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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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Losing That ‘Phobic Edge

This evening as I unlocked my car outside the Y, a car zoomed through the parking lot in my direction. It was dusk, but the remaining sunlight and increasing fluorescents revealed there were three or four people in what appeared to be a souped-up Neon, similar to one of the cartoonish Hot Wheels cars I had as a kid and hoped to drive someday.

The passenger-side window was down, which seemed odd since it was a little cold out, and one of the passengers’ heads was leaning out. My brain and body went into anticipating-gay-bashing mode: I re-unlocked the door, reached for the handle, tried to calculate through felt sense whether I would be able to get into my car before the three or four assailants could leap out of their losermobile, meanwhile scanning the area for possible escape routes. To say avoiding danger is second nature to me is an understatement.

As I swung my driver’s side door open, a teenage boy pushed himself out of the window of the losermobile and shouted, “Yo, I’m GAY!”

I didn’t really process what he said until I was safe inside with the door locked and the losermobile had vacated the premises. Yes, there was an anti-gay insult; being gay was, according to the young man’s tone, laughable. But rather than throwing the insult at someone (me), he threw it back on himself. His technique was reflexive and somehow self-deprecating. Having experienced a fair (actually unfair) number of “faggots” and “homos” hurled my way over the years, I was surprised by this development.

At the risk of overanalyzing (you know I’m going to risk it): Maybe he’s depended on “That’s gay” as a guaranteed laugh-getter, but it doesn’t get the approval it once did. Perhaps he’s been a hobbyist homophobe but he’s losing his edge. So instead of hurling a “gay” pie at someone else, he turned it on himself. The payoff didn’t seem worth it to me, but to be fair, I’m not his target audience.

I found the whole scene (which took only a few seconds, actually) so befuddling, I haven’t even been able to think of clever comebacks that would have slain him with wit if I’d been able to think of them. He just seemed like a pathetic little fuckwad. Being able to see him that way is a vast improvement for me. Situations like this usually trick my mind into believing I’m a vulnerable adolescent. In a dark parking lot, that way of thinking is probably still the best strategy.

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“Ooo-They’re-Gay” Jokes Are Still Cutting-Edge 1980s Comedy

I overheard an offensive-to-me joke–that ole chestnut about insulting two presumably heterosexual men by insinuating they’re a couple. It’s the kind of “humor” that closet cases and straight people who are insecure about their own relationships use to feel better about themselves, blending the ick factor with a dash of gay panic. I do remember that shit seemed fresh in the locker room back in junior high, and did my best to laugh along. (My time in the junior high locker room was all about trying but failing to cover what made me ashamed.)

Instead of simply fuming about the latest telling of this joke, I got a chance to respond directly and in writing. Having some time to puzzle over the situation was helpful, as it usually is for how my brain processes information. I’m all for bringing the funny, and people have a right to say what they want. I’m even open to being the butt of a joke that’s actually funny. (Ha! I just said “butt.”) But when your tired words and ideas enter my airspace, prepare to engage. Free speech is about as multi-player as you can get.

The topic is important to plenty of people other than me in this age of openly pursued “bromances,” which are decidedly “no-homo” in contrast to civil unions or marriages, but not as “no-homo” as plain ole friendship. Gay panic seems to be cooling into gay anxiety, for some, at least. I encourage them to get help with that cultural shit. I probably wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t.

For what it’s worth, I offer the bulk of my letter here, without identifiers, to inspire, entertain, infuriate, and/or bore my dear readers. Or pick a verb of your very own. Continue reading

Empathy and Civility? Those Are Just Words, Right?

I attended a panel discussion that was set up to respond to the suicide of a local high school student. As a result, I don’t want to say I’ve lost all hope in society’s ability to deal with this problem, but my hope has taken a painful, debilitating blow.

The principal spent a lot of time and energy insisting that bullying will never end. It happens everywhere, not just her school, and fighting bullying requires everyone’s involvement, not just hers. Every so often, she emphasized that she didn’t mean to sound defensive, although it was hard to read her mostly well-intentioned comments as much more than an attempt to gain control of the story that the local media and rumor mill (hard to separate those forces) have painted.

Fine. We’ve all got to be committed to solving the problem. I agree. Any halfway responsible person can agree with that. So what does she recommend we do, based on her experience? The principal told a story about going to a parade at her son’s school. As her son passed on his float, another parent who didn’t know this administrator said her son should have been killed at birth. What did this administrator, this trained professional, do? She froze. After demanding that we audience members avoid standing by and letting bullies get away with their offenses, she gave us an example of her doing that very thing.

To be fair, it was a shocking comment, and when she told that part of the story, audience members let out a collective gasp. But I really expected to hear that she collected herself and did something, either immediately or shortly after the incident. I hoped she might have told us the story to illustrate the difficulty of anti-bullying work and to encourage us to prepare for such situations, to anticipate how we might feel and plan what we might say, to do role-playing to rehearse those moments so we’re not caught off guard as she was. I would have given her a standing ovation if she’d had a rhetorical purpose other than playing the I’m-a-parent-too card. If educational professionals are also parents, they are, apparently, supposed to be forgiven for inaction because they, too, have feelings. But if the feelings for one’s own child doesn’t inspire action, Maybe we weren’t supposed to notice that she did offer no clear solutions from either perspective.

