October
12th 2010
Coming out/It Gets Better stories

Posted under: American history, childhood, Gender, GLBTQ, students

Because of Tenured Radical’s series on women’s colleges and feminist education, I missed that yesterday was national Coming Out Day, which this year is being linked by a number of bloggers and writers to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project .  A number of my regular faves had special posts on this, but I wanted to highlight two especially moving stories.  First, Rose at Romantoes has a wonderful tribute to a high school friend of hers, Jay, who suffered shocking amounts of bullying in high school.  His is an important story to read now because as Rose writes, “it’s not always kids doing the bullying.”

One of my best friends all through school growing up came out after we started college.  That wasn’t much of a surprise to anybody, but of course that doesn’t make it any easier for someone to come out.  And for years he had been bullied, harassed, and tormented about being gay…but importantly, not ever, to my knowledge, by his peers.

In many ways I think he’d escaped that kind of treatment by other kids because he was just so damned charming and funny.  I mean, he was truly the funniest person I have ever known.  He was witty, punny, and could stage some of the best practical jokes imaginable with the straightest of faces.  He was also incredibly smart, musically gifted, and genuinely gregarious.  I really credit him for making my own time in high school as easy as it was–somehow, he single-handedly made it cool to be a nerd.

So who was doing the bullying?  Teachers.

People talk about three-hanky movies and novels, but have you ever seen a three-hanky blog post?  Keep your tissues close at hand, friends, for this next one too.  Fannie at Fannie’s Room offers a brave and moving account of her childhood–her growing awareness of her lesbian identity and gender-nonconformity, and the simultaneous terrible realization that being gay means facing the loathing and disgust of her family, friends, and peers at school.  Here are just a few snippets:

I am in first grade and am walking down the hall with my best friend. I reach out to take her hand.

She pulls her hand away in horror, saying, “What are you, queer?”

Last year, in kindergarten, this was okay. Today, I learned that there are new rules. I have also learned that whatever queer is, I Am Definitely Not That.

.       .       .       .      .       .      .       .      

It is the early 1990s. I am 13 and watching he news with my mom and my aunt. A clip comes on about Homosexuality In America. I become engrossed in this clip as I simultaneously try to squish myself into the couch so I’m less visible.

My mother turns to my aunt and says, “If my kids turn out gay, I’d kill myself.”

They both look at me.

I pretend to be engrossed in the program.

Perhaps noting a look of terror in my face, my aunt adds, “But we’d still love you anyway.”

My mom remains silent.

***
I am 14 and am going through some major awkward teen years. I have no interest in makeup, bras, or girly clothes. I’m getting a snack before basketball practice when I overhear two girls snickering.

“Is that a dude?” one of them says, about me.

“I don’t know what it is,” says the other.

Life sucks.

Be sure to read the whole thing.  Fannie concludes with some words of wisdom for gay and lesbian youngsters, and for those who maybe aren’t so young any more, too:

I’d like to say that all of the people who were mean to me in high school and homobigots throughout my life are now losers, but really, only some of them are. Some of the bullies are actually cool now, having matured and learned that the world has bigger fish to fry than gay people. Others are still a$$holes, and maybe they’re the ones running stupid homophobic blogs, but the best part of being an adult is being able to walk away from people like that when you need to.

My life isn’t perfect now, but it’s pretty damn good. It does get better. You are stronger, more beautiful, more right, than you might think.

These stories are important for everyone to read, because although most of us suffered some bullying at school–and probably bullied others as well–straight people might not understand just how pervasive and cruel gender and anti-gay bullying still is even today.  Because it’s easier to be out as an adult than it was 30 or 40 years ago, we might not understand that a gay child or teen is frequently still an oppressively lonely and frightening experience.

21 Comments »

21 Responses to “Coming out/It Gets Better stories”

  1. Emma on 12 Oct 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    Every time I go to “It Gets Better” I just start crying, crying, crying. And I wasn’t even all that bullied at any time in my life. More, I think, is the pervasive fear I had from the time I became sexually active as a lesbian, around 19 or so, until, well, not too long ago, about actually being a lesbian. The fear of discrimination, the fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, the fear of being unemployable. That’s not all gone, but thankfully I am in a rather fabulous place employment- and family-wise. So most of that niggling “what if” is gone.

    I do, though, have concerns about the ever earlier ages at which kids are “identifying” as GLBTQ. Maybe things are really, really different for kids now, but I find 10, 11, 12, y.o. — or even younger — seems too early for kids to “identify” as anything re: their gender and/or sexuality. Especially so if that identification carries with it a presumption of medical intervention, as trans identities increasingly seem to.

