Saturday, October 9, 2010

It gets better

Me and Jay in a window of our high school, 1982.
In the wake of the recent spate of suicides by gay teens and young adults who'd been bullied, harassed, and tormented because of their sexual identities, advice-columnist Dan Savage has started a YouTube project called "It Gets Better."

The project's goal is to help LGBT teens know that however bad things are at the moment, that isn't going to be a permanent state...they can and should live to see a time in their lives when they can be themselves, and be accepted for who they are.

James Black has written very cogently about the irony of Dan Savage taking up this cause, since Savage apparently has some bullying tendencies himself.

The point that James touches on, and that I hope isn't lost in the movement, is that it's not always kids doing the bullying. 

One of my best friends all through school growing up came out after we started college.  That wasn't much of a surprise to anybody, but of course that doesn't make it any easier for someone to come out.  And for years he had been bullied, harassed, and tormented about being gay...but importantly, not ever, to my knowledge, by his peers.

In many ways I think he'd escaped that kind of treatment by other kids because he was just so damned charming and funny.  I mean, he was truly the funniest person I have ever known.  He was witty, punny, and could stage some of the best practical jokes imaginable with the straightest of faces.  He was also incredibly smart, musically gifted, and genuinely gregarious.  I really credit him for making my own time in high school as easy as it was--somehow, he single-handedly made it cool to be a nerd.

So who was doing the bullying?  Teachers.

I remember sitting in chemistry class my junior year when suddenly the door flew open and Coach Click came in, rolling Jay in front of him in a ball cage from the gym.  He'd apparently stuffed Jay in the empty cage, locked it, put it on the service elevator to the third floor, and proceeded to wheel Jay around from room to room.  (I should mention that Jay was a pretty small guy--probably only about 5' 3" in shoes, and very slight.  Hence, his ability to fit into a 3 x 3 ball cage.)  Jay characteristically laughed it off, I'm sure because he knew that not to would open the floodgates for others to pounce.

The year before that, Jay and I were in the same gym class.  The teacher, whom I've written about here before, was a nasty, sexist piece of work.  During the winter, he often closed the partition wall between the two halves of the gym and put the girls on one side and the boys on the other to play half-court basketball.  Needless to say, he generally stayed on the boys' side and ignored the girls altogether (which was fine with most of us, who weren't that enthused about basketball to begin with).

On one of those days, several minutes after pulling the dividing wall into place, the little door in the partition opened, and Mr. Speciale thrust Jay through, telling him to "Go play with the girls."

Even writing about that now, I find myself breathing faster, my muscles tensing up for a fight.

We need to remember that it's not always kids who are the bullies.  Adults--teachers--can be bullies, too.  And when they're doing the bullying, kids are even more powerless.  After all, aren't your teachers, your coaches, supposed to be the ones looking out for you?  When those alleged allies become the enemy, is it any wonder that kids despair?

Jay didn't kill himself.  At least, not directly.  But he did die of complications of AIDS three years after we graduated.  He died the summer before he was supposed to start his senior year at Cornell, a couple months after he'd returned from a semester abroad in Florence, where he was studying art history.

It's hard for me, even now--some twenty-four years after his death--not to blame it, on some level, on adult bullies like the "coach" and the "teacher."

Realistically, I know that Jay struggled with his sexual identity throughout high school, and couldn't be open about it for a whole lot of reasons that went far beyond the fear of proving those two right, or of inviting more harassment.  And I've resigned myself to the sad fact that it was just pure dumb-ass luck that Jay was becoming sexually active right at the moment when HIV was spreading like wildfire and there was no known treatment for it.

But still, part of me has always, always wondered:  if we'd lived in a world where it was OK for LGBT teens to be honest with themselves and others, would he have died?  Did he get infected because he had to seek out the answers to his questions surreptitiously, with strangers?

The hell of it is that Jay knew it got better.  It was better.  He loved his life, and had loved it all along.  But that life was still cut tragically short because of the stigma attached to his sexual identity.
The last picture of us together, taken about six months before Jay died.

I still miss him like crazy.  And I'd still like to kick Coach Click and Mr. Speciale in the teeth for what they did to him, and moreover for the message they sent to their colleagues and to students that it's all right for adults to behave in those ways.  Cool, funny even.

