Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Help It Get Better Now

Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Billy Lucas.

I never met any of these kids. I never heard them speak. I don't even know where each of them is from exactly (without the help of Google). But I know them. How? Because I was them.

Anti-gay bullying isn't new. It's been going on for years. With the help of the webcams, blogs, texting and social networking sites however, it's become turbo-charged.

In a way, I was lucky. No one really knew I was being bullied and taunted except me and the bullies. These kids didn't have the luxury of anonymity -- in life or in death. First, their bullies made sure the abuse was broadcast as far and wide as it could reach. Now, they are posthumous poster boys for anti-gay bullying.

I know everyone has experienced an episode or two of being bullied. Gay kids don't have a monopoly on prejudice against them. But if you've never been constantly bullied and taunted and mocked over the span of years, I can assure you you don't know what goes on inside someone who has.

First of all, I had no idea I was gay (or even what gay was) until the kids at school told me that's what I was -- queer, faggot, homo, gaylord (the one taunt I have to chuckle at now because it's the only one that actually took some imagination to come up with). I guess maybe I should thank them for giving me the answer to my question of why I seemed so different from all the other kids at school. If not for them, I might be stuck in a miserable marriage, making sure my wife and kids were as miserable as me.

The other thing that was going on for me was that -- despite my knowledge to the contrary now -- I was certain that everyone -- family, friends, teachers -- knew exactly what was happening but did nothing to stop it or help me. This created a deep shame for me because, in my mind, I obviously deserved the treatment I was getting or certainly someone would do something about it.

Furthermore, in grade school the teachers and nuns (at least in my perception) participated in it. After 3rd grade, I never had a teacher actually be kind to me. In fact, several of them commented derisively about my tendency to return to my 2nd and 3rd grade teachers' rooms during recess and after school to "help" them. In reality, I was seeking asylum in the only safe places I knew at that school.

At home, I was the youngest of four (until my sister was born when I was ten) so there was a natural tendency for them to choose me to pick on and tease. I want to be clear that I don't believe my brothers and sisters treated me any differently than any older siblings have ever treated younger siblings (and certainly no worse than I treated my younger sister when I finally got the chance to pay it forward). But holding that place on the family totem pole helped cement my belief that I was being singled out for torment by virtually everyone I knew (and some that I had never even seen before -- word travels fast when there is a weak animal in the herd). 

It didn't help matters that my dad was a pretty angry guy when we were kids and I was a little mama's boy. The phrase "if you cry, I'll give you something to cry about" may be humorous to adult me, but it was a threat that instilled terror in child me because I knew I was going to cry. And then I was going to get hit for crying.

Obviously, I didn't commit suicide like the boys I named above. I'm here writing this, so I got through it. But not without scars. I may not have killed myself, but I can't count how many times I lay in bed praying I wouldn't wake up in the morning so I wouldn't have to go through another day like the one that had just ended.

I was certain my father hated me until I was 25 years old. It wasn't until I was over 30 that I realized that it wasn't just that he loved me now, but that he had always loved me. To this day, when a guy I don't know looks at me, I immediately assume that he's thinking what a freak I am. If two girls walk past me whispering and giggling, I'm sure it's because of what I'm wearing or how I'm walking or any number of tells that broadcast to the world I'm inferior.

What's my point here? It's this. For a lot of us, life does get better. I'm extremely grateful that my late-night wish never came true. I would have missed out on an amazing adventure. Some of it's been great, some of it horrifying. But I've grown from it all and I'm glad I'm here. But not everyone can wait it out, taking every taunt, mock, punch, kick and humiliation that bullies can think of, until they're 18. And some of them can't get away then anyway. So, something has to be done for them now.

The It Gets Better Project is one of those things. The Trevor Project is another. They are great resources for kids that are suffering.

Here is a status update from the It Gets Better Project Facebook page. It's a challenge to the families of gay/lesbian men and women:
We are getting videos in every day from LGBT adults who are working to give kids hope. But you know what we haven't seen? Parents of LGBT kids/adults who can show that *they* changed too. That *they* got better and learned how to support their children. Consider this a call out to all you PFLAG parents! Make a video and show kids that not only does it get better, YOU get better too!
Parents and siblings and friends and aunts and uncles do change. I've seen it in my life. My father and I would sit out on his back patio talking often during the last seven or eight years of his life. I can't count the number of times he told me he wished he could make all of that different for me. This guy I thought hated me really just had no idea what my life was like when I left the house, so he had no reason to think I needed to be rescued.

In his column last week, Dan Savage ripped into a Christian woman, essentially holding her accountable for all the horrific things religious extremists in this country say and do in the name of God. When I shared the link on my Facebook page, some of my Christian family (and I'm sure some of my friends) were understandably upset to be stereotyped and treated as though they were personally to blame for the anti-gay bullying that goes on. There are a number of reasons why I stand behind Savage's diatribe, but they aren't important or relevant to this discussion.

What is important and relevant to this discussion is that I know all Christians aren't like the ones Savage was referring to. I am related to and friends with many Christians who truly understand what it means to be a Christian. And here's my challenge to them:

SPEAK UP! Don't let hate be the only word of God these kids ever hear. Don't sit home quietly, saying that real Christians aren't like that but never standing up and denouncing the hate mongers publicly.

If you have a webcam, make a video for the It Gets Better Project. Tell these kids that God doesn't hate them. Tell them that Jesus speaks only of love, mercy and compassion for all God's children. Faith without works is dead. So do some work here.

Tell them how much you love your gay son, daughter, brother, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, friend. Tell them what your life would be like now if that person had chosen suicide over life. Tell them there is a place for them in this world. That God doesn't make mistakes. That regardless of their sexual orientation, they have a gift to bring to the world and that only they can bring it.

If you don't have a webcam (or don’t know how to use the one you have), say all of that to every teen and pre-teen kid you know. Don't decide that the kids you know don't have those problems. One of them does. Guaranteed. And your words could save his/her life.

I am living proof that it does get better. But it will get better a lot faster if you help.


  1. Brilliant. Love it. Love YOU!

  2. petr, this was poignant and beautiful. it made me sad but gave me hope. the message can be applied to all our lives - gay or straight. it does get better if you share your pain with others and let them give you a shoulder to lean on. don't be afraid to open up to just one other person about your pain. god bless you for sharing your story, petr. you may very well have saved some lives.

  3. Petr, wonderfully heartfelt and worthy of reposting. Thank you for sharing your story. All adults need to realize that they are complicit in the bullying unless they DO SOMETHING to stop it...It may be talking with a kid who gets bullied and providing advice and advocacy on behalf of the child. It may be connecting the child to support groups, other kids, or more importantly, adults who are proof that it does get better. I feel tremendous pain for the parents who have lost their kids this way, and it sickens me to know that there are actually parents who espouse hate or deep shame toward their own gay kids, or who raise intolerant children in today's world. I hope that your message continues to be heard, and that things get much better as a result.

  4. Excellent point.
    The "real Christians" need to stop defending their religion after it's too late, and start condemning the behavior of their "fake Christian" or else it will take forever for that whole group to evolve and collectively join the 21st century.

  5. * "fake Christian" peers...

  6. Petr, your post brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for posting your story and the pics of these poor kids who thought they didn't have another option. I have watched a bunch of the videos that people have posted for this "campaign" and am impressed by the compassion and thoughtfulness of their messages. But sad that the bullying and sadness is still such a part of youth today. Seems we should be past this but I guess not - hopefully soon. xoxo