The moment is burned into my memory. It was night, and I was sitting in my parent’s van. I could easily hear the thumping of the band through the gym walls as they were cheering on my sister and her volleyball team at the community college she was attending. My parents were inside, cheering her on. I was outside in the dark of a cold winter evening—confused, shaken, anxious, hopeless, full of anger, despairing.
The worst thing that my 7th grade mind could think of had just happened.
Twenty minutes before, I had been playing outside the gym when two college guys approached me. I thought that they were just walking by to go inside, so I was surprised when they stopped in front of me. They were talking to me. But, why? I didn’t know anyone who was in college beside my sister. It took only a moment for the confusion to disappear, as one of them had spouted off, “Hey, aren’t you that fag from [____] town?”
How could they know? How could they possibly have a clue? I was in a middle school fifteen miles away, and these guys are in college.
So I ran. I don’t remember where. But I ran.
Eventually, I got my parents’ keys and hid in their van. I was crying. I was scared. How had my secret escaped the terrible bubble that my tormentors had created for me?
The year before, sixth grade, was a major turning point for everyone. We had finished elementary school and moved to a huge building, with block scheduling and classes with kids from four other elementary schools. It was all terribly intimidating, sort of like freshmen year, but even more awkward.
Thanks to a series of unfortunate jokes and some things that I had said to what turned out to be the wrong people at the wrong time, I became the gay guy. The fag. The queer. The “other” (which was the worst part of all).
It’s not hyperbole for me to say that the next three years of school were so life changing and altering that I would not only never be the same care-free boy I had been before, but I would descend into a circle of hatred, first for myself, and then for others, a spiral that would take decades for me to escape.
Now during this time, I wasn’t physically harassed. I know others who can’t say the same. But the verbal abuse and torture that I endured (I use those words as intentionally and carefully as possible) absolutely crushed my soul.
I used to laugh. I even remember being happy before. But after the siege on my being by these bullies, I was a shell of the boy that I had been. I had ten thousand questions about myself, about others, and about the God whom I had believed in. I struggled to understand how this God could possibly care while he let this daily torment go on.
The verbal assaults made me feel that I was an outsider—the odd man out. In a time when kids are jockeying amongst themselves to not only discover who others are, but also to find out who they are, all I heard over and over and over was that I was a disgusting creature, a stain on humanity, a living being not fit to live.
I kept all of this hidden. I even felt guilty. Somehow, I felt like the fact that this was happening to me was really my fault. Had I done something wrong? Did I deserve what was coming to me? The answer that I had believed was yes. I deserved this. What other explanation was there to understand why this was happening to me?
To let my family in was tantamount to giving up, and I had only one friend during these years who didn’t abandon me to the crowds. I thought (wrongly) that I was being strong by taking the verbal abuse, and I dreamt that maybe, just maybe, this would all just fade away. Maybe I’d wake up one Tuesday morning and this will all have been a terrible dream.
I continued to think like this for two reasons. First, I was convinced that if something so evil was happening to me, then for whatever reason I probably deserved it. Second, and more terrifying, I began to realize that maybe what was being said about me wasn’t all made up. During those confusing years, I was realizing that I was attracted to guys in ways that I wasn’t to girls. That those two things converged at the same time in my life is still terrifying to me.
Growing up, my sister and I were raised in a Christian home, and we went to church each Sunday. The joking paused on Sundays, but the loneliness never stopped. Even if I wasn’t the gay kid at the youth group, everyone still knew me as “other.” I didn’t fit in with the boys or the girls. So rest from the loneliness never really arrived. Instead, loneliness continued unabated day after day, week after week. My long-hoped-for freedom never seemed to come.
I endured unrelenting verbal abuse and torture from 6th through 8th grade. When I started freshman year, however, things changed quickly. Everyone seemed to be getting a social life, and even though I was still an outsider, the abuse finally began to subside. Classmates began to do things after school. They became interested in cars and dating as the life-changing experiences of high school took over. But for me, even though the active abuse lessened, the words, the damage, and the confusion of who I was continued. Thrived, even.
