This week, I’m going to talk about bullying. As denying-of-personhood goes, bullying is right up there as one of the most pervasive and harmful ways for one person to take away something that is not theirs to take.
When I was ten years old, many, many moons ago, somebody decided that it would be fun to call me gay and to spread the rumour around that I was gay. I don’t know what the climate is like in British schools these days, but in the mid eighties, “gay” was a thing to be despised, ostracised and punished. In addition, it cuts to the very core of a child’s developing psyche and sense of self as an individual.
At ten years of age, I hadn’t even begun finding any people attractive, let alone started working out if I was gay, straight or something else. I guess that the “normal” way to go about it would be to start noticing people and finding them attractive, and to infer from that whether one is attracted to members of the same sex, members of the opposite sex or both (or neither). Given the nature of the bullying I received and the time at which it occurred, I was denied that opportunity.
Over the next three years, there wasn’t a single day at school where someone didn’t jeer at me. Gay, pooftah and bender were my constant companions. Being in the UK, fag wasn’t very common, but it was in the mix too (“fag” normally means “cigarette” in British English usage). My small group of friends were daubed with the same epithets, too, and the four of us just had to live with it.
One thing that sticks with me to this day, near-on thirty years since this all happened, was a single incident in the corridor. I can picture it vividly in my mind: I was walking up the main corridor, past the room that would be my form room in fourth year, with the light shining in from the large windows on the left hand side. Someone in a year above me was walking in the opposite direction and stared me briefly as he walked past. I didn’t know him from Adam, we’d never had a single conversation and, apart from attending the same school, we had nothing whatsoever to do with one another. “Gaylord,” he sneered as he carried on his way towards his next lesson. I shrugged it off as yet another entirely normal interaction in my life at school, yet it remains with me as an in-a-nutshell summary of three of the most unpleasant years of my life, where complete strangers would be vicious to me because of a persistent rumour that not even I had any idea whether it was true or not. At ten, I didn’t have the mature clarity of thought to come up with “excuse me, but my as-yet-emerging sexuality is yet to declare to me if it is gay or not and, even if it is, what business of yours is that, and what is bad about being gay, anyway?” and even if I had, the bullies didn’t have the maturity to understand that kind of reasoning either.
All of this unwanted attention affected me profoundly. It made starting any new relationship more-or-less impossible. Anybody I spoke to had “this is the gay boy” in bright neon lettering in their mind before I’d even opened my mouth, and that carried with it the knowledge that they would be tarred with the same brush if they engaged in any kind of relationship with me.
Much later, long after the bullying stopped, and long after the bullies had forgotten about their collective acts of unkindness, I was left with a life-shaping drive to prove to “them” that I wasn’t gay. This mostly expressed itself through pornography (which was much harder to get hold of in the early nineties than it is now), which further distorted my by-that-time adolescent development.
So, where were the adults in all of this? Where were the teachers? What about the school’s anti-bullying policy? The quick answer to those questions is “nowhere”. I must emphasise that this next bit is pure speculation, for I have no supporting evidence, but the dots seem to line up in hindsight. It was a Roman Catholic school, you see, and the church has long hated all things gay. It is my belief that the authorities at the school decided that they couldn’t “encourage” my gayness by intervening in the bullying, so they simply turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the degrading treatment that was taking place on their watch, to me and to my friends. They decided that their duty of care didn’t apply in our case and, effectively, hung up a big sign saying “bullying is bad, unless it’s homophobic, in which case, carry on”.
Where were my parents? Well, they tried their best but, to this day, I don’t know what they did. I assume that they informed the school of the ongoing problem. I mean, this was happening every day for three years, and I wasn’t exactly silent on the issue. My best guess is that they didn’t realise how bad it was or that they felt powerless to make it stop, or maybe both. The only advice I remember receiving from them was “go along with it” which, as any survivor of bullying will tell you is probably the worst advice you can be given. I don’t blame them for it, they simply had no idea how to help me.
Eventually, middle school ended and everyone went to the high school. The people were the same, yet the bullying stopped immediately. The bullies moved on with their lives, putting their unkindness behind them without even a backward glance, leaving me (and my friends) to cope with a childhood defined by bullying.
Now, I’ve rambled on for a thousand words, so I will be brief with my closing words. Bullying is isolating. It leaves you feeling that you are completely alone in the world and that nobody cares and that nobody will ever care. You crave a single kind word, yet you know there won’t be one. These days, there are online bullying support groups, which are brilliant. One thing, though, when I last looked for support for my particular problem was this: the general-bullying site had a category for homophobic bullying that directed me to Stonewall’s site, which offered support for gay people who are bullied. How alone did I feel, then, when the bullying site didn’t want me because the bullying was homophobic, and Stonewall didn’t want me because I wasn’t gay?