On Wearing Purple

[A quick note: I originally posted this entry on October 20, 2010, on my old blog. Since the blog has been taken down, I wanted to repost it (with some minor edits) today.]

I was bullied in school.

The most overt bullying I dealt with was from the fifth grade until right about the middle of the 10th grade and it was mainly because I was your typical nerdy kid who didn’t wear the right clothes and liked to spend his Friday nights watching movies and Star Trek reruns and poring over a stack of comic books instead of heading to the nearest keg party or wooded lake area to get completely obliterated and have sex. Not that I didn’t want to have sex, but my romantic ineptitude during my teenage years isn’t that relevant to this.

The bullying tapered off as I went through my junior and senior years, or at least it was more subtle than having a “kick me” sign taped to my back at the end of science class, or the kid sitting next to me on the bus threatening to beat the shit out of me if I said to anyone that he was threatening to beat the shit out of me. Some days, I’d go from first to eighth period and not deal with anything. Other days, my “friends” would cut me down because they came up with a creative and offensive nickname for me, or thought that my using a certain bathroom in the school because it had doors on the stalls and didn’t smell like smoke was hilarious. There were other things, too; right up through the time I graduated college I think I heard the phrase “Can’t you take a joke?” more than I ever thought I would.

Not that I was ever completely innocent, mind you. For every person who was a victim of being picked on and pushed around in my school, there was someone that victim found to pick on and push around, even if it was someone who was a friend, and even if he didn’t realize he was doing it. I think we called it “ribbing” or “busting balls,” and I don’t know how much we thought about what we were doing. Of course, does anyone?

Aside from being immature at that age I was also, for being a student who was very smart, extremely ignorant. My friends and I used to make fun of gay people–not anyone specifically, as I recall, just gay people in general. The town I grew up in is the gateway to Fire Island, so there were a lot of times where we cracked ourselves up by taking on a lisp and talking about going to “The Pines” and what have you. I think about that now and feel sick at my own behavior as well as the fact that I was extremely homophobic through high school and quite a bit of college, mainly because of the bubble I was living in: a mostly white, middle/upper-middle class community into which you could disappear or in which you could feel safe while making uninformed judgments about the world (and let’s not get started about the lessons against homosexuality I received at the hands of my local church).

I don’t recall that I had some dramatic “movie moment” wherein I realized how much of an idiot I was. To be honest, somewhere along the line I grew up and actually put my money where my mouth was when it came to being “open-minded.” I do, however, remember, seeing an article in Newsday once during those years about how tough it was for gay teens to come out and be out when they were still in high school. My ignorant thought at the time was something along the lines of, “Oh, how could you know?” or “Why would you want to do that?”

The latter, of course, being the typical “blame the victim” mentality of “They know how tough it is and how much they could get beaten up, I don’t know why they would invite it.” Nowadays, I still can’t totally wrap my head around it but in a different way, because I can’t feel empathy. Although I can feel admiration. I shouldn’t, in 2012, have to say “it’s brave” to come out in middle school or high school, but it is and as a teacher I can offer my support. Not in a way to atone for past mistakes, by the way, but because reprimanding someone who says something is “gay” or calls someone else a “faggot” is the right thing to do.

A couple of years ago, when the story of Tyler Clementi’s suicide as well as some others that made national headlines broke, I found it very hard to speak about it with colleagues in a professional manner because it disgusts me what people are capable of doing to one another, and how people can possibly defend that (especially when they decide to use the word “faith” when they are defending the actions of bigots). I mean, what are we teaching our students if we allow that type of crap to happen? I will tell you that there are days where I feel bullied by the students that I teach but in terms of the big picture I’d rather have them harass me, who has a direct line to principals and their parents and isn’t afraid to use it, than have them bully some kid by calling him/her “queer” or “fag” or make whatever joke/hurl whatever insult at them.

Because what does that lead to? Facebook groups that have to post things like this:

It’s been decided. On October 20th, 2010, we will wear purple in honor of the 8 homosexual teenagers who committed suicide in recent weeks/months due to homophobic abuse in their homes at at their schools. Purple represents Spirit on the LGBTQ flag and that’s exactly what we’d like all of you to have with you: spirit. Please know that times will get better and that you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexuality. Please wear purple on October 20th. Tell your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and schools. RIP Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg,Eric Mohat, Meredith Rezak, Raymond Chase and Billy Lucas. You are loved.

I shouldn’t have had to wear a purple shirt and tie that day or today for any other reason besides the fact that I think I looked good. I shouldn’t have to read or hear stories about kids killing themselves because someone else thought who they were was weak. I shouldn’t have to worry about a kid who is defending him or herself getting suspended because of some bullshit zero tolerance policy. I shouldn’t have to get more and more frustrated writing this entry because I know there are students out there who have spent the day afraid to walk down the hall because of sick, disgusting pigs; and that there are teachers who may be just as afraid to be open about who they are because of fear of reprisal from the sick, disgusting parents of those sick, digusting pigs. Of course, today is over and Monday means … well, a blue shirt, maybe? But just because I won’t be wearing purple doesn’t mean that I’ll stop thinking about it and ignore it.

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