I first heard the word “gay” when I was in third grade. A classmate said it while waiting in line to go back inside after recess. Under his breath, he told another of our peers that the new “Ace of Base” album was “gay.” He said it with such derision that I knew it must be something really, really bad. When I got home from school, I got angry with my little sister and yelled at the top of my lungs, “You’re gay!” My parents freaked out. They yelled at me and told me not to say that word again, but they never explained what it meant. I remember sitting in the corner of the foyer and feeling alone as my parents argued in the other room. That was the first time the word “gay” made me feel alone.
I’m a gay man. I started to realize my sexuality at puberty like everyone else. Unlike my straight peers, this meant navigating not just “the birds and the bees,” but also psychological abuse from family, friends, strangers, the media and the system at large. Like any 13 year old, I didn’t have the tools to cope with such an immense barrage of negativity and hate. I could not understand what I did wrong. I just wanted people to realize that I was a good and loving person. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t see that I was just an innocent kid - not a deviant, not a taboo, not sexual, not a sinner - just a kid.
When I started high school, I felt completely alone. In a school of over 3,000 students, none were openly gay. As a 14-year old, I tried to make some friends, but I gave up on it as a lost cause. Who would like me anyway? I sat alone. I didn’t talk unless I was in class or someone addressed me. People rarely addressed me. Sometimes from a close distance I could hear someone whisper, “well…. he’s gay.”
My peers weren’t overtly horrible to me, but two of the teachers were vicious. My freshman year English and gym teachers did their best to openly ridicule me in front of my classmates. In the beginning of freshman year my English teacher mocked my voice, which still hadn’t finish changing. He told me I “sounded like a fairy” in the middle of class. I was so devastated that I wanted die. That is not hyperbole. I was suicidal. I thought this teacher was trying to “out” me in front of the class. I never spoke up in that class again and still felt self-conscious of my voice many years later.
The gym teacher was worse than the English teacher. He called me a “pansy” and “a little girl.” He would indirectly talk about “the faggots” and look at me. During one gym class he forced me to buy and eat two hamburgers so I didn’t look ‘slim like a woman.” I was still in the closet and too ashamed to tell anyone this was happening. Even though all of these things happened in front of my classmates, not one of them spoke up.
Now, years later, I still face psychological abuse all the time, but now I love myself and have the tools to deal with it. People I know still say ignorant things about LGBT people to my face, knowing very well that I am gay. I am still avoided by some people when they learn that I am gay. The media still treats me like a taboo, only a little less so. The system still discriminates against me, only a little less so. Every few months a stranger in a passing car will scream “faggot” at me as I am walking down the street.
Four weeks ago, I was walking downtown. A man walking behind me said very loudly, “That guy likes dick. Go suck balls!” The woman he was walking with erupted in derisive laughter. Luckily, I could tell a friend what happened when I arrived. It is cathartic to tell a straight person how unsafe I feel and how I wonder if I will be the next hate crime statistic.
A friend or ally isn’t always there for comfort when I get targeted so I have no choice but to bottle up my feelings. I try to practice self-care as soon as possible. If I don’t, the fear and anger may turn into anxiety or strain. Even at my best, I still get triggered by harassment. In those moments, the 13-year old me who feels scared and alone peeks through again, if only for a second.