You want to kill yourself over THEM?

Anti-gay taunts, including "Why don't you kill yourself?" led 15-year-old Billy Lucas to hang himself last month in Indiana.

A hot national topic of discussion hit close to home Tuesday morning.

I was making my weekly run to WinCo for groceries when I ran into a familiar face in an unfamiliar place. Joey (a genetic woman, and very much one) is a friend from many nights running into each other in the Tower District, and she’s been 110% supportive of my gender transition. She happened to just leave the gym, and this was the closest WinCo to her, and there we were in the dairy aisle.

13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, who was gay and out, also hanged himself last month after much bullying at school.

It gave me a chance to tell her about the “It’s a girl!” party my friend Heather is throwing for me Saturday night, to celebrate my rebirth — my legal recognition as female by the state of California. And I pulled out my newly minted driver’s license to show her.

And she gave me a big hug. And then she started tearing up. I’ve gotten a lot of smiles and hugs over the new license, but not tears until this point.

Without me asking, she said, “I work with a gay-straight alliance. We lost one of ours to suicide last Friday. She was a male-to-female transgirl. She was only 19. So seeing this makes me very happy.”

I don’t know this girl’s particular story — whether it was hormones, harassment or family matters, or all of the above. All I know is what you know already if you’ve been keeping up with the news — that the epidemic of bullying-caused suicides among the young, especially gay students, has spiked in recent weeks, so much that People magazine led with it this week.

In an earlier time and place, it very well could have been me — not for being gay in my case, but just for being labeled as such. And I know some of you reading this — maybe gay, maybe perceived as such, maybe transgender — are saying the same thing.

And if you happen to be gay and/or trans and young enough to still be getting beaucoup bullshit from your alleged peers — well, let me tell you: This is only temporary. It will pass. These fuckers are not your peers. You will get past this, go on with life, and they will be no more than an annoying boil on your ass that flares up every so often.

Do not give them any more power over you than they deserve — which is none. You don’t want to give up what could turn out to be a wonderful life because of them.

*****

The flashpoint for this latest spate of suicides was the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman whose romantic encounter in his room with another male student last month was surreptitiously videotaped by his roommate and placed online for shits and giggles; Tyler, an accomplished violinist, jumped off the George Washington Bridge.

But there have been others as well. Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old freshman at Greensburg (Ind.) High School, hanged himself in the family barn last month because of anti-gay taunts that, according to a classmate, included “Why don’t you go kill yourself?” And in the Houston suburb of Cypress, Texas, 13-year-old Asher Brown shot himself after severe torment — anti-gay taunts that, his mother and stepfather said, included performing mock gay sexual acts on him in gym class. They also said their complaints to Hamilton Middle School officials over 18 months fell on deaf ears.

Yet another suicide took place a couple hours south of here. Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old student at Jacobsen Middle School in Tehachapi, was gay and out — and fair game, apparently, for the other kids, who live in Kern County, a very right-wing county (Bakersfield’s the county seat) that makes Fresno look like San Francisco. And after an increasing barrage of abuse — just things kids say, y’know, like “You should kill yourself,” “You should go away” and “You’re gay; who cares about you?” — Seth hanged himself in his backyard a month ago and then lingered nine more days on life support.

And it’s not just gay suicides. Four students at Mentor High School, in the Cleveland suburb of Mentor, Ohio, have taken their lives in the past two years after excessive bullying: one was gay, one was possibly gay, one had a learning disability and one was a native of Croatia who had a hard time adjusting because of the taunting.

The rational, intellectual part of me says I can’t believe, with all the intelligence and information as close to us as the ends of our fingers these days, that we’re encountering the same stupidity, the same ignorance-driven hatred, we’ve seen since the dawn of time.

The animal part of me says what’s gonna change? Human nature is human nature. People have always been like this: gathering in herds/packs/cliques/alliances/mobs; aligning themselves with like-minded animals for a cause, however meaningless; putting down others to deal with their own insecurities and shortcomings; scrapping and fighting their way up the social pecking orders of their own little, narrow worlds. Darwinian survival of the fittest. The runts of the social litters are kicked away from the nurturing teat of the group dynamic and left to die. In this case, left to kill themselves, after being brainwashed into believing this is all their own damn faults.

