growing up gay

Update: Joey submitted this post to Oprah and will be on Oprah’s “Coming Out” show today, along with Greg Louganis. Please watch and support. We love you Joey!

This is a much longer post than I usually have here on Ooph or WN. But when Joey asked me how many words he could have, I thought to myself, “How could I put a word count on his heartbreaking story.” My response was. “Take as many words as you need.” He agonized over it. He put it off as long as he could. Then finally, he sat down and wrote his tragic story. The courage it took, I can’t begin to comprehend.

I know what it’s like to stare into an abyss of hopelessness like the one Tyler Clementi no doubt stared into right before throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge last month… or the ones Asher Brown, Billy Lucas and all the other victims of anti-gay bullying faced before deciding to end the torment the only way they knew how:  by killing themselves.  But I’m one of the lucky ones.  Bullying didn’t kill me.  But it came damn close.

I was bullied throughout junior high and high school because of the perception that I was gay.  Note the word “perception.”  Deep down, I knew on some level that I was gay from the time I asked Santa for (and got) a Baby Go Bye-Bye.  (The photograph of me and my Baby Go Bye-Bye was taken on Christmas Day 1969, three days before my second birthday.  I remember that Christmas distinctly — maybe because I recall some angst in our household over my wanting a “girl’s” toy more than anything else that Christmas.)   But even though I knew I was gay from a very early age, I wasn’t out… not even to myself.  I ran from who I was, prayed that I would change, and tried to be the person I thought everyone expected me to be my entire childhood.  But I couldn’t escape the truth no matter how hard I tried… not that anyone would let me.

The first really tangible expression of bullying that I remember enduring happened in kindergarten. A little blond boy in my class twisted my arm behind my back because I played with the girls instead of the boys.   (ALWAYS!  The Baby Go Bye-Bye should have been your first clue.)  I don’t remember who the boy was, but I remember the pain he inflicted – both physical and emotional – simply because of who I was. 

Toward the end of the first day of first grade at the parochial school where my father was principal, the teacher asked my class if anyone had any questions or comments for her.  A boy who’d been in my kindergarten class (which was at an altogether different facility) raised his hand and told the teacher – and the entire class – that I had been the biggest “sissy” in kindergarten.  He actually went into pretty graphic detail about it.  Cue my classmates’ laughter.  Cue my humiliation.   I don’t remember the teacher saying anything in response.  She just moved on to the next question or comment, which I guarantee wasn’t nearly as insightful or entertaining as the one we’d all just heard.  

That incident on my first day of school set the tone for the rest of my childhood.  Who I was at the very core of my being – a bright, sensitive, caring child who loved music and movies and television shows, dolls and superheroes and “playing pretend,” and his family above all else; and who preferred indoor and stereotypically female activities – was verbally and emotionally attacked from the get-go.  I never forgot the way I felt in that moment:  less than, unworthy, unliked, unloved, un-everything.  

Occasionally throughout grade school, a comment would be made about my non-conformist behavior in kindergarten by someone who was there.  But for the most part, grades one through five were ideal.  Then, in sixth grade, a series of incidents happened that seemed to usher in a new era for me:  one of being the seemingly constant target of bullies.  Because I was the principal’s son and had to stay an extra 90 minutes after school every day in order to get a ride home, I was drafted that year along with three boys who lived in the neighborhood, to change out the Monthly Missalettes (a periodical Roman Catholic worship aid) in all the pews in church at the end of every month.  It was a job I enjoyed and looked forward to. 

Somewhere around halfway through the school year, I began to dread it.  The other boys had started chasing me around the cavernous church.  (We were always left alone there to perform our task.)   They would chase me until they caught me.  The three of them would pin me to the floor face down, smother me, and one of them — the ring leader – would give me a wedgie to end all wedgies.   And it happened month after month – in the aisles, in the back of church, even on the altar.  Wherever they were able to catch me is where it would happen.   It might sound like fun and games, but it felt quite violent to me, particularly because of the smothering and the extremely uncomfortable nature of the wedgies.   They were the most violent wedgies imaginable.   Afterward, I felt violated.  And although I don’t remember those boys using anti-gay slurs, I knew in my soul that they targeted me because they thought I was gay.