    Rather, I wish that people concentrate on what the bullies are doing rather than who the bullied kids “are”, especially when the bullied are so young. It might be that that “effeminate” boy, or “masculine” girl, isn’t gay, isn’t trans, maybe isn’t quite sure yet — but is being pushed into that box by both the bullying and the unacknowledged presumption of people who mean well that the basis of that bullying is correct. I wonder at the problems that may be raised by us assuming that “safe space” for these bullied kids is GLBTQ groups, as the NY Times article talked about.

    I think there might be some real benefits for kids, especially middle/elementary school kids, for support to be centered around stopping all bullying, rather than on “supporting” bullied kids in what we presume their identities are.

  2. Historiann on 12 Oct 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    My sense of the anti-bullying stuff in schools these days is that it’s very much focused on the bullies, not on their victims. I also agree that 10 or 11 is too young for any child to be pushed into any one box w/r/t sexuality.

    And yet: there’s such a presumption of heterosexuality in elementary schools that I think it’s good for children to be aware that not all families are alike, and not everyone will want to grow up to marry someone of the opposite sex. So, it’s not like kids aren’t being pushed into boxes–they are, it’s just that the straight box is the only box that’s presumed to fit everyone.

  3. Emma on 12 Oct 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Yes, I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said. I just don’t want to exchange one big box for lots of little boxes. At least for kids, especially when that box comes with medical intervention that, AFAICT, is understudied and not well understood in its effects. Adults, choose whatever you want.

    And thanks for the info about how schools do things. I’m not in a school, I don’t have kids, so I’m not up on what’s happening out there. The mainstream press about all of this seems relentlessly focused on who the kids “are”, rather than the bullying itself.

  4. Historiann on 12 Oct 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    Well, I’m no expert. I’ll be interested if any school teachers who read this blog have info or points of view to contribute to this. I’m just impressed that so many elementary schools have adopted no-bullying policies and that many classrooms have “you can’t say you can’t play” policies, too.

  5. Emma on 12 Oct 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    Just to explain my perspective a bit more: if the trans stuff about gender identities had been around when I was a kid, I probably would have been subjected to medical intervention because I “wanted” to be a boy when I was a child, for reasons that had nothing to do with anything called “gender identity”. But how does one understand, much less explain, any of that as a child or even young adult?

    I was a tomboy as a child. I have been called “sir” and “butch” and “masculine” as an adult. I am a happy, well-adjusted, more-or-less non-gender-conforming woman at 44. I wonder, as trans theories of gender identity become ever more socially accepted and medicalized (with little examination or analysis) how many little girls will be denied that outcome? I look at the press that Shiloh Jolie is getting, and I shudder and fear for that child. Is she a tomboy? Is she trans? Have the two terms become wholly interchangeable? Have tomboys been disappeared in favor of “gender identity”?

    I can’t help but identify with Shiloh, so take that into consideration.

  6. Western Dave on 12 Oct 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    Like Emma, I find myself very concerned about boxes. I think the history department in my Upper School has done almost too good a job teaching that sexuality is a historically dependent social construction. We have fewer kids out than we did when I started (and this school was officially more homophobic). Now we have a more supportive community, but fewer girls identifying as lesbian. I’m not sure that’s progress. I won’t know for 10 years until the kids come back and tell us whether or not this shift helped them or hurt them. FWIW the children of lesbians who attend the school have told me they feel supported here. We’ll be showing some of the videos with info on the trevor project next week (organized, with some nudging, by the school’s GSA). We’ll also be challenging the kids by asking “why should someone have to wait for it to get better? What can we do in this community to make it better right now?”

    I’m also worried about girls who make out with other girls at parties for the benefit of watching boys. I don’t understand this at all.

    We also had a girl here who identified as pre-op trans in Lower School. She eventually moved to a co-ed school to live as a boy, but her parents, I am told, loved her experience here. She was very popular in lower school because she was always willing to be the prince while others took on the princess role. My daughter is in LS now and there are several tomboys in her grade (out of 36 or so). But the gender norming is still pretty intense. I remember my kids, when still in day care, getting into a heated discussion with their cousins over whether boys could marry boys and girls could marry girls. Based on our day care experience and neighborhood they knew as many same-sex parents as they did opposite sex parents.

    With my son at a boys school starting this year I’ve been completely panicked about heteronormativity setting in and anti-gay bullying but no signs yet. My son wants to do everything his older sister does so is very into Polly Pockets, Strawberry Shortcake, and the color pink. So far nobody has so much as commented on the fact that he tends to wear his clothes backwards much less his non-normative taste in pop culture.

  7. Historiann on 12 Oct 2010 at 2:25 pm #

    Emma–I absolutely hear you. I agree that surgery and other medical interventions are a frightening possibility–but probably in large part due to the cost, I don’t think a lot of parents would permit (let alone encourage or force) a child or teen to get sex reassignment surgery. (This is America, after all–not Canada or Great Britain!)

