Monday, October 18, 2010

Take One for the Team

Asher Brown, 13, Seth Walsh, 13, and Justin Aaberg committed
suicide in 2010 in the face of anti-gay bullying.

Something about my past I was sure I would never consider telling, I am now going to write about. Only a very few people know a small part of this. It seemed far too private and it was so very long ago. It did have a huge impact on who I am now, but recounting it seemed to serve no purpose and was best just forgotten. The suicides and bashings of the past few weeks have made it imperative that I reconsider. In fact it has become impossible for me not share.

This is just for background: The important matter comes later. My freshman and sophomore years of high school were spent in a private school on the west coast of Washington State. I came home to Kennewick for my junior and senior year. Kennewick High was a bit of a shock after St. Martin’s, but I was making great grades and I had some great teachers. And it seemed that it would be OK.

It was the great grades that started the whole problem. I have no idea how people are graded now, but back then it was “on the curve.” And it seems I was setting the curve high. Some of the school’s best athletes were in some of my classes. And because of me bumping up the curve, they were dropping a whole grade and therefore ineligible to play sports. And they were not happy Jocks.

One of the coaches (he was also a teacher of mine) was equally not happy about losing players he had been depending on to win games. So one day in class he must has looked at me and realized I was letting down the team. He took some of his players aside and suggested that they should take me aside and “convince” me to not be so “smart in class.” So they waited after school and beat me up.

I should mention I had been out since I was 13, but not necessarily obvious. And this attack was not overtly homophobic. That I was different was crime enough. I loved to read, I painted pictures, I acted with the local theater group, I was not athletic as either a participant or a supporter. Horror of horrors, I even liked opera! In other words, I was different. And I did get great grades and that alone deserved a kick in the head.

Now this was the 1950s and to paraphrase the song, “folks were if not dumb where I come from, they weren’t really all that smart.” They probably didn’t know the word “faggot” back then, they certainly didn’t use it. The worst they could come up as they kicked me was “smart ass” and “egg head.” They took special pleasure with “egg head,” snarling it at me as if it were the nastiest insult of all. The number of kicks that actually connected were few and far between. (Emplaning a lot about their competence on the playing field.) I survived. (I told my Mon I had fallen off my bike.)

I was told to stop getting good grades or this just be my first of many “workouts.” A girl who had been jilted by one of my “new found friends,” ratted on the cause and source of my encounter. I immediately failed the coach’s class to get away from him. And I pulled back in my other classes. Not that this was difficult, as I was becoming so active with the Richland players, and painting, and cruising the toilets of the Pasco train station, I had almost no interest in school work.

[sidebar: On two separate occasions I saw two of my “new found friends” enter the toilets late at night and stay a good forty-five minutes. There was probably a perfectly innocent explanation why at 2 a.m. they needed to use a john in a train station on the far side of a town across the Columbia River from where they actually lived. I did not let them see me. I did make a mental note of the furtive way they left.]

For two years my “new found friends” continued to wait for me after school. I was so clever in finding secret ways to get home from school they only caught me twice again. And their aim had not improved. I was so tempted to mention the Pasco train station. But I didn’t. Not only was I clever, I was smart.

The above is only prologue to my post.

The second person I ever had sex with was 17. I was 15. We had one happy summer riding our bikes. I suppose in an adolescent way, we were in love with each other. (Or as close as you could get to love in the Tri-Cities in the 1950s) I will call him Tim. He lived in a righteous God-fearing American family. His father (a proud member of the NRA) was a hunter and had bought Tim a shotgun when he was ten. Tim got very good with it and won a number of marksmanship contests. He became the apple of his father’s eye.

Or until his father and mother caught him being fucked in the family rec room. Being good Christians, they knew exactly what to do with an errant apple. They made plans to send him off to a hospital near Tacoma where he would be given a lobotomy. (A popular curative of the period for uppity women and non aggressive boys—I am told the tea-baggers are eager to reestablish this particular procedure.) Tim would come home no longer a fruit. He would come home no longer much of anything.

As soon as Tim could escape the loving concern of his parents, he came to warn me that what he and I were doing was wrong and a sin and an abomination and that if I did love him I would stop doing it immediately because he could not bear to think what his family was about to do to him would ever be done to me. He then went home and shot himself in the head. Tim’s father proved the old adage right: guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And he should know–he had caused his son to die, not the shogun.

Tim’s death was explained as a hunting accident. A common yearly occurrence where I grew up. Exact what he had been hunting in the family rec room was never fully explained. The coach later moved into our neighborhood, almost next door. His son grew an extensive crop of healthy marijuana plants behind the roses. He was to became one of the town’s major drug dealers. I heard he went to prison for rape.

As for Tim, I don’t even have a photo of him.

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PS - Years later I discovered that my mother (one very smart cookie) did not buy my “bicycle accident” explanation. She knew exactly what had happened and went to the high school to complain. She was told that a little bullying was healthy for a growing boy. What she didn’t know at the time was that the vice-principal she confronted was the same coach who had set the “dogs” on me in the first place.


Dane said...

What a vivid and sorrowful memory, Doric. You paint a lost time that, sadly, still emerges from time to time, in schools today.

I really liked this.


David said...

Thank you, Doric. Sometimes, like veterans, we need to get together, and tell those painful stories, and honor those memories.

When I first moved to Washington, I dated a sweet, insecure ex-farmboy from Wisconsin named Joe. ("Country boy moves to big city" stereotype...he thought I was the height of sophistication because I introduced him to bagels.) It crashed and burned pretty fast, but we stayed friends and ended up writing long letters to each other when we were both going through awful times. He survived a horrible gay-bashing incident -- four guys yelling from a car, jumping out -- broken bones, a week or more in the hospital. (I just found one of his letters where he wrote about how weak and pathetic HE was feeling because--I don't know, he didn't develop super-powers and overcome them.) He ended up in a permanent relationship in Minneapolis and got really involved in the anti-violence movement there. We lost touch -- I think we both wanted to put those years and their key characters behind us.

Last year, I was going to Minneapolis on business, and toyed with the idea of seeing him, but didn't think I'd have time, and didn't want to deal with opening up all the "stuff" a lapsed friendship brings back, and whose fault it was. But I wanted to know what he was doing, and Googled him, and learned that he'd died the year before. More digging, and I found a newsletter from the anti-violence project that said he'd shot himself in a motel room. He'd never gotten over that day, or stopped having nightmares. Neither his lover nor his cause had taken that away. I just spent the day wandering around -- bought a suitcase I already owned. I thought I'd had about three letters from him, but I looked through my old papers and found about 15. I can't read more than a few words of them now.

I don't know how I survived being a teenager. I certainly came close to that edge, and I never thought it was about being gay, but yes, of course it was. And the darkest side of all the gains we've made in the last 30 years has been the sweet illusion that "it's over now." "Those kids today will never know the pain we went through..." Bullshit. It's different. They get to be victims AND a marketing niche. They get beaten up because they're not "normal" AND because they're not fabulous enough. They get it from the straight AND the gay media. And visibility means there's no place to hide.

If I had a message in a bottle for those kids it would be:
It gets better.
Stay alive, even if you don't see why now; the way to leave this behind is to grow up and leave.
Don't buy the hype--don't be fabulous too soon. Just grow up.
On bullies: Hide from them when you have to, but never from yourself. Acquiesce when you have to, but never submit. Know you're not the problem.

Ben Strothmann said...

Thank you Doric. I will never forget how the word "Faggot" could just cut me to the quick.

I started writing a comment in response to your touching story - and to my surprise I have exceeded the accepted 4,096 character.

What I wrote is closer to 12,000 characters.

Any idea where I might post it?