Then came the day that I had to leave my father’s school and enter a public junior high school.   The word “sissy” came up on that particular first day of school, as well.  On the drive to school, my father said something along the lines of, “If anyone at your new school calls you a sissy, ignore them.”  Today, I know that my father loves me unconditionally and always has, but my eleven year old brain translated his statement into “My father thinks I’m a sissy. Why else would he have said that?” 

In an effort to prove him wrong, I never told him or my mother – or anyone for that matter – that I was called a sissy and much worse throughout junior high and high school.  My peers used the “F” word a lot to describe me.  I remember one day in art class several boys were making fun of me.  Some of them had attended my grade school and knew my father.  One of the boys who didn’t know my dad said, “Is his dad a fag, too?”  A couple of my former grade school classmates responded, “No, his dad is cool.  I don’t know why Joey is such a fag.” 

The bullying escalated.  Another boy in my art class came up behind me one day and stuffed my mouth full of yarn just as I took a breath.  I spent the next 45 minutes choking on yarn that was stuck in my throat.  The art teacher, who had absolutely no control over his class, put the blame on me.

I was tripped.  I was shoved.  I was belittled every time I had to stand in front of the class and make a presentation.  The kids started calling me “Big Joe” because I was 6’ 1” and rail thin.  The nickname would be hurled at me loudly from numerous sources as I’d walk to the front of class to give a speech.   And it certainly didn’t feel like a term of endearment.  It was most definitely a put down.  The teachers did nothing to stop it. 

Until junior high school, I had enjoyed getting up in front of my classmates.  Sure, I’d get nervous, but it was a healthy kind of nervousness.  I started having panic attacks because of the constant taunting in middle school.  I would agonize over having to make speeches.  I’d been made fun of because the other kids said I walked and sounded “gay.”  I didn’t relish the thought of putting those characteristics on display in the middle of class.  I would shake, I would sweat profusely, and my mouth would go completely dry every time I had to stand before the class.  We would go in seating order or draw numbers.  Usually, our presentations would drag out over several days, and not knowing how long it would take to get to my place in line, I would have a panic attack all day every day until my turn was over.

I dreaded homeroom. The same group of kids had homeroom together every year for six years.  And two boys in particular were vicious to me in homeroom.   More years than not, our homeroom teachers had discipline problems or would leave the room after taking roll.  That gave these boys plenty of time to stroll up and down the aisles, looking for easy victims.  They were literally predatory in the way they moved and behaved, like wild animals on the prowl for food.  They’d ask me – quite loudly – if I liked boys or girls.  They’d make fun of the way I spoke, the way I walked, the way I dressed…you name it. They found a reason to make fun of me. 

One year, every homeroom had to nominate three people for a citizenship award.  There was one winner per homeroom.  These bullies – and others in our homeroom  – actively lobbied to get the three people they considered the biggest freaks nominated for the citizenship award.  The class chose me because they thought I was gay; a tall, big-boned girl named Bonnie because she obviously was of Native American descent (they called her “Chief” to her face); and a third “freak” whose name and “affliction” I can’t recall.  I told my parents I was nominated because I knew they’d be proud (and they were).  But I didn’t tell them why I was nominated.   Of course, our elderly homeroom teacher was clueless.  (By the way, she didn’t escape the bullying, either.  A vicious rumor floated around for years that she had a wooden boob that once fell out through the bottom of her dress and rolled down the length of the hallway.)  Thankfully, I didn’t win.  Bonnie did.  And our homeroom whooped it up when her name was called during the assembly as if she were the most popular girl in school.  Bonnie knew it was a joke, and I remember her looking so sad when she went on stage to accept her award.

