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.