When the pre-service teachers in my classes start complaining about how kids don't respect teachers these days, and how much better it used to be in the "good old days" when teachers' authority was unquestioned, I remind them that a lot of teachers abused that authority in heinous ways, and were very seldom called on their abuse.  It astonishes me now to think about it, but at the time neither Jay nor any of us thought to report those incidents to another teacher, or to the principal, or to our parents.  That shit just happened.

So, that's my addendum to the anti-bullying campaign:  Bear in mind that bullies come in many forms, and some of them are full-grown monsters.  They're the ones who most deserve to be called on the carpet.  Don't be afraid to tell someone if it's an adult who's bullying you.  And if the first person you tell doesn't do anything to help, go to someone else and keep talking until someone does help.  Someone eventually will. And it does get better. 

Jay as I will always remember him best:  laughing his @$$ off.


Christy said...

What a beautiful tribute to a magnificent person. I miss him too -- especially now, after reading this post.

Forced denial is -- and was -- a terrible thing. It's hard for me to realize I actually benefitted, in some twisted way, from that denial since Jay was my first boyfriend. I was naive enough to miss what so many other people saw: That Jay was struggling with how to navigate his sexual identity. Let me just say he was a lovely boyfriend, not without an ability to express himself romantically, even at a time he must have felt split entirely in half.

I can only hope the Mr. Clicks and Speciales of our day have been replaced by Mr. Lodsdons, Mrs. Manleys, Mrs. Pfaffs, and the like. It's comforting that Jay's spirit stays alive in so many of us.

By the way, Rosemary, you dropped something.

Rosemary said...

Thanks, Christy. I can only imagine how complicated your feelings about all this must be. I've wondered from time to time if Jay might have eventually identified as bisexual, since he had such unbounded affection for *people*, generally.

I hope that teachers today are more enlightened, or are at least held in check by their fear of repercussions for bullying students. But I'm also cynical enough to think that's a pipe dream.

I LOL'd at the tooling reference. By the way, your gas cap: it's missing. Oh wait--you don't have a car! Um, your bike fell off. Damn, I was never as good at that stuff as Jay. :^)

Lynn Klyde-Silverstein said...

What a beautiful tribute. And sad as well.

Susan said...

Gosh, I never would have guessed that that crap happened to Jay. It would have devastated me. I only met him twice, yet I still remember him - so full of life and fun. He is also a reminder that despite horrible bullying, people can overcome if they have a few others in their corner rooting for them.

quixote said...

I know I should be feeling for Jay, and instead the main thing I am is mad. Mad at those two coaches. Mad as hell.

I'm a teacher. I'm trying to restrain myself from saying (cue sneer), "Coaches aren't teachers." (So much for that effort.) Good coaches are very much teachers. Those two should have been put in stocks and pelted with rotten garbage. Grrrrr. How dare they abuse trust so horribly? And how unspeakably sad that nobody felt there was any use in reporting the slime.

Sorry to be growling when I should be singing, or at least humming. For what it's worth, I feel better now.

Thanks for telling us about your wonderful and inspiring friend, Jay.

Rosemary said...

Thanks for reading, Quixote--and for your anger, which I totally share! Several teachers who've read this have said that teachers today could never get away with stuff like this. I'd like to believe that's true, but I know it's not. Still, it feels like not all of it was in vain if Jay's story gets shared again.

Jane said...

I met Jay only once, and I definitely was drawn to him. So charismatic, and so inviting! As an adult, I've come to realize that crushes come in many forms: romantic ones, friend ones, and parental ones (I've crushed on my own kids). Jay is one of those people who would prompt both romantic and friend crushes. Those can be hard to distinguish, and I think he probably made a great first boyfriend, Christy.

Oh, bullies. I still see teachers who are bullies, and it seems to me that the most vulnerable kids sometimes prompts this inexplicable rage, or even delight, in others. I recall some high school teachers who sexually bullied girls right in the classroom, not with their bodies, but with language.

Let us not forget too that many parents resort of bullying to make their child compliant. Perhaps kids used to getting bullied at home find it acceptable at school too. This becomes their norm everywhere.

Rosemary said...

In case you missed it: more examples of adult bullying: