Being "different" is a hard thing to be when you are 10, 13, 15, 18, 22. The age itself doesn't really matter. When the message you are hearing, seeing, feeling from your peers is that you are equivalent to a Leper, worthless, unfit to co-exist in usual adolescent and teenage social groups such as Middle School or High School, or even college, it can be a literal Mount Everest of a survival challenge.
Surely in recent weeks you have heard about the growing number of our youth who have taken their lives because they couldn't see climbing the Mount Everest before them. Many of those looking up that ominous, insurmountable challenge before them were finding out the hard way what being gay or even perceived as being gay means among some peer groups, sometimes to family members and sad to say it, the society we live in. No wonder some have opted for hanging themselves, putting a gun to their head, or searching out the nearest bridge as the best way to get away from Hell. And it is Hell. I know. I have been there.
Being bullied day in and day out, bombarded non-stop by peers, hurling awful, hurtful names at you and harassing notes being slipped into your locker. Embarrassing labels being taped on your back as you walk to your next class, being mocked by peers in clear view so there will be no mistake that you are NOT welcome--not worthy to interact with them, or anyone else for that matter.
I am a living testament to the importance of unconditional love from family during the days, weeks, months and years of the Hell detailed above. I have told my parents on more than one occasion that had it not been for the safe haven in our home, where I could feel safe--where I could be ME, that I can say with 100% certainty I would NOT be here today. Suicide was something I absolutely considered. My loving parents gave me life....twice.
The damage that is done to the psyche of a child who endures the day in day out hatred and harassment from peers is truly immeasurable. There is a part of it that never heals. Even years later, the memories are as fresh as if it had happened yesterday. I will never, ever forget the words that were spewed at me: "I don't know how anyone could ever love you in the first place!"
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the sofa with my partner eating some dinner. Diane Sawyer began telling of a new project being started by two gay men in response to the rash of suicides in recent months. It was entitled, "It gets better." As the premise of the "It gets better" project was made clear, I immediately burst into tears. The message: the current Hell being endured WILL end. There is a wonderful life to be had! Middle School and High School will not last forever, as impossible as it may be to envision. IT GETS BETTER!
OH but there had been something like this lifeline being tossed out into the water when I was the one feeling as if I were going under for the last time! I will never forget my graduation from High School: May 22, 1981. A happy day? I don't know that I could call it 'happy,' but there was no feeling I have ever experienced before, or in the 29 years since that was as euphoric a feeling as walking away from the place that had been a source of unending pain for 4 years. I have never felt so free, so liberated, so RESCUED. I truly felt that I HAD been rescued!
As painful as High School was, college was just as wonderful! Finally, close friends. An environment where, though conservative, I could finally SEE that THINGS WERE GETTING BETTER!!!!!
It was 20 years before I would even begin to consider returning to a reunion. 10 years? Even then, the wounds were too raw. 20 years? The thought of returning scared the living hell out of me, but I did it. I had no idea what to expect, but what do you know...people grew up. One of the first mind blowing experiences of that reunion evening was a guy from my Senior Class telling me, "You know, you went through Hell in high school. I hate that. But you're okay." That experience alone was worth the plane ticket!
As huge as that encounter was to me, it was nothing like what happened this past Labor Day weekend in my Facebook Inbox. What I received on Friday, September 4, 2010 was nothing short of miraculous--LESS than a once in a lifetime experience.
A bit of background before sharing my Facebook Inbox miracle: I transferred schools between the 7th and 8th grade, from a county school to a city school. In my young mind I somehow thought that if I only changed schools, everything would get better! All the name calling, the harassment would vanish and be nothing but a bad memory. How naive I was. At first, it seemed as if my wish had come true, but it was not long that it was crystal clear that I had just moved from to frying pan into the fire. One friend that I had made at the new school, one day for no apparent reason quit being my friend, no explanation, would not come within a city block of me. He never said another word to me throughout the remainder of our school years. Let me note that this person never was one of the harassers, but severed all friendship ties in no uncertain terms. That was early in 8th grade, 35 years ago.
Next year is my 30th High School Reunion. Planning is already underway, and emails are circulating keeping everybody in the loop for the big event. I happened to notice a message in my Facebook Inbox from that 8th grade classmate. Assuming it must be something related to the reunion, I then read the subject line. It stopped me dead in my tracks. It read: "Long, long overdue apology." Although I am mentioning no names, I am reprinting the brief message he sent me.
Long, long over due apology
I'm not sure where to begin this message. This really should be done in person, but I don't want to wait any longer.
I want to apologize for the way I treated you all those many years ago. I single handedly destroyed a friendship for my own selfish reasons. You had shown me nothing but friendship up until that point and I am truly sorry for my transgressions. I have no excuses for my behavior as there are none. I hope someday you can forgive me.
I wish you nothing less than complete happiness in your life.
When I finished reading his note, I read it again. And again. And again. The next few hours were spent in utter disbelief. After 35 years, this classmate was apologizing to me. I thought about what to respond, and I knew I must craft the words carefully. To compose the message that follows, I stayed up that entire night, typing, thinking, leaving the computer for more time to process, more typing, more thinking. It was completed as the sun rose the following morning.