Don’t fall for it. Their faults are not your fault.

*****

Y’know, I can’t really say that where I grew up would have made any difference whether I was harassed or not. I might have been just the type of kid who’d have been open to this sort of abuse regardless of where I might have lived. I mean, had we not moved to Connecticut when I was 4, I would’ve been in Brooklyn — the mean streets of New York in the ’60s and ’70s. Not exactly a bastion of tolerance or nurturing.

And lets face it — little kids can be real shits anytime, anyplace, anywhere. They’re sweet and cute until maybe third, fourth grade, and then they start acting out all the bullshit they collect from other places. They might get it from TV and movies, or learn from their dysfunctional parents, or an equally dysfunctional older sibling who had a couple-year head start on being a shit. But it’s about this point where the pecking orders start to sort themselves out. The cool kids vs. the geeks. Or, worse, the “faggots.”

Anyway, fate determined I would grow up in Prospect, 15 miles northwest of New Haven, a hick town of a few thousand in the hills leading into the Naugatuck Valley, adjoining Waterbury (the onetime Brass City of the World) to the north and east, Naugatuck (birthplace of Vulcanized rubber and Naugahyde) to the West. (For my Fresno friends, think of the San Joaquin Valley, but with a heavy industrial base that flew the coop about 35 years ago.) It’s one of those suburban towns that’s big on the flag and the volunteer fire department (the assistant fire chief, a Republican, has been the mayor for 33 years now) and all the trappings of democracy.

Thanks to rampant development in recent years along Route 69, the main drag, and yuppies gobbling up cheap land and driving up real estate prices, the population is now about 10,000, or about twice what it was when I was a kid. It was a town with only one red light until 15 years ago; now it has four. But I can’t imagine the mentality has changed for the better. Just by gauging the conversations I’ve heard at Doyon’s Mobil while filling up the past few visits home, it seems as if it’s getting to be a harder, angrier place, a Pottersville creeping into Bedford Falls and changing the cultural landscape. (Do I sense a Tea Party breeding ground?)

That’s where I grew up, and that’s where I learned firsthand the power of words to affect someone.

*****

I wasn’t gay, and as a fourth-grader in the early ’70s, I sure didn’t know anything about transgender matters, let alone sex. But I did know the word “faggot.” I can’t imagine any of the other kids in fourth or fifth grade knew what it really meant; at that age, “faggot” means “You’re weird.” As in “You’re an alien.” As in “Treat very badly.” Anyway, for years, I wondered whether what my first initial stood for — whether Faggot was my real first name.

I was abused merely for the crime of being very sensitive. It didn’t matter that I was the smartest kid in the class, or at least one of the smartest. I had a meltdown in class one day midway through fourth grade — Mrs. Martin’s class, Room 4, the top group of fourth-grade students at Algonquin School. As best as I can recall, it was a Wednesday in late January 1971, a couple of days after I returned from being out with the flu for two weeks, and despite doing a lot of homework the second week I was home, I was still catching up and struggling a little.

Anyway, I don’t know what triggered it, but I had a bad crying jag late that afternoon, and nearly four decades later, I so wish to fuck I could have taken back that one goddamned moment in my life. That one innocent but pivotal moment. Maybe my life would’ve turned out for the better.

But it didn’t. The rest of the class started laughing — think of all those Peanuts cartoons, with kids howling uncontrollably as Charlie Brown trudges away, head slumped in humiliation — and my teacher, a real bitch who never did like me much for whatever reason, told me, and not so kindly, to stop crying. To which I sobbed the immortal words: “I can’t control myself.” That was it. As loud and as cruel as the kids were before, it opened the floodgates. Like opening yourself to a snowball attack from every single front. Except this stung a lot harder. And a lot longer.

To this day, even as a female, I have the damndest time even saying the C-word. Since that meltdown, it’s something I’ve always been associated with shame and embarrassment.

