Lee Hirsch's much-discussed film, Bully, is a great document of this moment in anti-bullying discourse. It reiterates what the compassionate know and the apathetic need to hear: bullying is bad and kids are killing themselves in response.
Bully is moving, sometimes consciously and often inherently. Aside from the three kids who tell their stories (Alex, Kelby and Ja'Meya), there are two accounts from the parents of kids who've killed themselves. Though a motif of hope emerges toward the end of the documentary, the tone of the film is predictably somber. Really, it would have been hard for it to be any other way. The black-and-white insistence is warranted: Bullying is bad. Down with bullying.
But bullying was good for me.
If I could go back and revise my adolescent experience, I wouldn't. I'm glad it happened. As bad as it was, it was also good, and not just in It-Gets-Better retrospect. It was good then. It directly enriched my life. It shaped me. Don't get me wrong, I'm no masochist. I don't derive pleasure from humiliation (I'm still, in fact, terribly sensitive to shame). When I think about the bullies of my past, I vacillate. Some days it's "Fuck you." Some days it's "Thank you."
I didn't have it as bad as some. I was never beaten up. My parents and family never bashed me, so home was a refuge. Instead of a catastrophe, I faced daily disruptions. I compare it to the difference between dealing with one big monster and several little ones. Bullies were bugs. They were irritating and there was the threat of drifting through a cloud of them whenever I left my house, but none ever came close to killing me.
It started in second grade, when this girl (ironically, the first one I'd ever French kiss, four years later) told me that everyone in her class thought I was gay. I kind of knew what that meant. I knew it was bad and that it had to do with my affinity for female friends, superheroes, and musicians, but I tried to be optimistic about it. "I think they mean ‘gay' like ‘happy,' because I'm always smiling," I explained to my parents that night, compelled to tell them about this development (I blame Catholicism for my diarrhea-like confessions). They were not convinced.
From then on, being called a faggot and/or mocked for my general manner was a fact of my life. Everywhere I went, there it was. "Lori thinks you're a fag." "Why are you so gay?" "You must like that other fag."
The worst thing anyone ever said to me happened in seventh grade. This kid whose name my subconscious must have scrubbed (David?) told me that he and a bunch of his friends were going to make me suck their dicks after school.
"No you aren't," I told him because that sounded impossible. How would they even get me to where that could happen, and how would they make me do something I didn't want? If nothing else, I had my teeth to defend me. Even more ridiculous than that kid's idea was his medium: his version of gay-bashing involved having sex with another guy. I pointed out that his proposition sounded, in fact, pretty gay. After that, I never heard about it again. The irony of this conversation happening in Home Ec. class amongst fucking sewing machines makes that story perversely satisfying to me today.
It felt as if a massive percentage of the population of the outside world had offered me two choices: Listen and conform or persist in myself. I chose the second option almost every time, and so being bullied taught me very early on not to let other people define my self-image. It taught me that what people think about me matters far less than what I know. As someone who has written actively on the Internet for years, this was a wonderful thing to have instilled in me at a young age.
It was really the masses versus my individuality: I wasn't being attacked for sucking cock as a 10-year-old (it would take me years to work up the courage, anyway), I was attacked for how I was. For the most part, I resisted taking the ensuing frustration out on myself. I told anyone who would listen to me how much I loved Madonna and female rappers and house music and Judy Blume. I bought RuPaul's first album the day it came out. I watched and rewatched Isaac Mizrahi flame the fuck out for 80 minutes in Unzipped. I saw The Crying Game after I'd heard about the twist. I remained apathetic about sports. I acted in plays. I got my nose pierced and dyed my hair. My safety and mental well-being be damned, I chose me.
It was lonely a lot of the time. Male friends that I had known since we were virtually babies would keep me at bay in what I interpret now as queer-by-association fears. I bonded closely with pop culture. I devoted my life to succeeding in school. I developed an intense love of animals, whose innocence I admired and who'd never, ever call me a faggot. I gravitated to friendships with girls, developing a deep appreciation for their ways and culture. I was a feminist before I even knew what that was. I began my unending relationship with black culture. I grew up in a South Jersey resort town that included a visible black population, but by high school we were mixed with kids from the mainland, which was predominantly white and today remains backwoodsy enough to terrify a merman. Some of those kids had Confederate battle flag stickers on their cars and rumored Klan relations. Unwilling to embrace myself as gay, which I was sure was the worst thing I could be, I nonetheless felt a distinct sense of otherness.
Being picked on pushed me so far into the closet that I didn't so much as kiss a dude till I was 22. I went to NYU and missed out on the kind of rabid exploration that happens in college, particularly when gay dudes are set free and really allowed to be their horny selves. Sometimes I mourn this, and sometimes it's a relief: at least I wasn't having piles of sex during the primetime of my youth-driven immortality complex that surely would have found me bareback without much thought.
Despite how it may sound, I was not a pariah. Not entirely. I was voted prom king senior year. I was well-known. I laughed a lot. I mocked people too, on occasion, for sport. But there was always that snake around the corner poised with venom that I never deserved. People would turn on me as it suited them socially. No teacher ever took me aside to discuss mistreatment. I felt like I was swimming against the current and when I did succeed (in being comfortable or having a fleeting feeling of being respected), it was through my own effort. I resent that today. I resent that all the support I could muster on this matter was implicit and fickle. I resent myself for not demanding that support in the first place. All this resentment keeps attending any sort of high school reunion entirely out of the question for me. Ultimately, that's time saved, and time saved is a good thing.
When you're openly bashed and asked to feel worthless, you're offered a peek into the dark side of humanity. You come to know that meanness is relative. You've been given something to get upset over and can realize that not everything deserves such a response. With the great amount of noise today, especially that which is directed at gay people, you can better judge what's worth getting upset about. (For example, silly word games from Price is Right models are not worth getting upset about.)
I like to think that I spun shit into gold, but I'm not always a fast worker and spinning generally hurts your fingers. I'm still dealing with bullying and feel a weird responsibility to my former self to transcend. While I think that the way I dealt with being verbally bashed (simply ignoring it) met a pacifist ideal, I no longer have that patience. The easily conjured aggression I sport today is compensatory. Sometimes I feel like a caged animal. I restlessly wait for someone to call me a faggot again to give me the opportunity to unleash violent catharsis that counters their perception of my weakness and, most importantly, my own lingering perceptions of it. Finding peace is a welcome battle.