Bullying–Getting Used To It

From “Bully”
Alex’s mom isn’t about to get used to it.

“Do you understand that at some point, you got used to this?”

That’s what a very alarmed mom in Sioux City, Iowa asked her 12 year-old son, Alex, after being shown harrowing video footage of the hazing he encountered daily from his peers at school. In the midst of filming for the documentary Bully, the filmmaker felt obligated to show her what was occurring. Her middle school son was befuddled by the question; being the target of verbal and physical assaults had become so routine that he normalized what was happening to him. He even considered his assailants to be his friends. If they weren’t, that meant he didn’t have any. He had gotten used to it, but the mom said she never would.

Nobody wants to be alone. Everyone wants to fit in. Sometimes, that means you end up accepting the cruelty of others in a bargain for having your own ground to stand on. Adolescents must carve out their own place in the world. Their unique connections, friendships, and interests are what usher them into eventual adulthood and distinguish them from their parents. It’s a natural part of development. Bullying interrupts that progress, though. For a kid like Alex, he might be hated on, but at least that’s happening in his own space. The top yearning of teenagers is to carve out something distinct to them.

Eventually, we all grow up. Bullies do go away. When they do, their ghost remains. The victim often steps in to pick up where they left off. You can do a much better job of bullying yourself than another person ever could do in oppressing you. After all, no one else knows your darkest vulnerabilities.

I’ve explained in a previous post my own encounter with bullying. This column isn’t about what happened to me at school 15 years ago when I was a teenager. It’s about the effect that has had on my life as an adult. I offer up my story as insight into the seriousness of this problem in hopes that if you have kids, you’ll do everything you can to ensure they reach adulthood healthy and adjusted.

Kids become targets for different reasons. I was bullied because I’m gay.

I didn’t come out until I was 15, but somehow all of my peers knew when I was 7. School was a daily landmine of verbal insults and physical assaults. I never told my parents because doing so meant I would have to admit that their words were true. I grew up in a somewhat fundamentalist household. We went to a tongues speaking church three times a week, and I attended a Southern-Baptist influenced Christian school. When I wasn’t being called “faggot” on the playground, I was hearing my parents discuss AIDS being God’s punishment for homosexuals at home. When I wasn’t having spitballs thrown at my head, I was listening to Mrs. Lovelace, my 7th grade Bible teacher whom I idolized, explain that gays and lesbians had demons living inside of them. When I wasn’t getting punched in the locker room, having my charismatic youth group pastor invite in the so-called ex-gay ministry to remind us that we’d be going to hell if we committed “homosexual acts” was just as painful. I knew exactly who I was, and I accepted myself. There was no one around who embraced me, though.

So, I compartmentalized. I never believed their lies, but I did let their limited knowledge effect me. I was reminded daily that my feelings for other men were disgusting, and that I was an abomination. Their ignorance arrested my sexuality. I graduated high school. I stopped going to right wing churches. My mom became a liberal-minded borderline-Buddhist who meditates and reads the Kabbalah. My dad, though limited in his interest of sociology, nonetheless loves his gay son. I’ve had amazing friends. I’ve had really good jobs.  But I have never known the love of anther man because everyday, I have stepped in where all those bullies used to be. I became so used to being alone, isolate, and beaten down that I never allowed myself to form a healthy attachment to another man.

At some point, I got used to it.

If teenagers yearn to carve out something distinct, as adults we come to believe we are entitled to our own autonomy. My arrested sexuality took on a mutant form in its pursuit of sovereignty. In my early twenties, I developed intense, obsession-like crushes on a series of three different men. All three were high quality individuals, but they simply were not interested in me sexually. I knew that early on, but I lingered, telling myself that their feelings would change. I was really just flagellating myself in the same fashion others had once abused me. The kid punching me, the pastor preaching at me, and the parent indirectly condemning me had left; but I stepped in and took their place.

Unrequited love became the theme of my life. I always picked people I knew I’d never have. I would fall madly in love with straight friends. I would find gay men emotionally unavailable. I became a lightning rod for anyone with a stormy presence. If I were abounded by complications, I would never truly have what I deserved. That’s just what the bullies wanted; I did a much better job than them of denying myself happiness.

I am one of literally millions of gay men who have “gotten used to it.” We seem to have a special way in homo-culture of torturing each other after others stop tormenting us. I would venture to say that a large reason why gay men are so prone to drug use, promiscuity, alcoholism, and body fascism has to do with a culture of self-affliction that arises from the aftershock of being bullied. We continue the cycle of abuse by putting unrealistic expectations onto ourselves so that we never experience the one thing we truly deserve—happiness. We surround ourselves with friends who are bad influences, do activities we aren’t really fond of, and eventually we just tell ourselves that it’s all ok.