And after that moment, once the little ones saw I was sensitive and vulnerable — behavior that would have been accepted readily from a girl, but sure as hell not from a boy — I was dead meat. The vultures started circling. In the classroom — and I spent the next four years in close quarters with most of those kids — things subsided some eventually. But outside the classroom, in my small world at large, the abuse was just starting to escalate. And whatever self-esteem I had was flushed down the toilet at that point — not to return for another 38 years or so.

*****

I heard all the greatest hits from that point. Faggot. Fucking Faggot. Fairy. Mums. Pansy. Still, I tried to fit in, but when I made attempts to do so, they usually failed; I was decent in rec league basketball, but I was the worst player in the Prospect Little League, for example. I had few friends at that, and not very close ones. I became a loner. I wasn’t invited out with the others. (On the good side, I listened to a lot of radio in my solitude, which came in handy later in life, as I became a music writer and eventually hosted my own radio show.)

As I got to high school, it got worse. My Catholic high school was a pretty tolerant place that didn’t put up with abuse or violence — but that didn’t extend to the bus rides home. I didn’t know what sort of physical or verbal abuse I would be in for on the rides back in the afternoon.

And there were other instances that had nothing to do with school. One Saturday night, as a high school freshman, I went to a town teen dance in a defunct furniture store space. This kid from the neighborhood where I used to hang out, one of the strongest kids I knew, came up to me for no reason and sucker-punched me in the stomach full force. I was doubled up, on my knees, in the middle of floor, wondering what the fuck I had done. The answer, of course, was nothing. But I was a faggot.

*****

Anyway, the abuse began to run its course for some reason by the middle of my junior year. And about 10 years after that, I ran into the guy who punched me. He was a lot nicer than he had once been. (And by then, my name was pretty familiar in the local paper, as a sportswriter and music writer.) He told me he felt terribly about the way he had treated me growing up, and he apologized. I was too much in shock to ask him why he had been such a prick to me in the first place, but I was pleasantly surprised.

And in early 1992, there was the night I finally graduated fourth grade. I was assigned to do a feature story about how a couple is affected when one of the spouses suffers a brain trauma. Said spouse was my chief tormentor in fourth grade, where he sat next to me.

You can imagine the trepidation I felt when I arrived at the house. And just how would he remember me, if he remembered me at all?

He answered the door. He looked about how I would’ve imagined him: red hair, trimmed beard … but his eyes were big and round and soft like a kid’s — except that they never were that soft when he was a kid. Turns out he went through his version of hell: an alcoholic mother, a kid brother who died young in a car crash, his and his wife’s recovery from drugs and booze — and then his ruptured aneurysm, which, in a way, turned him into a different person, which would put a strain on any marriage.

“Hi,” he said in a very pleasant voice. “Won’t you come in?” His wife came down, and we talked while he went off to his room. About an hour in, she excused herself to change out of her work clothes, and hubby came back down.

“You know, you look awfully familiar,” he said.

Uh oh. Here we go. Yeah, I was the kid you tormented in fourth grade and I’m still paying for it, you fucker …

“I sat next to you in fourth grade.”

He looked at me for a minute, and then it hit him, through the brain damage:

“Dinosaurs!”

Holy shit.

I hadn’t thought of them in ages. When I was in third, fourth grade, I had a fascination with the big lizards — read lots of books, built a model. And who knows how the brain processes information, damage or not, but of all the things for him to remember. Not “Yeah, I really busted your balls!” — it was “Dinosaurs!”

Wow.

So that was the night I started to let go of the childhood. But I couldn’t let go completely. I’m cursed with an excellent memory. And the damage had been done, and was damn near impossible to undo.

By the start of junior year of high school, I picked up where the other kids had left off. All the words, the names I had been called, all the shoving and pranks and punches, had worked themselves into an industrial-strength loop tape that played nonstop in my head. I still might have been an A student, but in the eyes of the world, I was worthless. In my own eyes, I was worthless. I hated myself so much that I wanted to kill myself. It was the start of three decades-plus of chronic depression.

