Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why I Celebrate Spirit Day

(This post contains some strong language based on real-life events)

Today is Spirit Day, and I hope that you (like myself) are wearing your purple proudly.  Spirit Day, for those unfamiliar, is a day set aside to take a stand against bullying, particularly against LGTBQ youth. It started in 2010, after a number of young LGBT teenagers took their lives after being bullied and harassed for being gay.  This comes on the heels of National Coming Out day (I celebrated my twelfth year out of the closet earlier this week!), and so I wanted to share a bit of my story and why this day is very personal to me, and why it should really be personal to all of us.

I don't frequently write about myself and my own experience on this blog since the goal here is really around politics, movies, and occasionally other meanderings that my mind takes, but I do exist outside of the confines of Oscar Viewing Projects and lists of competitive Senate seats.  I started writing on this blog in part because I wanted to better keep track of Oscar-nominated films I had seen (too frequently I found that I was forgetting facts about films that I'd eventually have to judge for the OVP), and in part because, since this is largely anonymous, I could practice becoming a writer and writing daily on a blog without worry about my name being attached.  However, while I do do that, I don't always take advantage of that anonymity and so I wanted to do so today by discussing some more personal aspects of my history.

I remember the first time I was ever aware of the concept of being gay.  I was ten, on the playground during recess, and we were playing a game on a merry-go-round (for the record, I'm in my really, really late twenties aka my early thirties, so while some of the facts of these stories are going to make me sound like I'm in my sixties, just keep in mind that small town America occasionally has a bit of a time warp problem).  I remember it was a game where you had to jump on and off whenever someone said something that you were or weren't.  "Jump off if you're a girl" or "jump on if you're wearing blue" a relatively harmless sort of task that involved thinking on your feet and the prowess of jumping on and off of the equipment.  I quite liked this game, because it didn't involve being singled out, which was something I avoided.  I had friends, but no really close friends, at the time, and was mostly concerned about being relatively invisible, as that was where you avoided attention.  As we were playing, one of the boys on the merry-go-round yelled, "jump off if you're a lesbian!" a term that I'd never heard before, but I was clearly in the minority in that lack of context.  I was savvy enough to know that if everyone jumped off I should too (again, fitting in and avoiding attention), but I remember a chorus of "gross" and "yuck" coming from my classmates.

I was a resourceful child, and went to our family dictionary to figure out what this word that I didn't know what it meant actually was referring toward.  I quickly realized, because I was quiet but smart, that while I was not, indeed, a lesbian, I was adjacent to it by liking other guys.  I had never really been told growing up that I should stay in the closet, but I had inferred it was the safe thing to do-after this I knew it, and took a deep sense of shame onto myself that I was this thing that all of these people in my life called "gross."

I didn't come out until college, but just because you're not open doesn't mean that you don't get bullied for clearly being "different."  In a town where my graduating class was ninety, I had to live in constant fear of being found out, or being in dangerous situations.  Frequently I got tagged "queer" or "sissy."  I remember being fifteen the first time I got a death threat from a classmate.  I was sitting in the back of the room of a science class, and two boys from my grade, who frequently were targeting me and making me feel awful about myself, started talking just loudly enough for me to hear, but not so loudly that our teacher, who was walking around looking at our cell slides, would hear.  I will forever remember one of them saying "I hate fags," and looking at me and sneering, he continued and said, "I wish we could just get all of the fags in town and tie them up to my truck and just drag them through town."  The other guy, realizing that they were speaking less in the hypothetical and more about a specific person, smiled and agreed, while I buried my eyes to my microscope.  I would walk home after school most days, about a mile or two from my house, but that night I remember rushing out of the school after the final bell, leaving my books in my locker even though I had homework to do, and rushing through trees rather than the sidewalk on the off-chance that they were following me.  This wasn't the only time I would endure something like this, and it made me worried to be around classmates my own age if I didn't know they were at least friendly.

I could tell you countless other stories similar to this one about growing up as a closeted gay kid in a small town, but you get the point.  The reason we highlight something like Spirit Day is twofold.  For one, it's that teenagers like me, kids who are just trying to figure out themselves, shouldn't have to endure death threats and hate speech on a regular basis (or irregular basis, for that matter), because it affects them in ways that you can't quite understand.  I remember knowing that I couldn't do anything about this hate speech and death threats without outing myself to my school and my family.  I recall being in therapy, because my mom knew something was the matter but didn't know what it was since I was too afraid to tell her, and even in the confines of the safe space of therapy, I couldn't bring myself to admit what the other kids in my school were doing to me.  I went for about six weeks, sneaking into the school psychologist's office so that no one knew why I was going there, and sitting in front of a perplexed woman who didn't know why I was there since I largely just said I was being picked on, but wouldn't say what the other kids were saying.  It was a deeply isolating experience, one where I would avoid interacting with other students as much as possible, particularly when there wasn't an adult present nearby.  There are countless LGBT children and teens who, like me, don't get to have a voice, or at least one that they can proclaim loudly, so we as a society need to speak up for them, saying that we don't condone this behavior and that they are special.

The second reason is that, as much as we want to pretend that high school and middle school and our experiences as children don't affect us as we get older, that's a lie.  I spent years after high school dealing with self-hatred, doubt, and depression because I had lived so many years truly wanting to eliminate something that was a crucial and immobile part of who I am.  I talk about it today with people, and I speak of it as ancient history, but I cannot pretend that that self-loathing and constant fear didn't infiltrate themselves into who I became as a person.  While I never hide being gay, I still wait until I know someone particularly well before I will act relaxed or remotely show any side of my personality that can be perceived as gay.  I'm not proud of this fact, but it's likely never going to change-it's part of my evolution.  I still get a spine tingling whenever someone mentions "I know someone from your home town," as if the danger is about to start again, even if it's always an off-hand comment.  It's wrong that that happened, but it was a direct cause of the bullying I received for nearly ten years.  It's something that I feel very personally, and I suspect if you know or care about someone in your life who is LGBTQ, you know someone who feels it very personally as well.  So today, please wear purple.  Whether you're a member of the community or an ally, share your story or your hope for a better tomorrow for the youth of the world.  And if you're a young person who is feeling ashamed or scared because of people in your school or town, know that there are millions of people who are rooting for you to be every special thing that you are and we know you will be.

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