We just get used to it.

Just because you survive adolescence doesn’t mean you’ve gotten past the effects of being bullied. I’m just now coming to terms with what happened to me as a teenager…and I’m almost 30 years old. There’s hope, though. It doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to ignore problems for a decade and a half and miss out on enjoying your youth. If you’re involved with a child in any way—as a parent, teacher, mentor, or authority figure—make sure you know what’s going on in their world. Put your own prejudices aside for the sake of their health and safety. Kids don’t tell their parents that they are being bullied because they are worried they’ll disappoint them. Make it clear that the only thing disappointing is an unhappy child.

Be like the mom in the movie Bully. Don’t get used to this.

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’re someone who survived being bullied, but you let a part of you die with that experience. If so, go back and revivify that which was taken away from you.

The bullies of our past have moved on; it’s time for us to do the same.

Drinking Gay

Glory of the 1980′s.
photo by David Quick.

We live in the shadows of our past. We are shaped by the events of our own, individual life. We are affected by the histories of the communities to which we belong. Try as we might, we cannot escape certain realities; we can only embrace the truth.

Sometimes, that truth comes in the form of a massive headache and a tumbling stomach the morning after a night out. You’ve all been there. You really didn’t feel like going out. You certainly didn’t want to drink. But it’s Friday, and there’s an 80’s themed dance party at the gay bar downtown. Tonight could be the night—the night you meet that magical person; the night the world sees just how electrifying you are. So you throw on some parachute pants, find a Pac-Man t-shirt, and summon your inner-Zack Morris. You down a shot of Tequila to take the edge off. You head out the door of your apartment and head toward your destiny.

You arrive. The music is loud and familiar. It’s the same tracks they always play…just with a few extra Madonna songs tonight. It’s the same crowd, too. You recognize 90% of the people…it’s the unknown 10% you’re there for, though! You scan the room. You zoom in on a few prospects. They don’t zoom you back. You want to leave. You stay, though, and order a drink. If you’re liquored up, you’ll forget just how disappointed you are. This is an important moment.

It’s within this space—the time in between when your expectations were high with hopes and the time just before they are shot down by the disparages of reality—that alcohol becomes your fortune. It’s sort of like a liquid tax for being gay. You can be sober to the loneliness of your own reality, or you can pay a toll to intoxicate bliss.

This is how queer people are disenfranchised.

Hangovers aren’t particularly indigenous to homos, but there are certain reasons that LGBT folks are three times more likely to abuse alcohol than their hetero-peers. In the Midwest, the isolation is compounded by a conservative political climate and a fragmented sense of community. There aren’t enough of us, and we don’t really know what to do with each other. We live in a heterosexist world where no one teaches us how to be intimate with a member of the same-sex. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Most of us grew up being engineered toward a sexuality that didn’t fit; even when parents and peers accept us, we’re left alone to negotiate how we integrate into a world that only has fragments of space for people who are LGBT. It’s highly uncomfortable.  So, we drink. Gay identity often amounts to being a barfly.

You aren’t socially deconstructing when you’re rocking out to “99 Red Balloons”, though. You’re just trying to keep up. You’re keeping up appearances by pretending that this scene of ours is just fine by you. You’re also just plain trying to keep up with the number of drinks those who arrived earlier have downed. By the end of the night, you’ve imbibed 7 beverages. Maybe you’ve even gone home with someone. What about the magic and the destiny, though? Providence got lost somewhere on the dance floor… or perhaps inside one of your glasses.

When we surrender our uncomfortabilities to the bottle, we drown the very hope that is intrinsic to our unique being. There’s a special challenge to being gay; in the 21st Century, we have the ability to redefine the very terms of life by rising to the occasion of this contest. We live in a highly assimilationist culture. Advertisers and media conglomerations tell us what music to listen to, what TV shows to watch, what clothes to wear, and which foods to eat. To acknowledge a sexual orientation outside of heterosexuality is to admit to being different. It’s an affront to American social order. Yet, it’s also the paradoxically the paradigm of what it means to be American. In the last century, we opened doors for people who have been marginalized by expanding opportunities for women, racial and sexual minorities, persons with disabilities, and other groups. The challenge of this century will be to determine what we do with the freedoms we’ve been afforded. The queer community can play a distinct role in this.

Instead of blending into a rainbow flag subculture where Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga are our patron saints and where communion is taken with a shot of tequila and some poppers, we need to be masters of our own universes.  We need to create our own culture—lots of different cultures so that each person, homo or not, can have a distinctive place where their talents and gifts fit. Alcohol is the antithesis of uniqueness. It’s a distraction so that you don’t have to contend with that peerless sparkle inside. If we can simply own who we are—and I’m talking about characteristics way beyond sexuality—we can create powerful forces. Part of the reason drug use, alcoholism, promiscuity, and suicide rates are high in the LGBT community has to do with how we discourage true individual examination. Gay people are just as guilty as the straights, too!  There’s a tendency to “fit” into the gay community as soon as we come out so that we aren’t left standing alone. Empty bottles on a table and toxins in your tummy aren’t company, though.

