin talking about opportunities to donate. You’re not getting away with saying something so selfish and stupid without giving money to my charity.
Phillip, meanwhile, seemed completely bored by the subject. I had a half-second hallucination of me standing up, telling him off while I rolled my neck and wagged my finger in his face. Fifteen years later, seeing him brought back the worst memories of my childhood. Bloody noses, bruises, shame, humiliation. Thanks, Phillip.
I looked down at his two precious blonde daughters. I wondered how he treated them. I wondered if he taught them about bullying. When the teacher sends home a note that one of the girls has been teasing the girl in the wheelchair, or that fat girl that sits behind them, or that weird girl who looks like Wednesday Addams, what will he say? Will he look at the note and laugh, then ball the note up and throw it in the trash? Will he look at them and tell them, “Girls, this should really make you appreciate how much you have. I’m so glad my daughters weren’t born fat, ugly, or weird.” Or maybe he sits them down and recounts the story of how he made a dozen or so teenager’s lives miserable from 7th to 9th grade at Briarcrest Christian High School.
I look at his wife. What does she go through? Underneath the perky rich girl demeanor, is she secretly trying to get away? Underneath the makeup, are their bruises? I watched as Phillip made life hell for me and several other people in high school. Why would he not hurt the people closest to him, too? Obviously, hurting people is how he gets his power.
For some reason I didn’t feel like I had dressed as cute as I had thought, and I noticed the BBQ sauces stain on my shirt. My hair needed more volume, and the rain had made it frizzier than I had thought. That pimple had left a scar, and it was obvious. Ugh, and these shoes are obviously from the sales rack! Shit!
“We went to high school together,” I said to him. It came out of my mouth before I could even think about why I was saying it.
He looked at me with squinted eyes like he was trying to really see me. “Did we?”
“Yes, I’m Kevin Dean. I sat beside you in Mrs. Watson’s anatomy class.”
He squinted his eyes again. “Did we?”
I envisioned myself reaching across the booth and strangling him to death right there in front of his family. I had panic attacks for years because of this guy. My nose was broken by this guy. He gave one of my friends a black eye in 8th grade. He poured Hawaiian Punch in my pants at lunch one day. I’ve held onto those moments for years. I went off to college scared to make new friends for fear that they’d break my nose in a locker room. I stopped doing theatre in high school because Phillip called us all faggots. And he doesn’t FUCKING remember me?
“Yes, we did,” I said calmly. “We were in junior high and high school.”
“Wow, you have a good memory,” he said.
I squeezed the Coke Zero bottle in my hand. Don’t throw it on him don’t throw it on him don’t throw it on him don’t throw it on him, I kept saying in my head.
“Good to see you, I guess. Have a good one,” Phillip said, and he waved at me one last time. And he was gone, his beautiful little blonde family en tow.
I’d like to say that at that moment I was able to realize how much Phillip had given to me. He really did. He empowered me to stand up for myself. He made me constantly fight for the underdog and lash out at those who I feel oppress others. He helped shape who became and how I picked my friends. He gave me insight into myself and allowed me the opportunity to examine who I really was. He forced me to make the best of myself, just to prove him wrong. When I made decisions after high school, Phillip was the reason I made some important ones. I made so many right decisions in my life because of people like Phillip, and in a weird way I probably owed him thanks for all the strength he had given me.
I wish I could have realized that Phillip’s success had nothing to do with mine. I would have loved to have seen him be some crack-addicted college dropout, but he wasn’t. He was just fine. His success had no bearing upon mine, and it wasn’t a reflection on who I was as a person. No matter how proud I am of myself for my accomplishments, it just didn’t seem fair that he turned out okay, too. I wish I had realized at that moment that he really meant nothing to me, and I was better off for being bullied by him than never knowing him at all. I might not have made bold decisions without him. I might have been weak without him.
I wish I had felt that way. I wish, as I stood in that booth as he walked away and disappeared into the crowd, that I could have rationalized it. I wish I could have felt stronger as he walked away, but I felt weak again. It was a weakness I hadn’t felt since high school. All I could think of was that moment in the locker room in high school, my nose bleeding, other kids laughing at me, and being called a faggot.
What a word, that “faggot” word. This is the same word that those guys probably were screaming at Matthew Shepard as they beat him to death. It’s the same word that Harvey Milk’s killer was thinking when he shot him. This was the same word probably running through Eric Mohat’s head as he put the gun up to his head. What power that word has. All I could feel as he walked away was that word and that nosebleed and that shame in the locker room.
A lady walked up to the booth. “What’s Hope House?” I smiled at her and began reciting my paragraph about the organization. Back to my reality, my wonderful, peaceful reality. The moment had passed. I was back to ME.
I wonder if Phillip will ever remember me, or if he remembered me from the beginning but didn’t want to acknowledge all the pain he had caused me. Maybe one day he’ll be laying in his bed and remember all the pain he inflicted on the boys and girls of the class of 1997, 1998, and 1999, and he’ll wake up that next morning feeling the need to have an important conversation with his children about bullying and tolerance and respect.
Or maybe not. He’s not my problem anymore. Life is good.
Part IV. And On The Eighth Day, All Gods Creatures Became Anatomy Tests
A poem by Kevin Dean
you are a fetal pig, dead
and pink, your flesh torn
and guts exposed; in my head
I begin to mourn
at your loss, my gain of lore;
this sacrifice be
the exposure of your gore
for your dignity;
if God could see me now, I
think; he creates new
life, which I dissect; I sigh
and wish I was through
with being human; I now
feel the urge to cry
because here I must allow
that in some ways I
am like you are now, bacon
for the world to fry
or tests of knowledge, taken
to live and let die
like all that I could feel was,
in essence, hollow
to the world, mangling because
of needs to follow
or outdo the world which came
before. Your only
request being mud, I maim
like it’s felony
to be a creature without
thumbs, like hooves or a snout
(in other words, sorry to
have cut you but never knew