Probably the worst incident of bullying that I remember happened during algebra class my junior year.  Our instructor had a habit of going over the formulas during the first half of class, then leaving the room to let us complete our assignments during the second half of class.  One day as I was sitting in the middle of the classroom while everyone quietly did their homework, a girl named Theresa very loudly and very proudly shouted at me from across the aisle, “Joey Brown, do you like to suck d__k?”  Needless to say, I was mortified.  I quickly and quietly said, “No,” to which she responded, “Awww, I don’t believe you.”  I don’t remember anything else except the complete silence in that room, knowing that everyone heard her question and believing that they were salivating for my response. 

I could tell you about countless other instances of anti-gay bullying that I endured, but my mind has blocked many of the specifics.  What that bullying did to me was send me into a spiral of severe anxiety and depression.  My grades suffered tremendously.  And I can’t tell you how many times I locked myself in the bathroom as a teenager, armed with a butcher knife I threatened to use on myself.   Years later, my mother told me she’d spent countless nights in the hallway outside my bedroom door in case I felt the need to kill myself in the middle of the night like a 22 year old family friend had done a few years earlier. 

My parents’ concern continued to grow. They felt that a suicide attempt was imminent, so they admitted me to a private, Catholic psychiatric hospital in Louisville for five weeks of my senior year of high school.  At the time, that was perhaps even more mortifying than having people think that I was gay.   I did the bare minimum to get out of the hospital.  My sexual orientation was never addressed while I was there.  And to my surprise, I didn’t encounter any negativity about my hospitalization once I returned to school. 

Still, my problems weren’t solved.  Four years later, when I was 20, I took an overdose of prescription medication.  I had a change of heart and called a friend who took me to the hospital where I spent the night.  My parents never knew.   Weeks later, I took an even bigger overdose and called my father, and again, I was rushed to the hospital.  Our family doctor, whose daughter was the 22 year old family friend who committed suicide, told us that if I had waited five more minutes to call my father, I would have died.  Again, I was sent to the psychiatric hospital to be treated for depression.  I spent just one week there before checking myself out. 

It took a lot of years and a lot of therapy for me to work through my issues of self-hatred and internalized homophobia that were brought on by the bullying.  Actually, I’m still working on them, but I’m long over the hump, and I’m pretty well where I need to be.  Still, I have scars from the bullying that will never go away.   A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I can’t witness an act of bullying or discrimination of any kind without experiencing what I call a “white flash” in my brain and before my eyes, which sends me into a tirade against the person committing said act.  (And I don’t really consider that such a bad thing.)  

My advice to parents reading my story is this:  don’t assume your child is straight, even if he or she seems straight in every way.  I firmly believe that most gay people fly under the radar.  Most of us pass as straight.  Don’t give into the heterosexism that is prevalent in our society.  (Heterosexism is the assumption that everyone or a particular person is heterosexual.  It can be distinguished from homophobia in that it doesn’t necessarily imply hostility toward other sexual orientations; merely a failure to account for their existence.)  I made a decision long ago that I would never ask a child if he or she has a boyfriend or girlfriend of the opposite sex.  When I was a teenager – even younger than a teenager, people would ask constantly, “Do you have a girlfriend,” and it made me extremely uncomfortable.  It makes a child believe that he or she is supposed to have romantic interests strictly of the opposite sex when that is not the case. 

Second, don’t patronize Cracker Barrel, Exxon, and other companies and businesses that have well-documented histories of discriminating against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.  Believe it not, children hear and read news reports.  If they are questioning their sexuality and they know that you’re aware of the discriminatory practices of businesses that you patronize, they will take it to heart.  They will say to themselves, “Mom and Dad must think it’s okay to discriminate against gay people.  They must think it’s okay to discriminate against me.  Therefore, I must be worthy of discrimination.  I must not be equal to a straight person.”   Do your research.  Know what the businesses you support stand for.  Don’t be an accessory to their discrimination.  The child you discriminate against might be your own.   And hey, if your child isn’t gay, at the very least, you’ve taught her or him to respect people’s differences.