    I feel sorry for any celebrity children, with all of that inappropriate attention from crappy magazines and tabloids. But the creepy speculation about Shiloh is entirely over the top. Maybe Chaz Bono will one day tell his story, which I’m sure was further complicated by celebrity.

  8. Anonymoose on 12 Oct 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    I cried when I watched Tim Gunn’s It Gets Better video, where he talks about his own experience as a gay teenager. It is very inspirational to see such a fabulously successful man be so vulnerable about his own attempted suicide.

    I just wrote a letter to the principals of my elementary and secondary schools, and sent a copy to “Write Your Principal” ( http://www.writeyourprincipal.com/ ) to document my own experiences, and to let them know that, as an alumna, I care about the experiences of all members of vulnerable populations in their schools. My experience was not really about me, but about the constant teasing of the gay boys in my classes, and the apparently ‘sanctioned by silence’ bullying of a teacher at my high school, who was assumed to be gay.

    It isn’t always the kids doing the bullying, but also, it isn’t always the kids being bullied. My heart aches for that teacher now – what an awful work environment that must have been. I am tearing up now, just remembering how cruel the comments said about him were.

  9. WYP on 12 Oct 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    anonymoose, have i posted your letter yet?? if not, please send it again! writeyourprincipal@gmail.com

    xoxo
    j of WYP
    (who freaked out when she saw a link from historiann since being a historian is my JAM)

  10. Dr. Koshary on 12 Oct 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    I very rarely cry, which is the only reason that I haven’t sobbed while watching ‘It Gets Better’ video posts. I think Historiann has a good point about the heteronormativity foisted on kids even in elementary school. I got more than my share of ‘faggot’ comments and so forth when I was young — even when I was, to my now-grown-up mind, shockingly little to hear such things. And, bear in mind, I grew up to be pretty thoroughly heterosexual. But I didn’t fit the image most kids — and some teachers — had of what a boy ought to be and do. High school was pretty bad in a lot of ways, although middle school seemed to me to be the depths of despair. And even in elementary school, I had to deal with that shit. I just didn’t know how to be other than I was.

    However, I also agree with Emma that it’s important to stop the bullying, rather than just create a little sanctuary space that has the potential effect of telling kids what their identities are.

  11. Aishlin on 12 Oct 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    I’m young enough to have been in high school fairly recently, and I’m not sure how much of an effort there was to stop bullying, at least at my school. We would have school-wide assemblies meant to teach us that bullying was wrong, but these assemblies always neatly omitted any suggestion of why certain kids might be targeted, so the overall message was more “Stealing people’s lunch money is wrong” rather than “picking on people who seem to be gay/non-white/disabled/etc is wrong.” Two incidents from when I was trying to start a Gay/Straight Alliance pop out at me: once, while I was negotiating with the principal and superintendent, one or the other of them commented that he had always supported diversity and opposed bullying -because he went as far as meeting with black kids who had been bullied to talk about it. It definitely sounded like the emphasis was on the kids being bullied, not on stopping the bullying. Another time, I was called out of my math class to go to the counselor’s office. I had no idea what was going on, and was surprised to see the principal there with the counselor. They told me that a mother had called in complaining that I had been describing a lesbian sex act to her child. I was shocked. I was always the goody-two-shoes type of student, and had never gotten in trouble at school before. I also had no idea what they could be referring to. Eventually I concluded that the upset parent must have been taking the stance that just being out as a lesbian was on par with describing a sex act. The counselor and principal decided to let me go back to class, but warned me sternly that “you can do what you want in your own bed, but don’t talk about it with children.” I was thirteen at the time, probably the youngest person in the high school and only a child myself. So they never seemed to manage to get bullies into the principal’s office, but they could find the gay girl when a parent complained (to be fair, I don’t think either of the out gay kids -there were two of us- ever reported any of the bullying we experienced). I graduated from high school in 2008, so that wasn’t too long ago.

  12. Emma on 12 Oct 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    “I agree that surgery and other medical interventions are a frightening possibility–but probably in large part due to the cost, I don’t think a lot of parents would permit (let alone encourage or force) a child or teen to get sex reassignment surgery.”

    Children are being prescribed hormonal “therapies” prior to puberty to stop the onset of puberty and development of secondary sex characteristics (breasts, voice change, etc.) Children are being “identified” as trans as young as toddler age. SRS is already a medical treatment being paid for out of insurance.

    Is medicalization of young childrens’ “gender identity” the norm yet? No, not by a long shot. But that’s the goal. And it’s getting there because it’s easier to put an effeminate boy in the trans box than accept that gender boxes are BS. Frankly, it’s the bullies’ ideology all over: if you’re “different” then you have to be in the different box. All the respect in the world given to the different boxes doesn’t change the boxes or the impetus to put people in them.

    But, since I’m way off topic I’ll stop posting on this and just say that no matter who anybody is, they should be respected and not bullied. And, yes, I hope it does get better for those persons who identify as trans.

