From as early as first grade, I was singled out for what was considered behavior not suited for a six-year-old boy. It wasn't my classmates, either; it was the teacher Mrs. Garland, and she made me feel so inferior, so damaged that I developed stress-related asthma. I was tested by the school's child-study team because there was something wrong with me. Although I feel a lot of damage was done that first real year of school, it was eventually determined that I was not the problem. (I don't remember Mrs. Garland teaching at my school after that year.)
Still, even as I continued through school. I was tormented by fellow students because I didn't act like a boy should. I didn't want to play sports. I cried if I got hurt (physically or emotionally). I carried my books like a girl. I liked to hang out with the girls. I don't remember the first time I was called "faggot" or "queer," but it was probably as early as sixth grade. Even kids I considered my friends made comments. Once at recess, Helen called me a girl and told me where I could get maxi-pads for my "problem." And that stupid Marlo Thomas with her Free to Be You and Me did not help. Rosie Greer singing "It's All Right to Cry," in fact, only guaranteed a fresh round of teasing from my fellow students because, after all, it's not okay for boys to cry, and I was a boy who cried.
High school was worse. One time, I made the mistake of leaving behind a report folder in a classroom. I retrieved it to hand in just a period or two later; what I didn't know was that someone had scrawled across many pages of the report things like "YOU GAY F*CK!" and "I'M SO F*CKIN GAY!" (Luckily, the teacher realized my work had been vandalized and my grade was unaffected.) Underclassmen walked by my locker door, decorated on the inside with pictures of 80s musical artists like Eurythmics, Howard Jones, Tears For Fears, and Thompson Twins and yelled, "Why do you have pictures of guys in your locker??" My junior year around March, my locker was actually broken into, the books removed and thrown into one of the lavatory toilets, and probably urinated on as well. I was forced to use the books for the rest of the year. (The administration was no help, obviously.)
I remember one incident more than the others, more than all the name-calling, cat-calling derision. In Theater Arts one year, Mr Paul had us perform scenes from A Chorus Line. As I danced on stage along side two other guys, Gary and Matt, students not in the scene stood in the pit directly in front of the stage. Three guys stood directly in front of me, and I heard one of them specifically say, as we were rehearsing, "Look at those faggots. They're all faggots up there, dancing like faggots." Another of them, John Pacelli, must have seen me glance down momentarily at the boy who'd said it (I must have blocked out the perpetrator's name), and John said, "Except for Bob Geise. We like Bob Geise."
John's comment is not the very best example of defense, but at the time it was probably as good as it got. John, himself, was not very tall and to this day is derided for his height (or lack thereof). And we all know that his siding with "faggots" might have ended up backfiring on him, focusing the bullying on him. He did the best he could at that time, and I thank him for it to this day.
I've recently discovered from other classmates that I was admired and looked up to as someone who chose to be himself no matter what other people said or did. One woman called me a "beacon" in the darkness that was her high school experience. At the time, I never dreamed of coming out as gay to the entire school, save a very select few toward the end of my junior year. Everyone, of course, knew. I wasn't fooling anyone, but I truthfully had never tried to. I just never said the words aloud in school, "I'm gay."
These days, kids do that all the time. High school students have gay/straight alliances, or cause the cancellation of all extracurricular activities when they attempt to start them. Girls are duped by entire towns into attending fake proms because they want to take same-sex partners as dates. Children are bullied and beaten and driven to suicide. I can't fathom what it's like for them, especially now when it seems to be just a matter of time until we are guaranteed the same rights as any other Americans, no matter whom we love.
Please, teach your children to love others for their difference. Even if you think that your kids are fine and you taught them well and trust them to make the right choices, talk to them about it. Ask them how they would feel knowing they teased a fellow student for being black, gay, fat, ugly, and that student then killed herself. You might be surprised what you hear. You might not. But you'll never know unless you talk to your kids, now. End it now. For your children, stop the hate. Now.
(Some names were changed in this essay for privacy reasons.)