Finally, keep close tabs on what is going on with your child at school.  Grill their teachers, grill their principal, grill their friends if necessary.  Closely monitor their interactions with their peers so you know whether they’re being bullied.  Then take swift action to nip the bullying in the bud. I didn’t tell my parents or any other adult that I was being bullied or that I felt bullied, nor did I tell them that I was gay until adulthood.  I loved my parents so much that I didn’t want them to bear the burden of knowing that their only child not only was bullied, but was also gay.  I believed that both of those characteristics made me an undesirable child and would cause them embarrassment, neither of which was true.

I pray that your child isn’t being bullied, but if he or she is being bullied, don’t ignore it.  Do something about it.  There are plenty of resources online and on this blog to help you take the necessary steps to put an end to it once and for all.

Comments

  1. says

    I am so very sorry that this was your childhood.

    I will never understand why someone being different is a reason to abuse, taunt, and ridicule. Why is that a reason?

    Thank you for your story. I hope it helped you feel validated in your pain, to have us as your audience.

  2. says

    This is a heartbreaking and I teared up reading it. It took a lot of courage to share your story and I’m glad you did. I’m also glad that you were eventually able to find a way to rise above it. Now that I’m a mother, I believe I have a responsibility to teach my children not to discriminate and accept people for who they are. It really amazes me how intolerant, thoughtless, and cruel people can be. It is also so important that we all do our part by teaching our own children about love and acceptance of people’s differences. Maybe if enough of us do this, we can put an end to this.

  3. Sondra Santos says

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am angry after reading it and sad for the memory you have of your childhood.

    Thank you, also, for reminding us parents what we can do and say to help along with what not to say.

  4. J-ro says

    The more and more I read these stories the more angered I get! Not at you Joey But at the ignorance of idiots! I was cursed by being raised to be tolerant at all walks of life. Yes it is a curse–when I hear of this kind of behavior and ignorance I get utterly disgusted. Being gay is what your choice is (or maybe you don’t get a choice but whatever) it does not define who you are as a human being. There are only two types of human being beings in my opinion–Decent Human beings and Idiots–be they straight,gay,white,black, purple with green polka-dots is irrelevent. I may sound predjudiced by this staement but ——I HATE haters!

  5. Travis Sloat says

    I’m not going to lie, it sounds to me like you had a somewhat normal school experience. I can’t tell you how many times I got called gay. I’m not gay, so it didn’t matter as much, but geez man, you gotta realize that kids are mean, they’ve been mean for as long as the world has existed. I was bullied from day one of my Kindergarten until the day I threw my hat in the air. Was it right? No. Do I still think about it? No. I am me, I am successful, I am smart, and I am a great person. You are too. Stop blaming everything on Republicans and bullies and live your life. If you want to be gay, be gay and be good at it. I have no beef with that. If you want to be a Democrat, be a Dem and be good at it. I hope you can learn to move past the "anti-gay" bullying you’ve been the recipient of and flourish as a person. Jesus loves you, I love you, and it sounds like your parents love you. You have a pretty good thing going. I wish you the best of luck.

  6. Mike K says

    you never mentioned fighting back. your parents buying you a doll for Christmas wasn’t helping you any. i am not smart enough to know if people are born gay or have gayness thrust upon them. i will never bully a gay but never understand them either.

  7. says

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve always considered myself to be extremely open-minded and welcoming, but this has truly made me reexamine the way I plan to raise my own children. This is in no way a normal childhood experience, and anyone who would write this off as just "kids being mean" was – and probably still is – one of those immature bullies. It’s unacceptable in any circumstances, and I greatly appreciate people who speak out to help raise awareness.

  8. Musings de Mommy says

    Joey–I adore your strength and love that you have the courage to speak your truth. And in speaking your truth, you’ve hopefully found power. My gut hurts for the hurts you’ve endured. Bravo to you for telling your story.