I hated myself. I hated my orientation. I hated my body. I hated my characteristics. I was angry all the time. Through high school and into college I was a miserable person to be around because the cognitive dissonance in my mind was like a constantly-erupting volcano in my heart, my actions, and my words. I was bitter. I was mean. I was so hurt and confused that I took it out on others.
Thankfully—miraculously—I can look back on these years on my life without anger. That may be hard to believe, but I’ve forgiven those who affected my life so significantly. I don’t excuse their behavior, of course, but for me to retain the anger that I had towards them would do me no good today, and it would be quite hypocritical of me to hold onto that anger while I enjoy the savior’s forgiveness of my own sins.
So why share all of this with you?
As I look back on this time in my life, I remember distinctly the people at school who wore WWJD t-shirts or those who were rather open about their youth group and church activities. I remember them because they stood by and watched while I was degraded like a mongrel. How could they stand still and look on like that? Why didn’t they jump in and save me?
They were probably scared. They didn’t want to be the one yelled at or made fun of any more than I wanted it. But is that a sufficient reason to stay silent? Permit me this personal question: would you have stood up for a person like me in that moment? In the awkward whirlwind called middle school? Or, more importantly, if you saw this happening today, would you stand up for him/her? Because if you’re still in school and you’re reading this, you know as well as I do that this is still happening today.
I graduated over ten years ago. I can’t imagine what life would have been like, how much harder it would be, if we had had cell phones and Facebook and cameras and a thousand other things that bullies use to inflict their psychological damage on kids too scared and too confused to defend themselves.
We still see this happening today. If you are alive, Christian, in whatever setting your daily life takes, you will experience others being belittled and degraded. Will you stand up for them? Christian, it’s your call to defend them with your words and with your actions. Defend the weak. Even if you disagree with them, defend them. The gay kid, or the transgendered person, or the immigrant, or the religious minority. Defend them. Stand up for them. Shield them. Let them know that you care, that you are looking out for them. Let them know, by the grace you shower them with, that you can do that only by the grace that has been showered on you by your savior. That the “other” has dignity and worth simply because he or she has been created in the image of God is enough of a reason to defend them.
Let me be very clear here. Homophobia is wrong.
Homophobia is the fear of or discomfort with someone simply because of their orientation. To hate someone, or taunt someone, or abuse someone for this reason is unconscionable because it denies that person’s God-given humanity and dignity.
Now some may assume that what I experienced happened only because I was in a public school. But that’s simply untrue. Bullying doesn’t just happen in public schools. It happens in private Catholic and Protestant schools. It happens in Christian homeschool cooperatives. It happens in church youth groups. It happens in the office. It happens on a construction site. Bullying happens everywhere.
Bullying damaged me in ways that far exceeded the words that were said. For years afterward, it made me question whether or not I even had enough worth to breathe. It led me right up to the edge of suicide. It made me hate myself, and I became ashamed of the things I was interested in. Above all else, it made me question whether God could love such a disgusting creature like me. God couldn’t possibly love someone with such a leprous soul. While it’s taken years to undo that belief, I’m thankful that his grace has helped me learn to believe otherwise.
So I’m pleading with you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for the sake of the gospel and the sake of the soul you encounter, use your words carefully. Words impart life, or they bring about death. Remember that you were once an “other” as well, separated from the family of God until Christ adopted you. Because of that truth, don’t be careless with your words by making gay jokes or by needlessly stereotyping whole groups of humans as somehow beneath you, and by extension, beneath God.
God wants you to be a vessel of mercy to a world starved for love. You can do that through so many actions, but one of the easiest and most powerful is through your words. Speak life to people. Don’t tear people down. Bullying people not only tells them they don’t matter, but it categorically tells people the exact opposite of the truths that they are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect. Christian, please speak kindly to all people, whether they agree with you or not, or whether they believe the gospel of Christ or not. They are worthy of the respect that God has imbued them with, and so are you.