There was also a police officer on the panel. He preached the gospel of structured behavioral training. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what he meant. He spoke about the effectiveness of dress codes, saying that it gives children one less thing to have to worry about. When educating children, we should set high standards of behavior, the most effective height to be determined by him, apparently. He gave examples of ideal educational environments, such as private schools and a summer camp he’s involved with where parents drop of their kids so he and other law enforcement professionals can “hammer them all week.” The rigid structure he recommended doesn’t give kids room to misbehave. While I agree that not giving kids choices is an extremely effective way to modify their behavior for a time, such an approach doesn’t do much for helping young people learn to make responsible choices when rules aren’t clear. Furthermore, the imbalance of power and the repeated, aggressive approach he recommended are key features of bullying.

For all the railing I’ve heard about how “kids today!” have become desensitized to violence, I’ve heard very few adults consider that kids become desensitized by watching the adults in their lives use bullying as pedagogy and/or avoid dealing with what actually affects kids. Continue reading

The Queer Kids Are Alright. But They Deserve So Much Better.

As advisor to the Gender-Sexuality Alliance at my university, I have to judge when to stay out of students’ way and when to step in to advise. They do great work on their own. For example, a few years ago they decided to change the name from Gay-Straight Alliance to recognize that many students were coming out as trans and genderqueer. But when they want to host an event with a famous speaker, I can help them find funding and coordinate PR. Basically, I don’t really run anything, but I’m pretty much always available if they need help.

Following the heightened awareness of LGBTQ suicides in mainstream media, I’m more attentive if not necessarily more concerned about queer students on our campus. (I’m pretty much always already in concerned mode.) I usually observe when I attend events, although for the Coming Out Day SpeakOut, I shared a story as most everyone else did. What struck me was that my students’ experiences haven’t necessarily been better than mine. Although my mother loves me unquestionably, she said some unkind words as she adjusted to the news that I’m gay, and a generation later, parents still have trouble dealing with the news that their children are queer.

More to the point, their problem seems to be that their children aren’t heterosexual, and sharpening that point even more, there’s disappointment that their expectations for the child’s future aren’t going to be met. It’s not that parents don’t support their queer kids, but there’s a break in the support. For those of us lucky enough to have trusting relationships with our parents, it’s painful to watch them for that moment–maybe longer–and wonder if unconditional love is no longer guaranteed. Our relationships with our parents are changed forever by that experience. If all goes well, the break results in a stronger bond, as with a bone. But it was clear as I listened to my students’ stories that a few of them are still waiting to find out if their parents love them as much as they used to. Continue reading

How My First Time Became Never

I first thought about killing myself in bio class junior year of high school. My teacher probably thought I was thinking big bio thoughts. My obedient behavior apparently gave her the impression that I cared about what we were doing. I had learned that the only reason to talk to her was to affirm that she was right.

The plans I was considering came from movies and TV, mostly. I knew not to talk to my teacher about them. She wouldn’t have drawn on her knowledge of human biology to help me choose the most efficient option. She would have told me I was wrong, and probably referred me to the appropriate administrators. Maybe I would have gotten the help I needed, and probably for that very reason I didn’t risk telling her or anyone else.

I’d already been through the psychological support process in fifth grade, when I freaked out in class about a gray cloud in the sky and panicked that a tornado would kill us all. I ended up spending six months or maybe a year in weekly sessions with the school district psychologist. We met in windowless storage spaces. She measured my IQ. One week we built a model airplane together as we talked. I thought she was a weirdo but trusted, and still trust, that she had some good intention. I just didn’t get it. And if it helped me, it didn’t work for long.

When I moved from elementary to junior high school, I had panic attacks throughout the first month of school, my body’s way of rejecting the transition that I didn’t want to go through. The school counselor did his best to talk me through it, but basically I just got used to the discomfort of the new environment. A lot of my classmates turned mean and, along with kids from the other schools that fed into our junior high, they turned on me. I’d taken some crap in elementary school; I’d been called “sissy” so many times I lost count. In junior high, it only got worse. They called me “faggot” and other slurs. When dressing out for gym class, other boys would point at my fleshy chest and say I had breasts, which was an extreme version of the more common attempt to insult me by saying I was a girl. I don’t remember teachers saying anything like that except my gym teachers, who called us “ladies” when we weren’t moving fast enough. Later, I would learn about gender expression and identity and come to understand that the “insult” hurt because it was mostly true for me.

So by the time I got to my junior high bio class, I felt pretty worn down. But I didn’t act on my plans. Things got better senior year. I made friends, spent more time with the friends I already had, and learned I had some talents I’d hoped I had. Although the good times didn’t erase the pain, I was too busy to acknowledge the feeling that everything would surely fall apart. I was avoiding the problem, yes, but I wasn’t aware of how I could get help. I did what I had to do to stay alive.