  13. nicolec on 12 Oct 2010 at 8:03 pm #

    I think it largely depends on the school…some are very aggressive in trying to target bullying, others are quite happy to pretend nothing is happening.

  14. Western Dave on 12 Oct 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    So on the drive home today my kindergarten son says, “Dad, teach me how to be a girl.” Me: “Why” Him, “I don’t want to have to do armpit farts.” Me: “You don’t have to do armpit farts to be a boy.” Him: “Oh.” Daughter kicks in with “Charlie P. says you do.” Me. “You know, whatever Charlie P. says or does is gonna be pretty much the opposite of what you should do right?” Her: [thoughtfully] “You know, you’re right about that.” [Me in my head: NO SHIT, THAT CHARLIE P IS BAD NEWS] Me [out loud] mm hm.

  15. j on 13 Oct 2010 at 8:07 am #

    Emma, I think you bring up a very important issue. I say that coming from the perspective of a bisexual, femme woman married to a butch lesbian. There are certainly women who present (intentionally or not) as butch lesbians who identify as trans men, but I’m saddened at the thought that we might create an atmosphere that assumes if you are butch then you must be male. I’d like there to be space for queering gender, and not fitting into femme girl/butch boy boxes. I also just object to doing anything in a very young person that has a permanent effect on their choices down the line.

    My favorite It Gets Better video so far was of a police officer and his partner, who had been a marine. The almost fatherly tone and authority with which he said the most tender of words to gay kids – that they are wonderful and perfect just the way they are – was really moving.

  16. wini on 13 Oct 2010 at 8:07 am #

    If we’re going to talk about what High Schools can do, my High School was really, really good about bullying. Although it was not, in my memory, a place where people came out comfortably, they did take a lot of other effective steps. I did not know this at the time, but I now realize it when I hear about other schools. Much of the below is memories of my parents and reinforced by my sister. This has come up largely in the context of finding out how both the smart and different kids are treated in the town my parents now live in. My mom teaches piano to high school students.

    The teachers, did not encourage bullying, and a subset would report it. We had a VP per grade, and (according to my parents) they were reached out to victims and the bullies. In their current town victims end up in private school, bullies drop out.

    The one example I remember: A lower middle class friend from church had a lot of problems especially Freshman year (he had a significant learning disability) and was relentlessly teased/bullied. He initiated a violent fight that I remember after a bully did something physical to him. According to my sister, their detention involved a lot of work on resolution. They resented it, but it was somewhat effective. My friend still was a teased as an outsider for several years, but the physical abuse stopped. By senior year he was a respected artist (who got into RISD I think) and friendly with some of the bullies (many of whom were also socioeconomic outsiders and artists/musicians).

    It might be that we’re all remembering this as a kind of utopia because things are sooooo bad where my parents now live. Two of her more eccentric piano students are now homeschooled, one transfered to Choate. (It’s also an upper-middle class town.)

  17. Susan on 13 Oct 2010 at 8:09 am #

    Thanks for these links. As I’ve been watching the “It gets better” series, I’ve been thinking two things. First, it gets better for everyone. Teenagers can be pretty hard on each other. Certainly my feeling is that my life pretty much got better from about 14 or so onwards, mostly because I have made peace with myself. It’s not that bad things haven’t happened, but I can deal with them.

    I suppose my first date was a double date with a good friend and two boys (also good friends) who have turned out to be gay. Back then — late 60s — I don’t think I was alert enough to sexuality to have figured that out then (I was clueless). I remember at the time Peggy & I tried to figure out whether this was a “date” or just the four of us going to the movies together (“Gone with the Wind”, for what it’s worth!)

  18. GayProf on 13 Oct 2010 at 9:18 am #

    While it is true that many (most?) people probably endure some bulling while in school, there is still something unique about the bulling of GLBTQ youth. Heterosexual people often have the support of their family and friends as counter voices to the bulling. GLBTQ people, on the other hand, are reluctant to reach out to a support circle because the target of their bulling (their sexuality) is often rejected or feared by those close to them.

  19. fannie on 13 Oct 2010 at 11:44 am #

    Thank you for the link, Historiann. I hope these stories are reaching teens and make them feel less alone.

  20. hysperia on 13 Oct 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    I can’t possibly recommend any “It Gets Better” video more highly than this address give by Fort Worth TX City Councillor Joel Burns. I hope millions of people see it:
    http://tv.gawker.com/5663083/this-is-the-most-touching-it-gets-better-video-you-will-ever-see

    I could wish for a better header.

  21. Rosemary on 16 Oct 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Hi Ann– I’m very late to this party, but thanks so much for the shout-out…reading the other post you linked to this as well as watching some of the “It Gets Better” videos makes it seem as if not all of this suffering has been in vain.

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