My last couple years of school, and maybe part of my sophomore year as well, there wasn’t a day that went by without me thinking of killing myself at least once. Part of it was the chronic worthlessness, part of it was anger and revenge — I’ll show you fuckers what it’s like to hate. But I never got deadly serious about it, though.

I just never could think of a good way to do it. I mentioned this in a another post, but I’ve been scared to death of death my whole life. Also, I thought my suicide would break up my family. And for some unknown reason, I wanted to live. The Force was strong in this young Skywalker. I didn’t know why I was meant to stick around another day, to put another ball in play, to endure the self-abuse that Obi-Kids had taught me well. Sometimes I still don’t know why the fuck I’m still here.

But I went off to college, battled the demons to a standstill with much drinking my first couple of years, then came back home and fell in with the alt-music scene in New Haven — and it was at the Grotto one night early in 1984 that it hit me: “We’re all the wretched refuse of our adolescence!” And I’m guessing it’s been like this in almost every alt-music scene before or since: None of us fit in with the alleged cool crowd. We were our own Islands of Misfit Toys.

Some of us were gay or trans and eventually came to grips with it (or not); many weren’t. But those nights at the Grotto at least gave me a concrete reason why I stuck around. I made some dear and lasting friends in those heady early-to-mid-’80s, and quite a few of them have been in my corner through the twin trials of gender transition and unemployment the past two years or so.

*****

In retrospect, judging by the way I’ve responded mentally and emotionally to the hormone therapy I started in April, some of my problems with depression were most probably due to a chemical imbalance — and thank God I was able to get past what has been a nightmarish 30 years.

Life is far from perfect, and I wouldn’t sell you a bill of goods like that. While much of my gender transition is done, and I’ve seen and felt the generous support of my friends, the stress of long-term unemployment and money anxiety is enough to keep me near the cliff most days. But I did stick around to do a lot of cool things, and to feel the love of others, and I’m glad I did.

But how the hell would I have known about hormones as a kid? What did anyone know? And who was studying gender dysphoria that closely at that point, in the ’70s? Whatever vocabulary psychiatrists and doctors had for it back then was rewritten at least once or twice between then and now.

And even if studies had been more advanced back then, by then I was full-fledged boy — boying-up best as I could as a defense mechanism. There was no way in fucking hell I could have shown the least bit of a trait that wasn’t masculine. After all, I was already a faggot and an outcast without being gay.

Besides, it was the torment of the kids that really got the show started.

*****

But if you’re a teenager — gay, trans or just different in some other way that sets you apart — seriously think twice about doing something irrational in a moment of despair. Don’t kill yourself, or even attempt it, because of them. Your tormentors are actually what they want you feel about yourself — they’re not worth shit.

Plus, you have some things going for you that kids like you and me didn’t have (at the risk of sounding like a grandma) when I was your age.

There’s a greater general understanding of what you’re going through. Of course, with the Web, information — and public outrage — moves at a much faster speed than it did even a decade ago, and has taken quantum leaps just in the time you’ve been on the earth.

In recent years, medical and mental healthcare professionals have pretty much concluded that sexual identity and gender identity are formed in the womb. They have nothing to do with your upbringing, your religious beliefs — all that dogma bullshit that the self-righteous throw around to make themselves feel smug and superior. You am what you am, okay? And you’ll get the chance to accept and embrace it a lot sooner than I did.

And there are a lot of support groups out there for gay and trans kids that never existed when I was that age. Sure, as the recent rash of suicides bears out, there are still far too many ignorant goobers walking the hallways of schools. And believe me, I know that navigating family waters can be rough as well, depending on your situation. But there are also a lot more people who are at least tolerant and understanding, if not totally accepting, of you. And there are many resources on the Web that are readily available to you — places where you can reach out to professionals, or to or peers going through the same situations. Use them. There are places to go. You are most definitely not alone.

And sometimes life will surprise you. You will find support in places you never imagined.

*****

Fresno, in general, takes great pride in being a bastion of right-wing thinking. But in the midst of this allegedly rigid mindset, I’ve seen a few things that have surprised the hell out of me.

