Ross Grainger with a powerful story about the time he was bullied, and what he has since come to learn from it.
I was walking up the stairs on my back to our hallway after another stodgy middle school lunch. As I approached the corner of the stairwell the bully and his entourage turned and descended towards me. They were five abreast, with the bully in the centre. I stopped. The bully’s face lit up.
“Ah, I bet this faggot’ll know,” said the bully. “Look at your fingernails.”
As I tried to find the congruence between his initial comment and his command a crowd of curious onlookers sidled into the picture. From the looks of eagerness I guessed that I was not the first to have been handed this challenge and that a wrong “answer” would produce spectacular glee. I decided to buy myself some time. “What?” I said, furrowing my brow. He came down to the step above mine.
“You are the ugliest fucking kid I’ve ever seen in my life. Just look at your goddamn fingernails.”
The simplicity of the summons did not quite afford me the opportunity to offer my anti-bullying refrain, which is, “If you dislike me so much, why do you spend so much time in my personal space?” My greasy and hormone-ridden 13-year-old mind did not understand many concepts, but the idea of a square-metre of space that is all your own hit home with the first thump on my puny arm a few weeks after enrolling in the new world of American middle school.
From the moment he first heard the English accent of the boyish new kid, the American football-playing bully had tried to beat and intimidate it into silence. The physical violence was acute, but rare; and if I was ever cornered without a teacher in sight I often managed to use my only physical advantage (my speed) to get away. The intimidation had at first consisted of his ordering me to utter, say, ‘tomato,’ or ‘can’t’ and revelling in the difference. He quickly realised, though, that others found my voice intriguing and even charming, so he switched to the more tedious tactic of trying to prove that my sexuality (as if either of us really understood such a notion) was of the homo kind. “Classic bully crap,” as Georges says in Rebecca Stead’s novel, Liar and Spy.
I at least was not the only victim of the bully’s crude homosexual pogrom. Anything he didn’t care for or understand or find relevant was dismissed as “gay,” while those who attempted to challenge or mock him were “faggots.” These facts belatedly occurred to me as I stood beneath him on the stairs and contemplated how best to examine my fingernails. There was, I realised, a “straight” way and a “gay” way. As an awed hush filled the stairwell I turned my palm towards me and bent my four fingers at the phalanges. The bully pushed past.
“You’re still a fag,” he said.
In the episode ‘Smart and Smarter’ of season 15 of The Simpsons, Lisa chastises Nelson for the silliness of his bullying. Confronted with Lisa’s inescapable logic, Nelson blurts out, “Yeah, well, you’re gay,” to which Lisa replies, “People who accuse others of being gay are often covering up their own latent homosexuality.” Stunned, Nelson throws himself from the school bus.
If I’d confronted my bully with such an obvious truth it likely would have been me thrown from the school bus (which would have only underlined the point). The fact is, though, that, rather like Jesus, my bully displayed a number of traits that, while not overtly homosexual, would not have stood up well under questioning: he neither had a girlfriend nor seemed moved by female charms, and was often as brutish with girls as he was with boys; he spent most of his time with an all-male posse, a gaggle of wimps and sycophants who blindly did his bidding and doted on his idiocy, and he was an avid member of the American football team, with all the inter-male body slapping and other quasi-homoerotic ritualism that that sport entails. Like many a religious leader and conservative American congressman, my bully thought that the louder his anti-homosexual rhetoric the less likely anyone would suspect him of committing the very “crime” he was decrying.
Jealousy, insecurity and latent homosexuality: the tripod of bullying. My bully was not the first white American male to regard an outsider with that dangerous mix of envy, menace and physical attraction, nor the first to display a kind of mental breakdown when his primitive and pubescent brain tried to compute this combination.
Human beings, especially adolescents, will always display jealousy and insecurity. Homophobia, though, is a question of education, or lack thereof. Despite a number of recent civil rights successes in Britain and elsewhere, or perhaps because of them, homophobia is rampant in many Abrahamic nations (my bully, incidentally, was a Christian, though I doubt he was aware that Jesus never said a word about sexual orientation), a perversion that is doubly damaging when coupled with the deliberate exclusion and demotion of women. In any National anti-bulling program, one of the most important lessons we can teach children is that all sexes and sexualities are equal.
Click here for some helpful National Anti-Bullying Week resources.
–Originally published on Education Umbrella
–Photo: JLM Photography/Flickr