Political Bullying

Mourning a Loss
Image Credit: Jerry Wolford/AP

We’ve all become more familiar with the issue of school bullying. What we may be less aware of, though, is the fact that bullying abounds on several fronts. It’s commonplace to use politics to intimidate the LGBT community; last night’s passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina is the latest example.

Anti-gay legislation is political bullying.

Every time a state amends their constitution to limit marriage to one man and woman, every man and every woman who is gay feels as though they’ve been personally attacked. Just as people are affected by the abuse of bullies in the hallways of their schools, there are very real effects on people who get beat up at the ballot box. The results in North Carolina were far from surprising. What caught me off guard, though, was the reemergence of a long-forgotten feeling.

Punched stiffly in the gut. Knocked down with the wind blow out of me. Stabbed in my abdomen by people I thought were my friends. My intestines slowly eviscerated by hordes of strangers. Nowhere to go for help. Wanting to run away. Lacking the physical strength or mental constitution to pick myself up from off the ground.

That’s how I felt the night of April 5, 2005. That’s when Kansas passed its own version of an anti-gay constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. It passed with 70% of the vote statewide, with the same percentage supporting it in my home city of Wichita. I emphasize the word home for a reason; this is the first place where I ever truly felt at home. I came out of the closet in North Carolina and walked into a tumultuous year of being physically and verbally assaulted everyday at school. I felt rejected by the state I had grown up in. I moved to Kansas the next year; when I did, I decided I would never lie about who I am. Honesty is a seminal Kansas value, and I’ve always been able to find a home here on the range being my homo self. That campaign and the political machinations that precede it caused an odd diaspora of sort. I’ve never truly trusted my community or the people in it ever since.

The Kansas legislature first debated the constitutional amendment in 2004. At the time, I was the 22-year-old Executive Director of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party and a rather central figure in local Democratic Politics. We had a 12-member delegation of Democratic legislators, including 9 state representatives and 3 state senators. I had worked closely with each of them for several years, and considered them all to be friends and mentors. Every single one of them knew of my sexual orientation, and it was never an issue. In fact, nearly all of them had voiced their support for gay rights to me.

Yet, when it came time to vote, 3 members of the house delegation (including a very liberal member who I regard as a very good friend) voted to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage. Two of the three called me in tears to apologize. I greatly appreciated that on a personal, but it did nothing to change public policy or their voting record. Nor did it ameliorate the hurt feelings of countless others. The other member also called me, but he did so to lecture me on the politics of being pro-gay marriage. He told me that if I had any true political instinct, I would understand that this was a losing issue. I was told to be happy that he voted the way he did because that meant he’d keep that seat in Democratic hands. He also implored me to defend him to party activists who would be angered by his vote.

I should have hung up on him. I should have told the other two exactly what I thought of their post-vote water works. Instead, I just took it. I continued being a soldier for the Democratic Party because they at least gave me a home, even if some of our members went on record to say I didn’t deserve to have one. After that vote, though, I felt homeless.

A key part of political bullying is the constituency getting used to taking the hits. Politicians only beat up on groups who don’t fight back. For too long, we in the LGBT community haven’t fought back. It wasn’t until after the anti-marriage amendment passed in Kansas that we had a truly effective statewide LGBT civil rights organization. Today, The Kansas Equality Coalition holds people accountable who don’t have the backbone to stand up for what they believe in.

Twenty-nine states have had battles similar to the ones in Kansas and North Carolina. Each time they have, lots of people have been hurt. They’ve felt disenfranchised by the political process. They’ve felt left behind by their communities. They’ve felt betrayed by their friends. When you’re getting harassed at school, you wish that someone would stand up for you. Often times, you find out that the people you thought were your buddies are too afraid to take a stand; in fact, they sometimes join in just to fit in. Our lawmakers are supposed to champion our safety and well-being. Yet, for LGBT folks, they’re often the ones who take away a sense of security. We look for those few allies who will stand up for us, just like we looked for those friends back in school to be our defenders. Cowardice legislators who hold quiet sympathy yet fail to stand up to anti-gay prejudice are just as culpable as the bully lawmakers.