For five years, I was the editor of BackTalk, The Fresno Bee’s Sunday features page written by local high school students. I raised an eyebrow when one of my writers pitched me a story about the growing number of gay-straight alliances in the city’s high schools. But sure enough, there were quite a few, and she got a decent story out of it.

Then there was the double-whammy of national headlines in 2007: a female-to-male trans student, Cinthia Covarrubias, fought for the right to run for Fresno High School’s prom king, wearing a tux; Cinthia didn’t win, but shortly after, Johnny “Crystal” Vera, a male-to-female trans, was voted prom queen at Roosevelt High.

And hey, I’m certainly proof of tolerance and acceptance, too. I might not be a kid (though sometimes I still act like one), but of all the places for me to have come out about my gender, who the hell would have thought Fresno? San Francisco, of course, would have been an obvious place. But it was Fresno. And it took a lot of overcoming fear before I could take my tentative first baby steps out of the closet.

But each revelation — each friend who has been wonderful about me and my changes, each total stranger who has befriended me, each person who has opened up to me because I came out — has made the trip a lot easier. It means a hell of a lot more having been able to transition and grow friendships, among existing friends and heretofore total strangers alike, in this place.

*****

Life will continue to be its usual mix of joys and struggles, but don’t confuse the everyday battles we all face with the abuse you get from tormentors. Don’t lump the two together. Compartmentalize the two, if you can. Your abusers, for the most part, will eventually disappear. You’ll go on with life. Chances are you’ll leave your hometown, never to return, and you will find the people who love you and accept you.

There will be a light at the end of all this. Some tunnels are longer than others, though, and it does take a while to get to that light. And it seems all that much longer when you’re younger. But you will get through it.

Just don’t give into them. Don’t do anything drastic. Don’t give into them and don’t finish the job they started. Sometimes living is the best revenge — especially if you’re living the life you’ve always felt you should be living.

Go and do what you have to. But just live.

UPDATE 10/15: This column by Gene Robinson — the openly gay Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, whose 2003 election opened a schism in the American Episcopal Church, including here in Fresno — appeared today in The Huffington Post. It’s a pointed essay on how religion is killing LGBT youth — maybe not directly, but by fostering the atmosphere of anti-gay violence by dogma and rhetoric. It may or may not be something that has occurred to you, but it’s excellent reading, especially coming from a prominent clergy member.

UPDATE 10/17: Perez Hilton posted a link to a story earlier this week on KFSN (Channel 30), the ABC affiliate in Fresno, on the local 19-year-old transgirl who took her own life a week ago Friday.

Chloe (nee Justin) Lacey shot herself up in Eureka, where she was going to college, actually just days before her 19th birthday. She was a 2009 graduate of Buchanan High in Clovis, the right-wing-and-proud cowtown of 90,000 that borders northeast Fresno.

Clovis, it should be noted, is also the hometown of Chris Colfer, who plays the flamboyantly gay Kurt on “Glee.” Chris, a 2009 Clovis East grad who’s out now, has said that he was never out in high school because “people in [his] town get killed for that.”

The interview with Chloe’s mom was heartwrenching. She and Chloe’s stepdad readily accepted their daughter (who looked absolutely beautiful and happy in the photo in the story), and her mom said Chloe had lots of support from her friends. But it was the fear of bullying — the fear of getting the shit beaten out of her, or killed — that led her to shoot herself.

This is the climate of hatred and intolerance many transpeople either face or anticipate. I can tell you from my own transition that the biggest dragon to slay has been fear — not just “What are people gonna think?” but “What are people gonna do?” And sometimes it’s just too much to bear.

