It wasn't until I had nearly passed him on the stairway that I heard his cold, contemptuous mutter: "Fucking faggot."--- I didn't even know the guy, but it didn't surprise me -- it was months since I had achieved notoriety as the school queer.
The previous year, I came out to my family and, since then, I had been bounced around like a hot potato from county to county -- Carbon (where my stepfather didn't want any homos around while he was in the process of divorcing my mother), then Salt Lake (where an aunt and uncle subjected me to reparative therapy*), then Summit (where I was pawned off on the biological father I hadn't seen since I was 5).
Finding myself in yet another strange high school, I was eager to make a fresh start. Tenth grade was serious business, and I wasn't about to let the bullies get the best of me this time. I was going to stand up to them! Three days later, a bully cornered me in front of a dozen other students, and I countered his taunts with the rather reckless rejoinder, "Yeah, well, so what if I am gay? It's 1984."
Somehow, my citation of the current year didn't have its intended effect.
Even in those days, I held a highly romanticized view of the gay-rights movement and all it had accomplished in the decade-and-a-half since the Stonewall Riots. I knew it was every gay and lesbian's responsibility to live with integrity out of the closet, and I fervently envisioned myself one day joining the ranks of happy activists working arm-in-arm for the cause of liberation.
Of course, at age 15, I didn't know any activists, happy or otherwise. There was no LGBT community center in town, and it was long before anybody ever thought of forming gay-straight alliances in schools†. But it seemed high time for me to stand against the outmoded, old-fashioned anti-gay bullshit that went on every day at every school I had ever attended. Pointing out that it was, after all, 1984 was an appeal to my classmates' sense of fashion and modernity.
Unfortunately, this was a miscalculation. To them, 1984 still seemed like a fine year for fag-bashing. I spent the ensuing weeks paying for my rash honesty as the target of countless taunts, attacks, and exquisitely cruel and complicated mind-games.
One day I arrived at school to find a photocopied flyer had been widely distributed among the student body. It featured my name along with many choice anti-gay epithets and threats. Another afternoon, I was studying in the library when some of my fellow students announced their ruling that, since I was gay, I must also be a serial-killing child molester. (The trial of Arthur Gary Bishop was making headlines at the time.)
By this time, taunts, threats and physical assaults were part of my daily routine. I tried to maintain a kind of pacifist dignity by ignoring the adversary, walking by, running away, or just lying down and passively absorbing the abuse.
The faculty knew what was going on. A couple teachers even seemed sympathetic, but they were powerless to do anything -- or else they were cowards. When I directly approached my debate coach for help (or at least a little sympathy), she couldn't even address the issue except to say, "There's a difference between 'surviving' and 'thriving.'" Big anodyne that was! But it was illegal for a teacher even to mention the word "homosexuality," and she was terrified of losing her job.
To me, the failure of the faculty to help was the ultimate betrayal. I had always been an A student, and usually got along better with my teachers than my classmates. I always regarded teachers as omnipotent beings, holding the keys to academic success within their very hands. In other words, I was a sniveling little teacher's pet -- and now, even the teachers had failed me.
It was the last straw. My grades plummeted, and at last the school bullies succeeded in ejecting me from their midst: I dropped out of school, sold my Casiotone synth keyboard to a pawn shop and hitchhiked around the West Coast, where I had a whole bunch of interesting and educational adventures.
But, before that happened, here I was on the stairway with this guy I didn't even know. My normal habit was simply to ignore, to walk by, to run away. But for some reason, on this day, the familiar words rang in my ears: "Fucking faggot." I turned around and met his hateful sneer with my fist.
In the ensuing scuffle, I'd like to say I pounded that motherfucker's ass into the ground, or that he ran away sobbing uncontrollably with a bloody nose. But I'm a lover not a fighter, and this was not an ABC After-School Special, and to tell the truth, the last thing I remember was him repeatedly slamming my head against the tiled floor near the foot of the stairs.
In other words, I lost the fistfight, and when we both were dragged bodily into the principal's office, it was I, not my adversary, who was sobbing uncontrollably. It was the first and only time I had the opportunity to speak to the principal, and my desperate account of the situation came flooding out. I pleaded tearfully for help.
Still, the principal (who is now deceased and revered, with a football field named after him) was, like the rest of the faculty, unable to address the matter. As soon as the gay issue came up, he became uncomfortable and avoided the subject entirely. He knew the right thing to do, but could not do it for fear of losing his job. In the end, neither I nor my adversary received any punishment for fighting on school grounds, and nothing changed, and the whole thing was meaningless, except for the satisfaction I got from socking that bastard in the eye.
The reason that the Salt Lake City School District's proposal to ban anti-gay discrimination is important is not because it will put an end to homophobic bullying. It won't. Adolescents are naturally cruel, and they will always find ingenious and clever ways to torment their classmates.
What it will do is give faculty and administration the freedom to deal with horrible situations when they arise. Teachers want to help students. That's what teachers are miserably underpaid to do. So it is a travesty when teachers are afraid to help LGBT students in wretched circumstances for fear of violating some district policy that vaguely forbids "the promotion of homosexuality."
Even though a lot of bad shit happened during my years in public school, I'm happy to say I never attempted physical suicide. But I did commit academic suicide, and I've been paying for it to this day. Today, the problem of anti-gay bullying in schools has reached epidemic proportions, and it's killing LGBT students.
Banning anti-gay discrimination in schools is the only thing that will give teachers the freedom to truly help all their students.
Otherwise, you'll end up with another betrayed, needy generation of resentful "fucking faggots" like me, and I know you really don't want that.
Still, in the spirit of the "It Gets Better" campaign, I'd like to say that things really do get better. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to be adopted into Salt Lake City's LGBT community, and thanks to one wonderful lesbian benefactor, I even got the opportunity to continue my education at the U. Today, I live a happy existence with my partner Dave, and we lead a joyful, domestic life filled with love and creativity.
But, every once in awhile, I'm still haunted by the bad old days. I only hope that future generations can avoid the pain and trauma that has traditionally been the lot of queers in the public school system. The anti-discrimination proposal is an important step toward that goal.
* After several unsavory sessions with Dr. Delbert T. Goates, the good doctor declared me unresponsive to treatment. (Once he told me, "I'm starting to get the feeling you don't want to change" -- to which I replied, "No duh.")
† In fact, I had no idea gay people even existed until the previous year, when HBO aired Arthur Hiller's 1982 melodrama Making Love. The earthshattering realization that I wasn't some kind of solitary freak, and there were others like me in the world, came as a huge relief. Suddenly I could solve the mystery of why my journal was secretly filled with fervid unrequited-love poems about my 9th-grade science teacher Mr. K instead of my 9th-grade geometry teacher Miss W.
Brandon's Big Gay Blog