Yesterday I joined countless people around the country in wearing purple clothing or a purple ribbon to remember those gay people who have committed suicide due to bullying. There have been numerous reports in the media of college aged students giving into the hate and discrimination - feeling there is no hope left for them in life - and seeing death as their only solice.
On Tuesday, just before we were to stand up against this type of bullying, another brother, a 19 year old student from Oakland University, succumbed to suicide.
I wanted to share a bit of my own story of struggle growing up as a gay individual in a world that often times seemed so cold and indifferent.
After growing up in a small Catholic grade school (which I loved), I found myself thrown into a sea of chaos at the local public High School. I wanted so much to continue my education in a Catholic institution, but my parents simply could not afford the high cost of tuition. So, I went to school at the local High School where my older brother was already a student. Not having grown up in the local public schools, I knew very few students, as most of my friends had transferred to local Catholic High Schools.
I didn't fit in at all, at least not right away. Being a freshman is hard enough, but I was seriously over weight, an actual practicing Catholic (which garnered a lot of criticism from the secularistic ideals of the students - and ostracised me from most of the Protestant Christian students), and was also some what shy.
I did my best to fit in, but it seemed like a futile attempt. I had few friends who knew me, had no idea of what types of clothes to wear (I missed the safety of a uniform), and also struggled internally with the fear that this attraction I had to members of the same sex.. the attraction I had assured myself was just a phase.. would not go away.
High School can be a sea of hormones, young men and women coming to terms with their sexual identities and feelings, and exploring those feelings with one another. Most kids start pairing up and dating - talking openly about their feelings with each other. I, like so many other gay and lesbian youth, kept everything bottled up inside. It was already bad enough to be labeled a "homo" or a "fag" just as a general insult, but what if they found out I really WAS gay?
Eventually, by the end of my freshman year, and certainly into my sophomore year, I began to find my own clique of friends and secure my own identity. My sense of humor and ability to make other people laugh made for a good defense and safety device. Keep them laughing and they won't hurt you was how I lived. It's still a defense mechanism, and has helped me develop into a fine tuned "smart ass" - only now I have discovered I am so good at keeping people at arms length, it is hard to let my guard down and accept them into my life.
It seems kids just know when someone else is different, even if that person doesn't admit it. I tried dating a girl, but it only lasted a week. I found it too disturbing and was very uncomfortable with the idea. It was hard for me to connect with other male students - aside from the awkward attraction I felt towards them, I had little in common with them - not being the least bit interested in sports, or girls.
Then, as now, anything bad was labeled as "gay". "That's so gay", "he's a homo", "that fag" were all expressions I heard on a daily basis. It scared the Hell out of me and caused me to bury my feelings further and further inside of me.. hoping they would eventually go away. Others minorities didn't have to suffer in silence - if a derogatory remark was made against women, blacks, the Eastern European students we had - anyone.. teachers were all over them. Gay remarks however seemed to pass mostly unnoticed or ignored. In gym class, I think they were even completely accepted by some of the coaches.
At times the suppression of my feelings, the lack of an outlet to express them, my perceived guilt for being "wrong", "dirty" or "immoral" would come to a peak. I would plunge into deep depression, not knowing where to go, who to turn to. I couldn't talk to my pastor, I couldn't tell my parents, my older brother already teased me to no end, school friends would not understand (they might even spread it around). I felt so damned alone.
I remember so clearly, kneeling next to my bed at night, praying my rosary with such intensity that the beads would leave imprints in my hands and fingers from holding them so tightly. I prayed that God would take the feeling away from me.. make me "normal".. make me "straight". This experience contributes to my loathing of the fundamentalist Christian "pray the gay away" "ministries". Believe me, if all we had to do was ask to be "changed", I asked enough for hundreds of gays and lesbians.
I gradually started to "come out" to close friends and faculty. They gave me the outlet I needed to unburden myself of the secret that had been burning inside me. Then (the late 90's) shows like Will and Grace had just started to come into existence, giving gay and lesbian people across the country a small affirmation of themselves on the screen. I caught the show once in a while.. in secret, when I knew no one would be able to see what I was watching. It might have provoked them to ask questions. If someone did walk in while I was watching Will and Grace, I quickly changed the channel.
For me, my High School years were not the happiest years of my life. I still have nightmares about being back there... even as a teacher, I have felt uncomfortable working in High School classrooms, remembering and feeling all to clearly the anxiety I felt those four years I was in school.
Life got so much better in college. It offered a more diverse group of students and faculty where young adults felt more comfortable to openly express who they were. I met some great friends and began to embrace who I was as a gift, not a curse... and delved into my major (History) where I was able to learn about societal attitudes towards gays and lesbians over the centuries. The sense of isolation began to melt away as I met new people and learned new ideas beyond the standard history, sociology and psychology of the High School classroom.
My faith and sexual orientation took a bit longer to reconcile, and I have written about it here in my blogs in earlier entries. One night, I felt so bogged down by all the scripture verses that were being thrown at me, and again I began to pray. I asked God to speak to me, and make His message clear. Was I being sinful for following through with the strong feelings I had had my whole life? I turned on the tv and began flipping through the channels. I stumbled across a movie called Door to Door about a salesman in the 50's who builds a successful career despite his physical handicap. In one scene, the salesman's young, fundamentalist female assistant finally realizes that two men on the sales route aren't just old roommates, but partners. When she realizes this, she shakes her head in disgust, saying how wrong it was, and against the Bible. The salesman said something to her that I will never forget. "God doesn't make mistakes... He knows what He is doing." There it was.. my answer.
In my 10 years since High School, I have grown so much stronger, mentally and spiritually. I'm no longer afraid to be myself, and have long given up changing pronouns or omitting things that "others" might find offensive. I speak about my feelings and experiences just as any heterosexual person would. I find great spiritual nourishment in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, just as I always have.. though now I am an advocate of our richer and more traditional style liturgy, choosing to focus on the prayer life of the Church (after all, there is nothing anti-gay in the Mass) rather than the politics of the Church. God is the judge of all, not any one person - religious official or otherwise.
I earned my bachelor's degree in History, doing a lot of private studying on gay and lesbian topics, which I continue to read about independently. I recently earned my Masters degree in Social Studies Education, and do my best as a substitute teacher to correct students when they comment "that's so gay", and take a moment to share with them how wrong it is to put down a whole group of people so blindly. I try to share my views and opinions with fellow educators who teach full time to help them be aware of gay bullying in their classrooms, and have been encouraged to see the number of faculty and staff who take the time to let their students know that such comments are not acceptable.
It's not an easy path, but it does get easier. There's nothing wrong with you.. nothing that needs to be "fixed". You're beautiful just the way you are. We are all made in the image and likeness of God.. and He does not make mistakes.
Know that you are loved - gay or straight - you are loved.