Continue reading

Want to Stop the Bullies? Stop Acting Like One.

Does anyone else find it ironic that Dan Savage and Perez Hilton have become so vocal against bullying? Bullying is integral to their personae. If they were devoted to calling out hypocrisy in a kind of Dexter-style verbal assassination approach, they might have more credibility, but I question whether their motivations are even that honorable.

Whether providing sex advice or standing up for gay rights, Savage throws slurs against trans people, people he judges to be too heavy and others. Until spring 2009, he even used that mainstay of middle school culture, “retarded,” although by the request of a reader promised to start using “leotarded” in its place. Of course, Perez Hilton’s fame is the result of his daily attacks on celebrities, regardless of how much power or sanity they have.

I have enough of a sense of humor to appreciate that some people make money doing things like they do. But I have enough plain ole sense to question their motivations and whether their efforts deserve much support. To be clear, they aren’t the worst offenders. They’re not stalking particular college students and blogging about them or posting video of their private lives online. But the bullying inherent in the work they do to make considerable amounts of money has become insidious in our culture. They didn’t cause the problem, but they certainly support it, which makes it hard for me to believe they can be part of the solution without undermining it.

Of the two of them, I keep looking for reasons to respect Savage. Maybe that explains why I’ve spent so many words questioning his significance in my last post and this one. When he’s at his best, he ditches the naughty sex-columnist act and just gives straightforward observations with an unapologetic tone that is far more provocative than anything he’s ever said about cock-sucking. But then he makes a wisecrack, apparently to entertain Keith Olbermann, and softens the blow. It’s as if he doesn’t take himself seriously. Continue reading

Want to Help LGBTQ Youth? Act Like a Grown-up.

I’m not a fan of Dan Savage. He seems like one of those celebrities who’s trying to prove something to himself but feels compelled to work things out in public. He makes provocative, unsubstantiated, and sometimes just cruelly ignorant statements, such as, “You can have too much sex. It is possible–gay people proved it in the 70s–to literally fuck yourself to death.” Comments like this one cause me to cringe every time he’s chosen to be the go-to gay pundit. With misinformed friends like him, who needs enemies?

Although he’s got no sympathy for old, dead queens, he’s apparently got a soft spot for LGBTQ youth. His latest effort, “It Gets Better,” is a YouTube channel where those of us who have survived and thrived can upload videos to encourage LGBTQ youth to persevere. To get things rolling, Savage posted a video of his partner and him talking about their individual experiences of being bullied before they met and building a family. They seem like a pleasant couple, but the video is self-indulgent and so boring I had to turn it off about halfway through, but if one kid finds some hope in it, it’s worth the effort. And presumably Savage’s celebrity will draw enough interest that there will be something for everyone on the “It Gets Better” channel.

It’s a nice idea, although ironic, given Savage’s recent use of a trans slur to attack a politician. But Savage deserves a nice word or two for this effort. But it’s important to acknowledge a collection of outreach videos aren’t going to do much to address this enormous problem. Kids need someone in their lives to stand next to them and guide them to the light at the end of the cliché.

Sadly, LGBTQ youth continue to feel great shame as they try to come out. Ellen and Will and Grace haven’t made things that much better for them. Various studies indicate that 1/4 to 1/3 of LGBTQ youth have attempted suicide.

Supporting LGBTQ youth should be the central issue in our movement. Fighting for equal rights in our personal lives and the workplace is important–definitely–and youth need to feel assured they’ll achieve equality as part of “the system,” not in spite of mainstream culture working against them. But we must keep people alive and help them feel empowered, not ashamed, so they’re equipped to stand up for themselves.

Yes, a lot of us who are adults now managed to hold on, day after day. But how many of us are still fighting the overwhelming feeling of shame that did almost kill some of us? In fact, some LGBTQ adults still feel such isolation and don’t feel safe to come out to certain people in their lives. Do we really believe it’s okay for our youth to suffer like we did/do? We may believe they watch the DADT and marriage equality battles and feel encouraged by the rights they’ll get to enjoy. However, that time is a long way off for them. And knowing that we’re not exactly winning right now probably doesn’t bolster their spirits as slurs and fists are thrown at them and friends and family turn backs on them.

LGBTQ youth need the adults in their lives to act like grown-ups. So if you’re already fighting for our rights, don’t forget to help the kids you know and support the efforts already set up to help them. The Ali Forney Center provides housing to homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City. The Trevor Project provides suicide prevention services, including a national hotline. And PFLAG, GLSEN, and The Matthew Shepard Foundation offer a wide range of national and community-based educational services to promote acceptance.

Build on these important efforts, whether you use the information they provide to help one kid or decide to start similar services in your own community. LGBTQ youth aren’t waiting for Dan Savage or some other celebrity to come and give them hugs. They need to know that people in their lives care about them. Don’t know any queer youth, you say? Then challenge the homophobic messages coming from the people in your community. Standing up to individuals you know can be scarier than marching past strangers in the street. Doing the little things is a bigger deal than you may realize.

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