Sometimes we fight back by merely surviving: A missive for the bullied.

By | October 1, 2010

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Middle school was worst for me.

I suppose it’s different for everyone; some folks have it worse in high school, but by the time I got there I was better at not picking up other people’s baggage and carrying it around like it was my own. Certainly, high school had its horrifying moments: there was the day I took off my jacket to find an enormous volume of saliva and mucus smeared across the back of it — this was a truly impressive spitball, or rather series of spitballs — and had to wonder how long I’d walked around like that as I washed it off in a drinking fountain in the hallway between classes. Even the memory makes me gag; with disgust, sure, as I can remember the smell and and feel of it as though it were happening all over again, right now — but also with fury. Someone literally spat on me. And I would never know who it was.

Fortunately, by high school I had a well-developed sense of outrage, and anger is what gets some of us through. In middle school I did not, and instead I soaked up the abuse like I was made for it. My anger first began to surface around the eighth grade, at which point I had to make a choice about whether I would internalize these feelings and blame myself, or whether I would find another way. In that pre-Columbine era it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could do anything else, and so I diligently directed the lion’s share of my anger outward, writing fictionalized stories about the gruesome deaths of my many bullies and harassers, me as the spirit of blazing vengeance bringing penance upon them, for what they did, for all the things they did, and why did they do them? Why hurt someone? Why humiliate someone? Why do it to me? What do you gain from it? Is the abuse supposed to make me more like you? Or is it just personally gratifying to know you’ve left a wound that your victim may well tend for the rest of her life? And if that is gratifying, then what the fuck is wrong with you, you hate-worshipping, despicable, sociopathic piece of shit?

My gender and sexuality were as central as my being fat to my own experiences of being bullied, going all the way back to elementary school. “Lesley” shares its first three letters with “lesbian”, after all, and children will make creative use of such happy coincidences. Today, as a queer woman monogamously partnered (and legally married) to a cisgendered man, the finer points of my identity are mostly invisible. The obvious advantage — and privilege — to this is that I get to pass for straight, and my natural inclinations toward privacy on such matters means that it’s exceedingly rare that the subject comes up as a personal matter. The heaviest cross I have to bear is being invisibly queer, and having folks constantly assume straightness, which does bother me, and which I will correct in circumstances that allow for it. But I can never forget I have the extreme luxury of being able to choose what I disclose with regard to my gender and sexual orientations, and that I can go out with my husband and not be harassed as queer.

Going out alone is a different matter.

Throughout my life, the overwhelming majority of the fat-related harassment I’ve received has also questioned my sexuality. I don’t precisely know why — indeed, my years of musing over the intersections of fatness and queerness have been efforts to understand it — but that’s how it goes. Being out with my husband acts as a shield against harassment of either kind, and I’ve decided this is a result of two factors. Firstly, being out with him demonstrates that hey, I may be an epic fatass, but I’ve proven my ability to attract a heterosexual partner! Go me! I’ve satisfied at least one feminine expectation, even if I have failed at all the rest! Secondly, I imagine harassers will bite their tongues out of fear that my husband may react with violence to any attack upon me — which is a dangerous misapprehension as I am far more likely to respond with force than he is. Ask the kid whose hand I crushed in sixth grade, after he’d spent months trying to grope me in class, while calling me a lesbian when I tried to stop him. Ask the teens at whose escaping car I threw a full cup of coffee after they yelled “fat dyke” at me in well-planned unison while I stood at an intersection. I don’t advocate violence — indeed, violence solves nothing and causes far more trouble than it’s worth — but I am far closer to that edge than someone might think, when they see me as a fat object, not even a woman, not even a human, certainly as nothing worthy of respect.

I’ve got anger, and anger is intrinsically neither good nor bad, but can be destructive or constructive depending on how you use it. Anger can make me throw things or get up in someone’s face, neither of which is particularly useful or wise, but it can also make me speak up and act out — it drives me to change the fucking world so that the bullies and harassers are the ones who are isolated and ostracized, and not congratulated on their wretched sense of humor.

Tyler Clementi is just one of an untold number of kids who have killed themselves over harrassment related to their sexual or gender identity. His story is heartbreaking, as is the story of every kid who felt they could not go on living under the yoke of continued harassment and bullying. These tragedies are not by any means a new phenomenon; today we are privy to background and context for these suicides that would historically have been buried, hidden, a family secret no one speaks aloud.

When the massacre at Columbine first broke, before we’d unearthed all the details and heard the fuller context and built it into our collective memory, I was a senior in college. I saw the story on the news in my apartment and I felt a sinking blackness in my gut, a palpable sense of recognition, and the first thought that sprung to mind was, yeah, I can see somebody doing that. I understood, immediately, before there were details, before there was context, I knew what could drive a kid to murder his classmates and then himself. It seemed almost inevitable. I did not like that I was capable of that understanding; I hate that some of us have experiences that put us in a place where we can relate to such insanity and horror, however distantly.

I began this piece by trying to write something to record for Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project on YouTube, which was launched as a response to the many queer kids who believe their only way out is by dying. But I’ve really struggled with coming up with something I feel is broadly-applicable enough to be relevant. So instead, I’ve written what I would have liked to hear, back then, in my darkest adolescent moments. I am touched by people every day who tell me that the things I write here — even the things I am convinced no one will relate to, that I believe are too specific or too raw or too me — that these things help them. That hearing it helps people to know that they’re not alone. Thus, I’m hoping that this will likewise speak to some of you.

You are okay.

You are.

The world does not define you — the people who call you names, who physically assault you, who break your heart, who pin you down with words and labels, and the culture that supports them — these things do not define you either.

There are people out there who understand, who get you, and who have been where you are and come out the other side. There are so many people, and when it seems that you are most alone, realize that it is only because you are in a place where you can’t see them, right now — you are trapped in the passage between all the uncertainties of adolescence and a world beyond, where you can choose your circumstances. You won’t be in this place forever, and you are far from alone. Each time you are bullied, or harassed, or humiliated, there is an army of thousands standing at your back, all of whom know, all of whom have been bullied, and harassed, and humiliated too. And one day when you’re older and you’ve created the life you want for yourself, you’ll hear about some kid being tormented and you’ll be there as well, standing behind him, watching the scene unfold with a chilling familiarity, bearing witness to his struggle to survive.

I will not say that people will always be easier on you, later in life, just because you’re older. That’s not a promise I can make. What I can promise is that while the world may not dramatically change, you will. You will learn to let other people’s bullshit go. You will learn to bend without breaking, and you will learn to fight without backing down. And every single day that you go out into the world as yourself without apology and without regret, you are changing things, bit by bit.

You are precious, and beautiful, not in spite of the things that set you apart, but because of them. Being different is hard, and standing out is hard, and though some of us may willingly choose a life in which we make daily spectacles of ourselves on purpose, sometimes that life chooses us and we have to learn to accept that — or learn to revel in it.

Through it all, remember: You are okay.

Whatever happens, you will be okay, but you must persist and survive; you must continue to get up every morning and push forward, hour by hour, minute by minute, and one day you’ll look around and realize things don’t seem so bad anymore. And one day you’ll look around and realize the shit that other people lay on you is their problem, and not yours. And one day, you’ll see yourself in the mirror and know, “I am okay.”

However alone you feel, understand that there are people who out there who love you without ever having met you, and who fight at your side every day to make space for you in this world — to make space for all of us. We need you. We need your voice, your presence, your anger, your hope; we need you alive.

You are precious, and beautiful… and it will get better. Because it has to. Because we will make it better.

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