  9. says

    Thank you for being brave enough to share your story. I LOVE that your parents bought you the doll, think you are incredibly courageous to have endured that douchetastic bullying, but most of all am thankful you are still here to help others by telling your truth. I am writing this while sitting in an antiques shop cafe owned by gay men and believe you me I DO NOT KNOW WHAT I WOULD DO WITHOUT YOU GUYS!!!!

  10. says

    You’re obviously not smart enough to realize your comment is basically bullying. You’re making up excuses for the bullies. You’re blaming the victim.

    Are you a parent? What are you teaching your kids about bullying?

  11. says

    I can barely see through my tears to type this comment. I am grateful to you for sharing your story. It is important to everyone to hear, particularly those of us with kids. I am frustrated with Travis’ comment above because his situation was different–he is not gay so the taunting he received did not demean who he is as a person. It is not even close to the same situation and cannot be compared. I’m glad Joey that you were able to rise above the ugliness you experienced. I admire your courage and strength.

  12. Christine Fox says

    Thanks for sharing your story. I hope it helps a parent understand bullying and stops another child for having to go through what you did. Very powerful!

  13. Kelly says

    Thank you Joey for sharing your story. I read things in here that I never thought of before such as asking young people if they have a girlfriend/boyfriend and how that could make them feel. I will change some behaviors in the future. You are a bright light………

  14. says

    People need to understand that teens and youth have no world view yet. Their home and school life IS their world view. So if LBGTQ youth don’t get support at home, and they’re being bullied and tortured at school, they easily come to the conclusion that there is nothing to live for in their lives.

    Joey, YOU are the classic illustration of "IT GETS BETTER." You survived the bullying, the taunting, the frightening, miserable years. And you’re still here. And you’ve made it a point in your life to reach out to help others who are suffering as you did. You’re making a difference in the world and you are my HERO. I love you!!

  15. Katie Lutsovich Walters says

    Thank you for having the courage to share this story with us. My son was bullied last year, and I was caught in a vortex – to tell the coach or not? Would it make it worse for him?
    Bottom line, I would never be able to live with myself if something were to happen to my son, so I spoke up.
    For our family, it turned out well, but it could have very easily gone the other direction.
    I would like to believe that people are more open to accepting people for who they are regardless of sexual orientation. How long must this ignorance be tolerated?

    KT

    http://www.AnAuthenticLife.com

  16. says

    People need to understand that teens and youth have no world view yet. Their home and school life IS their world view. So if LBGTQ youth don’t get support at home, and they’re being bullied and tortured at school, they easily come to the conclusion that there is nothing to live for in their lives.

    Joey, YOU are the classic illustration of "IT GETS BETTER." You survived the bullying, the taunting, the frightening, miserable years. And you’re still here. And you’ve made it a point in your life to reach out to help others who are suffering as you did. You’re making a difference in the world and you are my HERO. I love you!!

  17. says

    I am so very sorry for your loss. To have your innocence and your childhood stripped away in such a cruel manner is unthinkable. In a struggle to find your place in life, as a child, being pushed around, and taunted only caused more confusion, and led you away from the parents that were loving and accepting of you, regardless of your path…this breaks my heart. I am thankful that you have shared your story…but more importantly, I am thankful for you that you have such amazing parents. They could teach others a few good lessons on acceptance and unconditional love.

  18. Edith Bluhm Fowler says

    Thank you for sharing your incredibly heartbreaking story. I don’t want to hear another excuse of "that’s just kids being kids" – those kids who did this to you were monsters. Hopefully, most of them grew up to be more tolerant adults, but that does not excuse their cruelty. As a parent, I feel it is my role not only to support my own children when they are bullied, but to guide them to stand up to bullies even when they are not the target. Bullying of the kind you describe is not "normal kid behavior" – it was violent and vicious. It’s not just that no one taught those kids better – it’s that those kids LEARNED that humiliating another person was *entertaining.* Whether they learned from parents or peers is beside the point – they weren’t corrected or disciplined by the adults who should have been protecting you – and teaching them. I am grateful that you had the strength to survive that, because the world needs more "bright, sensitive, caring" people.