God, this is terrible. Tell me you can’t watch this story without choking up.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , ,

6 Responses to “You want to kill yourself over THEM?”

  1. jmucci Says:

    I wonder why there is a spike in suicides lately. I wonder if it’s just coincidence or not. Anyhow, I’m curious Fran…when you were younger, especially in school, and someone called you “faggot”, did it make you, at that time, try to act more “macho” and “manly” to prove to them (or even yourself) that you were not a “faggot”, or did it make you even more sensitive?
    I was never taunted in school…I tried to keep to myself as much as possible, and I guess I mostly succeeded in being as “invisible” as possible, but still I look back on those years as being happy in some ways and not happy in other ways. I guess compared to many kids, I was a bit on the “wimpy” side, but, like I said, I tried to not draw any attention to myself, so therefore, I mostly avoided fights & confrontation.
    I think childhood years are traumatic for everyone, no matter what, and I’ve found out from childhood friends, who seemed to be the “cool” kids back then, that they actually had miserable childhoods (homelife), and it sounds also like some of the kids that taunted you had some bad home lives, so who knows on what kind of psychological level that affected their actions at school. Perhaps taking out their aggressions on you was a way for them to feel better about themselves. Of course, it’s a shame that we don’t understand any of this at the time, otherwise you could have known not to let them make you feel like shit…because you would have realized why they were doing it, and that their futures weren’t not going to be rosey by any means.
    I remember a few times acting like a bully (which was never really my style 99% of the time) towards this kid who had seizures in school. I know I acted like a complete jerk to him, and I sometimes wonder where he is now, and what my actions did to him, if anything. I don’t really know if other kids made fun of him….I’m sure they did…and I have no clue what made me act like a jerk to him those 2 or 3 times. Perhaps I was showing off in front of my friends…who can really remember? Or maybe it was my misguided attempt to act less “wimpy”…? I don’t know. It’s a shame that kids can be so cruel though. I was mostly a tolerant and easy-going kid, who didn’t start trouble, but I guess I had my “dickhead” moments a few times too.
    Anyhow, it sounds like you had a very miserable childhood, at least school-wise. Was your homelife better, I hope?

  2. bob Says:

    nicely done.i detest how those who can do something about bullying be it school days or work place do zero.and in the morass that follows still do nothing. we need your writing fran keep on keep on keep on kung fu writing.love garvin

  3. amy the redhead Says:

    fucking WOW!!!

  4. Silvia M. Says:

    “I wonder why there is a spike in suicides lately. I wonder if it’s just coincidence or not.”

    This Friday night 2020 will be presenting a two-hour special on ABC entitled, Bullied to Death. From the previews I’ve seen it appears that bullying is trending among students, where individual students are being picked on for a variety of issues ranging from physical appearance to sexual orientation.

    From Fran’s own account, we know that bullying is not some recent social trend but something that has been going on in schools for a long time. So why now? Why does there appear to be a virulent nationwide trend of bullying and youth suicides?

    I think that this apparent trend is due in part to the new forms of sharing information via a wide range of social media tools. Today, news from around the globe can be quickly shared en masse and in real time via “word of mouse.” So we didn’t hear about those incidents of bullying which took place unless we were a party to them or through word of mouth. I suspect that this isn’t a new trend but rather something that has been going for much longer than we realized (much like the Catholic Church sexual scandal).

    Today, the Web and social media tools have allowed widespread users to self-organize into communities to raise awareness of social issues/problems and to advocate change. Recently, for example, Facebook users rallied around d the suicides of gay youths who had been bullied by posting this message to their profile:

    “13 year old Asher Brown, 15-year-old Billy Lucas, 13-year-old Seth Walsh, and 18-year-old Tyler Clementi ALL committed suicide in the month of SEPT because they were bullied and tormented for being gay. Today, I STAND UP TO THOSE BULLIES in their honor. If you care to STAND UP with me, please post this as your status. I…t doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, this type of behavior is wrong.”

  5. The Rogue Festival: The final day « Franorama World Says:

    […] who has been through the bullshit of taunts or bullying or worse based on sexual and gender identity, real or perceived, will have a hard time sitting […]

  6. The Summer of ’71, or how I became a music fiend « Franorama World Says:

    […] year 1971 was pretty big for me for two reasons. One was because it was where most of my torment as a child and adolescent began. The other came that spring, in the playground at Canfield Park in Prospect, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: