TRIGGER WARNING: violence, bullying, suicide.
There will be no Fangirl Fridays post this week. I was hoping to write one – albeit a delayed edition – but, frankly, I’m not in the mood. I don’t want to half-ass it, and I don’t want it to draw attention from what I have to say now. I just had a brief conversation on Twitter that got me thinking about some old demons, and while the conversation really wasn’t at all contentious, it still put me back in a very dark, painful place. I’ve literally spent the last hour in tears, and I need to get this out. I don’t know if my words on this subject are all that important. I doubt I’m saying anything that hasn’t been said before. Still: the spirit has moved me, and so I speak.
There’s been a lot of talk about bullying lately. The Weinstein Company’s Bully is, of course, in theaters: unrated, because the MPAA is full of cowards and moral guardians who chose to rate a vitally important, socially relevant documentary R for their own inexplicable reasons. (I confess that I have not seen Bully myself yet, and I probably won’t until it’s on DVD/Netflix. I don’t trust myself to control my emotional reaction to the film. I’d rather watch it in a safe space.) After a wave of teen suicides, the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota has finally revised a policy that blatantly required teachers to withhold support from GLBT students even in the face of horrific bullying. Sadly, the trend of teen suicide, particularly among GLBT youth, continues unabated despite such efforts toward change, with Jack Reese of Utah joining the too-long list of the dead just last week. Bullies and bullying are everywhere, and at long last, we are beginning to recognize the problem.
Please forgive me my cynicism. Please forgive the snarky sci-fi nerd that has nothing to say to this but “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” Forgive the sarcastic ass who can’t get over all the suffering and pain and death she has seen as a result of bullying, and can’t quite believe that anything is actually going to change this time. Because I have seen schools try to address the problem of bullying. I have seen them bust out mediation and role-playing and peer counseling and God knows what else. And maybe this is the outsider perspective talking, maybe the folks on the inside actually are seeing real change…but I don’t think so. I just see more empty promises waiting to be broken. I just see another false start that will never become a sustained movement. I just see the latest trend flashing across our radar, to be replaced the second the media grow bored.
Let me tell you a story.
From the age of eight, I was homeschooled. Before that, I was in a public school, and I was bullied. I say bullied. Let’s call it what it was: for two years, from my first day of kindergarten to my last day of second grade, I was emotionally and physically abused. You want to know what I learned in public school? I learned not to bring or share anything I truly liked, because the odds were good it would be stolen, vandalized, destroyed. I learned not to show any sign of weakness, because my classmates would gleefully exploit it just to see me cry or vomit again. I learned that my best friend could become my worst enemy in an instant, for no apparent reason. I learned not to trust classmates who wanted to ‘show me something’ because I would never like the result.
I learned that I could be beaten until scars formed on my back, and the teachers and administrators would do nothing to protect me.
In fact, I was blamed for all of this. I needed to break out of the ‘victim mentality,’ they said. I needed to stop being weird. I needed to stop playing crazy games of pretend. I needed to stop spending my time on the playground with kids a grade or two behind me – younger children, by that point, being the only ones I could trust not to hurt me. I needed to stop playing with the girls and start playing with the boys. I needed to learn to defend myself.
My parents asked the principal, out of idle curiosity, what would happen if I used violence to defend myself from violence. They were told I would be expelled, of course. The same teachers and administrators who turned a blind eye to my being beaten, who took no action against the students responsible for any of the treatment I faced, would expel me in a heartbeat if I threw so much as a single punch.
I did not understand the politics in play then, but I do now: I was assigned male at birth. The school saw a little boy who preferred the company of girls, who liked Rainbow Brite and dolls and playing pretend, who wished (though I did not then realize that anyone could tell) in the dark of night to be like all the other girls, and they panicked. At best, I was a freak. At worst, I was a mob scene waiting to happen. Add that to this: I was WAY ahead of my classmates, and my parents were agitating for me to be skipped a grade, or placed in a gifted and talented program, because I was terminally bored by my classes and it was beginning to show. The school did not take kindly to them rocking the boat. I was a crooked nail to be hammered down until I didn’t stick out anymore. The bullying was just another tool in their toolbox.
I was fortunate in that I had a truly ferocious mother. When I was beaten within an inch of my life – when I was left scarred and bleeding and broken in body and soul – she marched me down to the home of the boy who’d done it and showed his grandfather my wounds. Said boy was grounded. Said boy later snuck out and came to my neighborhood to see his friends there. That was one of the most terrifying experiences in my life. I have never since put so much effort into being invisible.
What did I learn at school? I learned that adults, even with the best of intentions, cannot always protect you. I learned that too many adults won’t even try.
