Thursday, October 14, 2010

It Gets Better

I was pretty much all but finished with this blog. Two years ago, I patted myself on the back for a job well done and figured this venture was finished. I figured I was done with this exercise and if I ever decided to post again, it would take a really big event to cause me to put my emotions into words again. And sadly, recent events have caused me to recall long hidden feelings - feelings that were gone, but not forgotten, buried deep enough to not rule my life, yet still cause me pain. These feelings shaped who I've since become as an adult. Because as I have reflected on my life as a youth over the last few weeks, I've come to agree with so many other people who have said that, yes - it gets better.

My youth was hard. That's it, very plain and not so simple. Being me as a kid was incredibly, incredibly hard. Adults can think back to when they were teased or "picked on" as children; I think back and can't remember a time when I wasn't. I doubt anyone in my family could realize or comprehend what I went through as a kid, the amount of hatred that was thrown at me every day by people who didn't know me, and even from people who did. The emotional abuse, the actual vitriol I suffered at the hands of bullies - and all for no apparent reason, I figured.

I was a good kid. I was a nice kid. I wasn't mean to anyone. I went to Sunday School and was a Cub Scout. I was a good speller and I could draw. I spent most of my weekends with my grandmother - just her and me at her house. I didn't get invited to other kids' houses, or to birthday parties, or to sleepovers. I didn't have any friends, so I'm not sure how anyone could have thought I deserved what I was getting. How could people hate me if they didn’t even know me? Why would they make the effort to hurt me instead of making the effort to meet me? Day. After day. After day. But I got it just the same. Day. After day. After day.

It's horrible to hear hatred spewed at you from people you don't know. You think they can see through you or something; even see what you don't see, which makes you question yourself and who you are; makes you doubt everything you believe in; makes you wonder if it's worth going through at all. Makes you wonder how much more you can take. "It toughens you up" I'd be told. "Everyone goes through it. Everyone gets teased a little". Maybe that's true, but whether it's "a little teasing”, a constant barrage of degradation, or anywhere in between - it doesn't make it right. Being teased and bullied shouldn't be a rite of passage.

My first recollection of being called a name was in 2nd Grade – by a teacher. My PE teacher, Mr. Critchfield, said to me – on the playground in front of the class – “you’re a sissy and you play like a girl.” With that, I turned around and walked off the playground, entered the school and went to my classroom where I planned on spending the rest of the period. A few minutes later, a student came in and said Mr. Critchfield wanted me back on the playground. I refused. A few minutes after that, Mr. Critchfield came in and told me to stop crying (which I wasn’t) and get back on the playground. That night, I went home and told my mom what happened. I’m not sure what she did at that point, but the following week Mr. Critchfield apologized to me, and then he was gone by the end of the school year. Little did it matter, because he planted a seed in the minds of all my classmates. Maybe they’d never thought it before, maybe it hadn’t occurred to them, maybe they hadn’t even noticed. But it was like a light switch went on, and suddenly every kid in my class had carte blanche to call me names, harass me, bully me, tease me, and otherwise hurt my feelings. Day. After day. After day.

I couldn't understand why he called me a “sissy”. Was it just because I didn't play sports well? I tried, I wasn't coordinated enough. I tried playing on the church basketball league, and little league baseball on the Lashley Jets team. I didn't have good hand/eye coordination or something - I couldn't hit, I couldn't catch and I sure couldn’t throw. I quit playing team sports because I knew I was no good at it, and realized I was no good for the teams I was on. But that didn't stop my teammates from calling me names.

As years in elementary school gave way to junior high and high school, "sissy" turned into "queer", "fag" and "faggot". I heard that last word a lot. Friends didn't materialize in junior high school either. I didn't have anyone to sit with during lunch, so for all 4 years of high school I skipped lunch completely and sat in the library instead. Did it bother me – yes. Did I cry – tons. Did I ever let it show – never. Did it make me a stronger person – probably. Is that a good thing – who knows.

When you're young - and you are constantly teased and bullied - it never occurs to you that it will eventually all come to an end - that it gets better. It will get better and it does get better. It just doesn't seem like it at the time. You wonder "why me?" and do things like taking different hallways to avoid people, and not using the school restrooms all day because you don't know who is waiting in there and what might be waiting for you, and not doing the things you want to do because you just don't want to hear the comments and whispers anymore. It got so bad for me, that I acted out by skipping school a lot during 10th and 11th grades just because I wanted to be left alone. It’s amazing the lengths you’ll go, physically and emotionally, to save yourself from pain. But I am only on the Earth today because - then - I didn’t feel significant enough as a human being to be worthy of the fuss and attention I would receive if I were to choose otherwise.