I’m happy to report that two of the three lawmakers I mentioned above switched their votes and voted against the marriage amendment when they had the chance later than session. The other one? Well, recent polling showing a majority of Americans supporting marriage equality show he was definitely on the wrong side of history. This issue is so much larger than them or me or any single state. Political bullying is an affront to the very core of who we are as Americans. This is a country where we’re supposed to enjoy the freedom of attachment—to people, to communities, and to the process that governs us. When we take away other people’s rights, we deny them the dignity of what it means to be a whole person.  Beaten up and disembowel, those of us who survive political assaults do so without our full spirits. We’re left with only part to offer. All of our state—from North Carolina to Kansas to California—deserve fully engaged, healthy populations of people from all walks of life.

Just as we’re having conversations about how to end bullying at schools, I hope we can start talking about how to end the bruising battles like the one that just occurred in North Carolina. President Obama’s announcement today that he personally supports marriage equality is a step in the right direction. We need to take many more giant leaps. Political bullying leaves scars. It’s time we heal all of our wounds.

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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.

A Dartboard and a Message

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For Pocket O

“Everyone should always have hope in their heart, feel love in their life, have an even playing field, and an equal chance to be happy.”

Those were some of the last words my friend O said to me. They were the mantra of his life and the message he wanted carried forward. Sadly, they were also all of the things he was never able to embrace. In the aftermath of his suicide, I am left with the task of deconstructing the taboos that blocked him from realizing what he so eloquently desired.

O was a dartboard for everything we as a culture are afraid of: he was gay, Muslim, and mentally ill. When he came out of the closet, he found there was no place for him inside his religion. As he turned to the gay community for support, he discovered the awkward truth that a culture colored by the rainbow is still uncomfortable with some of the hues inside that prism. Though he constantly desired personal freedom and intimate connections, his personality disorder robbed him the ability to live life on his own terms. He was born into a family that loved him, but most of his relatives were ill prepared for the advent that was O.

When we decide that something is a taboo, we limit people’s abilities to navigate how to deal with it when the inevitable manifests. We can want something to not exist; but we cannot wish away reality. Sometimes, people come into this world to challenge assumptions and expand horizons. With so many taboos tattooed to him, O was one of those people.

Teenage suicide and adolescent bullying are issues that have gained national attention and caused strife in communities across the U.S. News anchors like Anderson Cooper venerably try to dissect how ill treatment from others lead to irreversible decisions. It is not just kids who are offing themselves, though; O was well into his thirties when he died. Causalities come when we refuse to allow people to fully integrate who they are with where they are. When we refuse to confront the things that scare us, we chase off some of the very people we want to love. That is exactly what happened to O.

I am no scholar of Islam, but I know most Muslims will tell you that there is no place in Allah’s kingdom for a gay man. Muslim men are supposed to be the leaders of their families. Their offspring bring honor to the bloodline and goodwill to the family name. This was one requisite O would never manifest. Instead of dealing with that fact, most of his family ignored it, hoping it would go away. Simultaneously, they overlooked his mounting cognitive deterioration. Stigmas over mental illness do not just bring dishonor to Muslim families; most Americans are uncomfortable confronting the challenges that come when a family member has an anguished mind.  When relatives cannot give you the acceptance you need, it is natural to seek that out in other people. Islamophobia and the misconceptions most people have about Muslim culture often prevented O from making those connections.

Suicide, he felt, was the only release from a life full of contradictions.  Race, religion, culture, health, and sexuality tragically collided.

These are not easy issues to talk about. You are probably uncomfortable reading this piece. If so, that is very good. Uncomfortable is compelling. Answers are often found inside the notions that scare us the most.

My relationship with O was complex. He and I never actually met in person. We were introduced via the “Gay Men Who Think Levi Johnston is Hot” Facebook group. See, even Sarah Palin is good for something! Though I never interacted with his physical presence, I got to know his mind better that probably anyone. We talked nearly every day for two years. He knows things about me that even my best friends do not. We had a relationship full of constant challenges. It required my mind to expand. It made his heart open up. It was strange, but it was real. Technology can either be the means by which we break taboos or it can allow them to exacerbate. I choose to let social media broaden the scope of my social understanding.