We homos have a peculiar history with alcohol. It brought us together as a movement when bars were the only true avenues for same-sex socialization.  In many places, that’s still true. As a community, we need to start thinking about what this means in terms of how we live our lives today.

Eighties dance parties are fun. Zack Morris is cute. But is going out all the time worth the health risks?

I drink. Sometimes I drink too much. Hell, I drank too much last night! But I’m getting tired of waking up feeling terrible. My body is screaming for change. I have a feeling yours might be, too. So let’s start a conversation. How can we get out of the bar scene and get more in tune with our own being?

More to come…much more…

Mine the Void. Fill the Chasm.

When we go to a bar, we have an agenda. Refreshing, tasty beverages are not what most of us seek when we walk into our favorite watering holes. There is no natural lust for alcohol that beckons us to imbibe. There is, however, a yearning for connection imbued in each of us. We buy drinks, dance with strangers, and take random people home in hopes of filling a void. We believe others will give us what we cannot give ourselves.  We are always disappointed.

You do not have to be gay to have this experience. For people who are, though, the emotions are compounded.  We are not just looking for a partner when we intimately connect with someone of the same sex; we are often trying to find ourselves inside another person. No one really knows what it means to be “gay”; we hope to find another person who can teach us, though. That dynamic is an equation for ascertaining emptiness.

There is no greater catastrophe than a life unfulfilled. Yet, most would admit that something is missing. Every person who is gay has experienced some kind of rejection; we seek shelter in the arms of others. Intimacy cannot be manufactured, though. It cannot be found on Craig’s List. It cannot be ordered up on smart phone aps. It also cannot be served at a bar. That gut-level unsatisfaction so many of us feel everyday is really an imbedded barometer reminding us that we need to get our internal house in order. And so, we try.

We are sitting at a coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon, the latest issue of The Advocate our only companion.  We feel lonely. We want to be connected. So we pull out our iPhone and log onto Grindr! The gay-dating cell phone application displays diagonal rows of dozens of men within a few thousand feet from us who we can talk to. We zero in on a shirtless guy with scant information about himself in his profile. We chat it up.

We decide during the nascent texting/dating ritual that this avatar will be our salvation. The shirtless man behind the pic will fill our void. He will see the beauty of our soul. He will love our quirky tastes, laugh at our jokes, and explore the world endlessly by our side. He will give us everything we deserve.

None of that is apparent by the few dozen lines of text we exchange, though. We decide to meet up at a downtown bar later that evening. In the flesh, it will click.

So we enter the bar with an agenda. We fail to consider that we are about to meet a distinct person with a whole host of issues and aspirations distinct from our own. We meet. We order a drink. Shirtless Grindr guy turns out to be pretty lackluster. He is rather boring. We have little to talk about. Or maybe we do. It is hard to have a real conversation with someone when you are holding at bay the disappointment that this person is not exactly who you wanted them to be.

Now, we have a choice. We can politely excuse ourselves and go home to a lonely night’s slumber. Or, we can invite our bland beau to our abode. The night’s machinations can either be tame or wild; the morning’s musings are pre-ordained. Either way, he leaves. The chasm remains.

It is within that space—that void—that redemption lives. The awkward moment when we realize the person we are drinking with is not the person we want is really the instant when we discover that pieces of us are missing.  We can wander the world, cruise every bar, and chat up every person in cyber space. No one we encounter will ever be able to give us what we have to give ourselves. Instead of going to out bars, we should probably be doing yoga, meditating, or just spending some quiet time reflecting on how to become the people we want to be.

When we do meet up with people, we should interrupt that awkwardness with something real. We should not be afraid to embrace the uniqueness that lies within. We should share ourselves with the people we find in front of us. We should receive individuals as they are. Our own agendas must be set aside. People are not canvasses for us to paint our insecurities onto. Everyone is their own masterpiece, worthy of faculty and symposium. Ultimately, we must fill our own gap. Only then can we receive the light of others.

This is not just a gay issue. Heterosexuals manufacture intimacy, too…and in greater numbers! There is a certain politeness in straight society that prevents the honest admission of what is really going on in most people’s lives, though. Leave it to the gays to shake things up a bit.

Let’s all try to fill our inner-chasms with more than just alcohol. Let’s stop looking for other people to make us whole. Let’s dig deep into our own firmaments. We can fill the void by mining the chasm.

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