By my senior year in high school, I realized that what they had been saying about me for all these years was actually true. I was those things. It took me a long time to accept because I wasn’t sure if I was those things because I really was, or because I had been told so often by other people that I just accepted it as fact. Along with graduation day came the serenity and optimism I had so long dreamed of. I realized that from then on, I would always be able to leave a place when I was uncomfortable. I no longer had to subject myself or surround myself with people who hate me, people who remind me every day that I am not worthy of anything. From now on, I thought – I hoped - I have the control.

Because of the verbal and emotional abuse I suffered as a teen, it took me a long time to fully accept who I was, and by extension tell my family about my life. I figured my family was living in blissful ignorance – they all probably knew but never talked about it. I held fears of being rejected or cast out by the people I loved and needed most. But I continued to hold on to something my mom said to me many years ago when I was in my late teens. One night, she caught me crying, which was rare. I always prided myself on not letting the emotions show. But I said to her, “I never thought there would ever be anything I couldn’t tell you.” And my mom touched my arm and said to me, “You can tell me anything. I might not understand it right away, but that’s MY issue, not your’s.” And then it all made sense – my being gay was not my problem or any problem for that matter. If someone doesn’t like me for who I am, that’s their problem, not mine. I was finally free to live my life, be my own person, and to hell with anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t accept it.

I also came to realize something as an adult that I wish someone would have told me when I was a teen. A bully doesn’t tease you to make you feel bad, he does it to make himself feel better. A person will only rip you down when they don’t feel good about themselves. It doesn’t make it right, but it does take some of their power away. Those who are insecure, afraid, and powerless will lash out at those who are not. Think about that. And be proud of who you are. It gets better.

I knew at some point I needed to tell my family. It was an important thing for me to do for myself. I didn’t want to be at the end of my life with these people whom I had spent a lifetime with, only for them to wonder who I was. Because I moved away from home, all my family knew about me was what I chose to share with them. I didn’t have children divulging my secrets or a spouse reporting how I spent my day. I was in control. And I shared only what I wanted to. And for a long time, I liked it that way. But eventually I knew that I wanted them to know everything. I didn’t set a time limit. I figured I would just know when the time was right.

I officially came out to my sister when I was 25. My sister – who once beat up an older boy on the bus because she overheard him call me a name. My great champion throughout my entire life was the first person I could finally confide in about who I was. Perhaps of anyone, her acceptance was the one I needed most. And when I told her, she was completely unphased. Without batting an eyelash, she simply said, “Oh I know, but congratulations on telling me.”

I came out to my parents when I was 31. My mom’s reaction was pretty much the same as my sister’s. My dad simply said, “Well I had NO idea.” When I pressed him as to whether he ever thought about it, he said, “Well, yeah I guess I thought about it a long time ago, but then it just never occurred to me after that. I mean it’s your life, live it how you want to.” I was never really sure if he really, truly meant that or if it was even true. Regardless, it was what I needed to hear. And if he had a problem with it at all – he never once let me know it.

And only about 3 years ago I finally came out to my two brothers. I was bringing my partner home to meet my family for the first time, and since I have never done anything like that before, I wanted them to understand the gravity of the situation, and its importance in my life. Without question, my partner was welcomed into the family. One of my brother’s sent me an email a few months ago, and in it he wrote the sentence, “I was thinking you have kind of been the only one of us to be in a normal relationship over the past few years.” I doubt there is anything he could have written that would have made me any more proud of my family. It was validation that they see my life as I have always seen it: normal. After years and years of being told that you are bad, and evil and everything wrong, it’s incredibly gratifying to here that you are normal. See, it gets better.

Today, I live in Chicago with my partner of 5 years. Our relationship is loving, supportive, and fun. We live in a beautiful loft and we have amazing friends – some gay, some not. He knows my family, I know his. I spend my days working at a children’s charity, ironically helping those kids who can’t help themselves. I am at the most gratifying place in my life I have ever been. And when I think back on the past 26 years, it saddens me to think of all the things I would have missed had I not remained strong, proud, and confident that life would eventually get better. I didn’t deserve any of it, and no one – boy or girl, child or adult – should have to go through what I went through. But if my test in life was to go through all that I did in order to have what I have now, then it was worth it. Because, it gets better.

It gets so much better.