Eventually, when it became clear that the teachers and administrators would continue to sit on their hands, to watch and wait and secretly hope that my suffering would mold me into the good little robot they wanted, my mother pulled me out of there altogether. That was not the end to my suffering. I’m not sure there was ever really an end to it. But the pain was eased. I was protected. I was loved. I made friends. Slowly, cautiously, I let myself become visible. But even now, my danger sense is too powerful for my own good. Even now, I find myself shrinking away at times, trying to avoid being noticed. I often find myself wishing I was smaller, and I tell myself it’s because it’s hard to find pants that actually cover my whole leg, or shoes that fit right, or what have you, but the honest truth is that it would be so much easier to hide myself if I was just smaller.
People have called me brave, even fearless, for being who I am. I think my closest friends know better by now. For the rest of you, let me make this clear: I am not brave. I chose to become myself because the alternative was taking my own life. I have thought and still think about ending it all too many times to count. I attempted suicide when I was twelve years old, and survived not because anyone found me, but because I chose a rather silly method (if I can call it that) which did not work and did not result in permanent damage. I will grapple with these demons for the rest of my life. I will never be safe, and I will never be fearless. I could have been another name on that long, long, far too long list of children who saw no other choices. I will do my level best not to join that company, but there’s still time on the clock.
I can’t lay my depression entirely at the feet of those who abused me. Odds are good that at least some of it was genetic. But the seeds of my depression, and my gender dysphoria, were planted together in fertile soil. They were watered and tended by people who wanted to do me harm. And I didn’t understand. And I still don’t understand. Didn’t these people have parents who taught them better? Couldn’t they see the pain they were causing? Didn’t they care? I was taught from such a young age to show the world kindness, to be gentle with others, to use what power I had to make the world better. What went wrong? Why did no one else learn that?
I like to think that I have grown up and moved on. And it’s true that I don’t think about what happened to me most of the time. It’s true that, sometimes, I can look back on it all with clinical detachment. I can wonder, idly, what happened to the people who abused me, and to the people who were complicit in my abuse. I can wonder if they ever changed, or if they just became grown-up bullies. I can wonder what happened in the past to make them the way they were – if the boy who beat me was also a victim, caught up in the cycle of abuse. I can wonder what they would think of me now, and I can accept that many of them would probably still think I’m a freak.
But there is a dark, lonely corner of my soul where a scared, broken child still huddles, arms wrapped around her knees. Her clothing is torn and her back is covered in bloody scars, and she will not stop crying to herself. She doesn’t understand why the world wants to cause her pain. She doesn’t understand why she can’t just play Barbies with the other girls, why she can’t be grossed out by bugs and spit and blood, why she can’t even cry without being mocked. She doesn’t understand why people would want to hurt her for those things. She doesn’t understand why her kindness and gentleness isn’t enough. She just wants to be liked. She just wants to be herself. She just wants to be left alone.
That is what bullying has made me. That is what it has left in the core of my being: a broken little girl, crying to herself forever.
You can say I should move on. You can say it was just kid stuff. You can say I should let go of my pain. And I’ll say fuck you. My pain is not a choice. God, I wish it were. I wish it was something I could shut off and never have to deal with again, because I hate going back to that place. But I have been forever altered by those experiences. I will never forget them. And sometimes, in my darkest hours, I will be dragged back, kicking and screaming, and forced to live it all over again.
So I see these kids dying, and I think about how easy it would have been for me to join them. I see teachers and administrators and lawmakers making promises, and I wondered why they never even tried making those promises to me, and I wonder what happened to the last round of promises they made. I see history repeating, and it makes me sick to my stomach, and it makes me angry as hell, and somewhere deep inside me, I hear a little girl wailing.
I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know if there’s any one answer. But I know this: we need to start by refusing to turn our backs on any child in pain. We need to stop blaming the victims of bullying. We need to see ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘children are cruel’ as the bullshit it is, and REFUSE to take those excuses. We need to stop tying the hands of teachers who just want to reach out to children who are suffering for who they are. We need to stop trying to mold children into one specific form and start embracing diversity. We need to do so many things, but above all else, we need to stand up and say no and MEAN IT, now and forever.
Humanity is broken, on every conceivable level, and we have spent too many years passing our failures, our demons, our pain on to our children. We have the capacity for change. For all my cynicism, for all my doubt, I do believe that. But we need to commit to the cause.
Please don’t forget that this time. Please don’t let all those children, all that suffering, be washed away and pushed out of sight by the next big thing. This shining moment of awareness will mean nothing if we can’t follow through on it.
I can never forget what happened to me. I have too many brothers and sisters in the same boat. Those of you who can make that choice: choose to remember. And choose to make the world better. Please.