Every night around 9:00 p.m., I wait for my phone to ring and a picture of O to pop up. That does not happen anymore. It is not the dartboard of our collective fear that I want to hear from, though; I just miss my friend.  Suicide often happens because circumstances larger than a single person overtake an individual’s life.

In our last conversation, O told me he did not want his message to be forgotten. I write this in hopes that you will lace in your heart the words that open this article. When you encounter people whose identities and circumstances challenge or befuddle you, please pay attention. If you have been affected by suicide, examine the conditions that surrounded the event. Sometimes, people come into your life to wake you up. With open eyes, we can level the playing field and create the world of hope, love, and happiness for others O did not have for himself.

Really Deep Wounds

ImageIt isn’t words that matter so much; it’s the meaning behind them. Intentions add definition, giving profound significance to expressions. When comedian Tracy Morgan “joked” to a Tennessee audience that he would stab his son if he were gay, he failed to understand that negative aims often cause deep wounds. As a culture and as a community, we’re just starting to wrap our minds around the effects of those lacerations.

Recent headlines show just how deep this cuts. There’s a study that was just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that finds gay, lesbian, and bisexual U.S. high school students are more likely than heterosexual students to engage in self-destructive behaviors such as disordered eating, smoking, drug use, and excessive alcohol consumption. Some might point to this as evidence of a moral decay inherent with homosexuality, but doing so dismisses a larger truth. A different study done on the same population revealed that LGBT youth were nearly two times as likely than their straight peers to be bullied in school as well as be sexually and physical harassed. They also make up about 1/3 of all teen suicide cases. When darts of venom are thrown our way, we tend to internalize their poison. Negativity gets projected onto us from the corner of someone else’s insecurity. As a result, we emulate behaviors that bring us down farther than any attack someone else could launch.

When I was a sophomore, going to high school felt more like entering a battle field than it did an institution of learning. More people referred to me as “faggot” than they did “Jason”.  Navigating the hallways in between classes was a treacherous journey full of spit wads, back slaps, and violent threats. The bathroom was a dangerous place; I was assaulted there early in the school year and learned to just hold it in. The gym was even worse. To me, P.E. stood for “physical endangerment”.  There was a boy in my class who had an odd fascination with my sexuality. His name was Anthony. He made a mockery of my identity in the locker room with lewdly bombastic sexual gestures that made many of the other guys roll with laughter. The day he sexually assaulted me was no laughing matter, though. That was the day I began to internalize the poison; it got deep into my bloodstream.

My mind had been trained to view each day as a battle when I was an adolescent. I suppose it’s natural that I went to war with myself as an adult. After that incident, I became shackled by shame. Negative self-talk permeated my idle thoughts. My body became an inconvenient orifice I was forced to live in. Life became a chore I had to get through. I entered politics as a way of fighting back. Every electoral victory I could achieve on behalf of gay rights was a punch in the stomach to Anthony.

There comes a point, though, where you can either twist someone else’s knife deeper inside yourself, or choose to pull it out for your own relief. When you stare down negativity, it runs away.

My ordeal happened in 1999. Much of the bullying I was subjected to was viewed as a normal rite of passage. Yes, it HAS gotten better. Today, you can download You Tube vides of the President of the United States and just about every celebrity telling you to hang in there. It might seem trite, but those videos are lifelines to more people that you realize.

The aforementioned 30 Rock Star reminds us that there are those who still need to learn the significance of positive intentions, though. When you joke about gay people being stabbed, you help instill a narrative that incites violence, both externally and internally. As he embarks on his “gay pride apology tour”, I hope Morgan will come to understand that negativity is nothing to fuel on.

I’m sure that many of you have your own war stories to tell. We all have our own shame to contend with. I hope that you allow your own negative energy to be released. You deserve to live a life of deep meaning, not deep pain.