Yesterday, my girlfriend called attention to an internet campaign designed to tell high school students who are questioning their sexual orientation that "it gets better" if only they stick it out. This campaign comes in response to recent suicides by high schoolers who had been bullied for being gay or bi, and is an attempt to give perspective to people who might not see a way out of the bullying they undergo as teenagers.
This campaign reminds me of someone in my high school--I graduated in 1992--who was openly gay and who suffered much abuse. As far as I know, he was the only "out" student, and everyone made jokes about him. On at least one occasion that I know of, he was treated violently. On this occasion, he was apparently practicing for a school play as part of the school's theater group. He was in the auditorium and on stage, and someone hiding up in the upper row of the auditorium shot at him with a BB gun and hit him.
But this post isn't about him or about the one who shot at him. It's about me. I never did one thing to stop the jokes and verbal abuse. I realize now that I didn't even have to be a hero about it. I didn't even do the bare minimum, such as simply telling people that I didn't want to hear any gossip or jokes about anybody
Nor is it a defense that at that time in my life I believed homosexuality to be a sin and to be bad. Not that I believe that such a value system--that marks being gay as evil--can ever be a defense for the way he was treated, but my own value system at the time stipulated that one mustn't hurt another person for an arbitrary reason.
When we had heard that this student had been shot at by a BB gun, it was taken as a humorous thing by me and my friends. We had no role in the attack or in the planning of the attack, but we--and I would wager most people at the school--had a pretty good idea of who did it, and no one to my knowledge ever reported him. It was funny because, after all, the student who had been attacked was so openly gay he was "asking for it." Besides, BB guns are usually not dangerous and this student hadn't been physically harmed outside of a bruise that must have gone away after a few days.
A few weeks (or maybe a few months?) after the BB gun attack, one of the Denver newspapers--I forget if it was the Post or the Rocky Mountain News--published in its lifestyles section (if I recall correctly) on what it's like to be gay in the Denver Public School system, and this student was interviewed. His experiences with the BB gun attack were related. The publication of that story caused me to figuratively roll my eyes about the "liberal media" with their pro-gay agenda, and I probably thought to myself something like "why the hell do they give this f-- a story."
But then my aunt, who at the time was about 70 years old at the time (she actually just passed away a few months ago, at the age of 88), read the story. And she commented to me about how horrible it was that someone at my school had been shot with a BB gun just for being gay. The disgust with which she said it, with its obvious implication that it was inexcusable to bully people like that, filled me inwardly with shame that I, in my own way, had played a role in making this student's life at school at best miserable.
Incidents like that--my aunt showing me by her words and actions that it was wrong to abuse people for being gay--were part of a very slow process that started me thinking about homophobia and about why it was wrong to illtreat people just for being different and about my own complicity in perpetuating such treatment. There were other factors, too, and, again, the process, which I won't describe right now, was a slow one. But I gradually came to the realization that being gay is not bad and that it is wrong to abuse people for that reason or any other arbitrary reason.
But I do wonder sometimes, and again now, in light of the current "it gets better campaign": did it get better for this student? I do hope so. I know he had friends in the high school who stood up for him and offered him support, I hope they were strong enough to see him through to whatever he did after high school.
But again, this blog post isn't about him. I've done a lot of things in my life that I'm not proud of, and my failure to stand up for him, or at least offer him my friendship, is one of them. Now, from the safety of my desktop and my pseudonymous blogspot ID, I can write about the rightness, justice, and necessity of acceptance with almost no fear of negative consequences. If called in the future to take risks for others, I sure hope I would. But I know that in the past I certainly failed to do so.