  19. says

    People need to understand that teens and youth have no world view yet. Their home and school life IS their world view. So if LBGTQ youth don’t get support at home, and they’re being bullied and tortured at school, they easily come to the conclusion that there is nothing to live for in their lives.

    Joey, YOU are the classic illustration of "IT GETS BETTER." You survived the bullying, the taunting, the frightening, miserable years. And you’re still here. And you’ve made it a point in your life to reach out to help others who are suffering as you did. You’re making a difference in the world and you are my HERO. I love you!!

  20. says

    There are so many sad stories to be told. Bullying is just another example of the intolerance shown by many, not only in our own country but around the world. Worse yet, most bullies come from families with some religious affiliation. And, yes, while bullying has always been a problem (who hasn’t been the focus of a bully at some point in their life), it is worsened by technology. Bullying used to be restricted to the school grounds and neighborhood but now can go viral. Parents are contributing to the problem by getting their kids cell phones with unlimited texting and unsupervised internet access. If they are under 17, their phones should be for emergency purposes ONLY, restricted to only allow access to family and close friends and would not have cameras, internet access and unlimited texting.

  21. Patti says

    Travis, I, like you are not gay but have many gay friends. I too was bullied because I was fat. But that is not an excuse ~ yes, kids will be kids and some kids are mean, but that does not excuse them and we as parents, teachers and friends should NOT tolerate it. It should start with the parents teaching their children tolerance and acceptance of all of God’s children regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, disability, weight, politcal views etc. etc. God made all of us and HE LOVES ALL OF US regardless. Joey does have a wonderful life and familly and good friends who love him for who he is and I am proud to be one of his friends. But that does not mean he escaped some mean people in his childhood

  22. Amy Rothenfeld says

    Thank you.
    This was hard for you to write but this story needs to be told and told and retold so that parents can see that what they say and do in the home the children copy the behavior.
    I think everyone gets bullied at some point in their life but you had it done continually for years and that is heartbreaking. I am sorry that you had to deal with it for so long.
    Hugs,
    amy

  23. Stephanie Alaine Knight says

    Joey,
    Thank you for sharing your story. The thing to remember you survived and no one can take that away from you. You are stronger than you know and can conquer anything because you now have the mental tools and all the love and support from your family and friends. Don’t give away an ounce of your power to people that are evil.

    Steph Knight

  24. says

    Thank you so much for sharing that story. You’ve been through a lot, but you’re very strong and brave. Well done for allowing others to hear your voice – I hope it prevents others from having to go through that too.

  25. Chelle says

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am sending that little boy a hug. I wish he could have known how many people would be here for him along his journey. Many of us are here with him now too. I hope that all the kids in similar situations have the gift of knowing that you can indeed get through it, and in many ways, you will be able to help others. There are many people out there who care deeply.

    Peace and love to you and yours.

  26. Chelle says

    One more thing…Joey makes a brilliant point about how our children may try to conceal the fact that they are being bullied. We found out that our son was not sharing everything that was happening to him, and that things were much worse for him at school than we ever imagined. Thankfully, we got him to a counselor, where he felt comfortable sharing everything. I really agree with Joey, kids know how deeply the bullying affects their parents, and they conceal the pain to spare their parents.

    Peace and love

  27. Bella says

    My 8 year old was locked in a closet at a sleepover this year by some kids that bullied him. All I could think at the time was "Omg, this is how nightmares become reality." Now he has a cell phone if he wants to spend the night anywhere and he doesn’t go back to his so called friends house that he was at when this happened. Bullying is serious stuff. Take it seriously the first time so you don’t regret it later.

  28. Melinda says

    It is just so unfair that you had to go through that. I am currently dealing with a bullying issue with one of my children and working with the school. It is heartbreaking to see someone go through that and frustrating that it is nearly impossible to completely stop it. Thanks for sharing your story. I hope that one day people will see a person for the beautiful person they are rather than sexual orientation, color, or economic level. I have tears reading this – all you had to endure. I hope that things are better now. Wishing you all the best.

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