OCCASIONALLY, I am given an opportunity to take on a one-day gig and pick up a little pocket money. So far, my favorite has been a serving on a couple of mock-juries. I have also been a patient for a psychiatric grad student: I warned her in advance that she would get nowhere with me. Of course, she had been bawling like a baby while reliving some childhood traumas! 1
Recently, I took part in an exercise where a technique was being tested by a local health-oriented business to see if they wanted to incorporate it into their routine. More than twenty volunteers stood on a line.
Stood as equals.
We had been selected randomly, so various backgrounds and current statuses were represented.
I was one of the older participants, and one of the biggest. I didn’t look like the kind of guy anyone ever picked on.
Does that apply if I’m straight but was perceived as gay as a kid and bullied just the same?
The instructor Julie read off a series of statements dealing with our upbringing and general background. These included such always pertinent topics as:
• financial (did one of our parents hold a steady job, etc.)
• race (did one or both parents have an ethnic background that was considered a minority, etc.)
• religion (did we go to church regularly, etc.)
Several topics addressed grade and high school and how we were treated by our peers: did we play in any sports, or were we rewarded or punished for being short or fat or smart or attractive.
Statements not questions
These were not questions, but statements: “I received preferential treatment from my teachers for playing sports. How each statement applied to us required us to take a step forward or backward.
And yes, I’m being deliberately vague.
A few statements perplexed me:
• “I was ostracized for being gay.”
• “I was picked on for being gay.”
By the end of the exercise, there were seven lines where there had been one. Those who had taken the most steps forward reflected privilege or opportunity; those standing in the rear had apparently had less privilege or opportunity.
Julie pointed out that our current appearance (age, size, attire, attitude, etc.) did not necessarily reflect or predict where we were finally standing—that you can’t always tell important things about a person simply by initial appearances.
All in all, I was less than impressed with the whole thing, but I haven’t a clue as to what it meant to the organization sponsoring the exercise.
Were you picked on as a kid?
I am a reasonably healthy, good-looking, intelligent person. I had a ‘normal’ working class background with a solid ‘liberal arts’ public school education with some college. I ended up smack dab in the middle of the various lines.
Then I raised my hand: “Um, you had several statements that went, ‘Take a step back if you were ostracized from some social events for being gay’ and ‘Take a step back if you were picked on for being gay.’ ”
Julie affirmed that.
“Does that apply if I am straight but was perceived as gay as a kid and shut out and bullied just the same?”
“What? Were you picked on for being gay when you weren’t? Good question,” and Julie turned to her clipboard. After reading a few pages, she said, “Yes. Even if you are heterosexual but you were mistreated because they thought you were gay, take a step back.”
And I took four steps back and ended up at the last line at the back of the group.
Julie was momentarily puzzled: “Were there that many statements about being gay?”
“Well, okay then. And thank you for pointing that out to me.”
The impact of the bullying
Whoever put this battery of statements and instructions together placed a lot of emphasis on the negative impact that being gay and being bullied in school had on adults decades after the fact. Needless to say, this did not take into account the higher suicide rate of gay teens versus straight teens.
So, having lived through the crap that kids dole out to each other when they think you are gay—and that’s the crap from the ‘normal’ kids, not the physical manhandling that comes from the jocks and the f*cking bullies—I have long understood some of the problems that gay kids had to deal with on a daily basis in school. 2a/2b
And I ended up mucho sympathetic, if not downright empathetic.
Rigtwingnut version of facts: “42% of all liberals are queer. That’s a fact. The Wallace people did a poll.”
And I went to a ‘good’ grade school and a ‘good’ high school in a reasonably tolerant neighborhood. Grommett only knows what it’s like in the poor excuses for schools we have today in sections of the country that still haven’t discovered anything outside of the missionary position.
While a macho closing of “Been there, done that” would be great here, it’s more appropriate to say, “Been there, had that done to me.”
Well, I survived it all and graduated in 1969, after which I became a longhaired hippie! And with long hair and other more sartorial alterations came a whole new level of bullying and violence: movies like Easy Rider resonated with millions of young Americans, if only figuratively. The violence in this movie only takes up the film’s final minutes, but what final minutes they are! 3
I wanted to get out of that
Another hippie-based movie from that era that is apparently forgotten today is Joe. Peter Boyle starred as the stupid—er, beg pardon: intellectually challenged—bigoted, frustrated, angry white male. You know, your average Joe. And Joe had a daughter (Susan Sarandon’s début) who was turning hippie on him.
For me, Joe’s most memorable line was, “Forty-two percent of all liberals are queer. That’s a fact. The Wallace people did a poll.” That’s the kind of “facts” that rightwingnuts still believe today. (And you probably didn’t think I could tie Joe in with the rest of this essay, did you?)
Joe also opined on race relations: “The niggers are gettin’ all da money. Why work? Tell me, why the fuck work, when you can screw, have babies, an’ get paid for it?” Basically, the foundation for Ronald Reagan’s racist welfare queen invention of the next decade.
The movie changed Boyle: when he saw audiences cheering the violence, he refused parts in other films that glorified violence for several years. This included the role of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection: “I did a movie called Joe and I became identified with rightwing politics. I wanted to get out of that.”
Finally, it’s 40–50 years later, and I can treat all this with emotional distance. But it hurt like hell then and left me with one profound prejudice: I hate f*cking bullies.
Personal bullies, political bullies, military bullies, business bullies, workplace bullies—hate ’em all!
Being bullied for being perceived as being gay also left me with a profound sympathy (does “empathy” count here?) for anybody and everybody regardless of their gayness or straightness.
But they are stories for another time …
HEADER IMAGE: The scene should be familiar to most readers, as it is taken from The Karate Kid (1984). Here tough guy William Zabka lets wussy Ralph Macchio know who’s in charge. Excellent movie even if the likelihood that a small, lightweight kid could learn karate in a year and kick the shit out of older, bigger guys who have been working out for years should stretch everyone’s credulity.
Note here that Macchio is smaller, softer, darker. Wapka has lost his baby fat and has the lean, chiseled features that we might assign in our heads to an adult in the US Marines. Also notice that in this picture, the bully’s hand appears almost as large as the victim’s head—and that the threat of that hand is all that is needed to achieve the bully’s goal.
But it’s Hollywood, right? I chose this image because even though the movie does not address gay issues, Ralph here is young and pretty and an outsider, just the kind of target bullies smell before the poor kid enrolls in his first day of school. 4
1 Regarding the mock juries: I can say that both involved lawsuits and a unanimous decision was easily reached. We did squabble over the monetary remuneration with interesting figures and arguments that reflected our personality type/political leanings …
2a Of course there are many other reasons why kids ostracize other kids: being an artsy type, being a nerd (egghead was more or less synonymous in my youth), being too shy, being too outgoing, etc. But for boys in a culture that seems to pride itself on its sexual immaturity and insecurity—as that very insecurity is preyed upon by advertisers—being called gay for the first time can be a social and personal death-knell, literally and figuratively.
2b All bullies are f*cking bullies—and most of them stay f*cking bullies throughout their lives.
3 As cool as the adventures of Captain America and Billy were—taking to the highways and byways on choppers and discovering the real America—the ending scared the shit out of us! When discussing the movie with my peers today, many seem to have wiped the horror of the fate of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s characters from their memories. O, well …
4 I still remember being at a bar with a date and bumping into some hulk who turned on me and spit out ‘Watch it, pussyface!” I was so humiliated by being intimidated by the f*cking bully that I was afraid to call the girl for another date. That’s when I started lifting weights and learning to fight.