Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gay Teen Suicide and Our Loss: A Personal Reflection

My stomach is wimbly this morning, and I have a sore throat and am sneezing my brains out.  So I conclude I’ve caught some bug, and decide to coddle myself with nostrums as the day begins.  What those nostrums might be, I have no idea—an extra cup of coffee, perhaps.  But I like the ring of the phrase "coddle myself with nostrums" in my slow, waking-up mind—something like “comfort me with apples.”

And as I tossed and turned through a sleepless night, trying to find a comfortable position for the groaning innards and a way to breathe through the stuffy nose, I thought constantly of the short lives of those young folks ended tragically by suicide.  And wondered what happened to me, that prevented such an outcome.

And here’s what comes to mind as I think about that question: I found amazing grace as a youngster in three areas of my life.  Grace to go on, to imagine a world beyond the world of shame and abuse.  And grace to see myself in a light other than that cast by shame and abuse.

Two of those “areas” were, in fact, people—two extraordinary, loving women who, without ever speaking this message to me, managed to communicate strongly to me, from the time I was very young, that I mattered.  That who I was, even when this who happened not to fit the norm, was precisely who God intended me to be.  And that I would betray God and everything God intended for me if I chose shame instead of self-acceptance, even when I paid a price for defying the demand of others around me that I be ashamed of myself.

I’m speaking of my grandmother and aunt here—my mother’s mother and oldest, unmarried sister.  Who lived together and who, in many respects, could not have been more different from each other, as cheese is to chalk or night to day.  My grandmother lived in a perpetual state of pique at my aunt’s ability to elude her understanding (and, more to the point, control), to think her own thoughts and go her own way—even when that way was “peculiar,” one of the most damning words a Southern family could use about one of its own, as I was growing up.

Peculiar was, well, peculiar: she was so peculiar, she served me fruitcake left over from Christmas on a hot July day; he sat and didn’t say pea turkey for several hours, as peculiar as he could be; he’s so peculiar, he doesn’t realize it costs nothing to smile and smiles woo friends more than frowns.  Or, as my paternal grandmother once said of a woman in our town who had—amazingly—written a tell-all book about the rest of us: Why, they say she’s so peculiar that she reads books while she washes her dishes!

My aunt was peculiar.  And wonderful.  Once she had worked out the right and wrong of a situation to her satisfaction, according to her own peculiar calculus hinged on metrics unavailable to anyone else in the world, there was no diverging from what she knew to be the case—from what she knew to be right.  And she’d defend anyone belittled by others for holding an opinion that diverged from the norm with a ferocity that flamed forth in her green eyes and red hair, as if it were inbuilt in her coloring itself and not merely her character of agate and steel.

As I’ve gotten older, I realize that the cost of my aunt’s fierce loyalty to those she loved and defended was steep.  She arrived at her position of solidarity with outcasts by the steep route of suffering, as the only unmarried sibling of her family, and as the one sibling who managed—almost; she was two courses short—to complete a master’s degree.  

Where her peculiar views of subjects like whether babies should be swaddled to the chin (Kat, no; sisters, yes) to prevent the unnatural tendency to explore their pleasure-producing nether bits (sisters, yes, clearly unnatural and clearly to be prevented; Kat, no, clearly natural and to be treated as the normal self-exploration of an infant) were only reinforced by dubious learning.  Peculiar learning that came from the outside, from books and professors with Northern pedigrees, and was ipso facto dubious and threatening, in a culture that prided itself on having inbuilt and ready-made answers to every dilemma.

And it may well be that part of the friction between peculiar, think-her-own-thoughts Kat and my imperious, loving-to-a-fault grandmother had to do with the fact that they were, as mother and daughter, two sides of the same coin—different sides, and therefore doomed to clash.  But the same coin, one that spent the same regardless of which side was up or down.  And one whose worth was based on the same characteristics on either side: unwavering devotion to loved ones, an unyielding commitment to making room for even the most inconvenient family member, a determination to instill courage, wholesome pride, and virtue and probity in each young family member in their charge.

Specific scenes flash back to me as I think about the influence both of these loving women had on me as a child—and, in particular, as a child growing up gay, who had no word for the difference that made him, at times, unpalatable to his own father.  And the object of derision and both verbal and physical abuse in school.  For years.  As teachers stood by in silence, observing the abuse and giving tacit approval to it.  Doing nothing to stop it.

One scene: the last time I ever saw my grandmother, on the Sunday before her death early Thursday morning the next week, Ascension Thursday.  I am leaving her house, begging her as I do so to come to my high school graduation the following Sunday.  She tells me she’ll do her best to come.

And then she calls me back to the screen door where she’s standing to say goodbye.  And tells me, “When you were born, you had eyes that seemed always to be searching for something.  Peering.  Looking.  I hope you find what you are searching for in life.  I expect great things of you.”

Those were her last words to me.  I have to think, knowing what I know now—that she was within days of her death—that she intended these words to be her legacy to me.  That she knew she was close to death and wanted to leave me with a final commission.

Which was all about saying and doing what she had said and done for years: affirming me—affirming me in my uniqueness and peculiarity—no matter what anyone else said about me or did to put me in my place.  

No matter what my own father, who found it well-nigh impossible to accept and love a gay son who did not mirror to him his own idea of masculinity, said or did to me.  My grandmother absolutely did not meddle in the internal affairs of her children’s families.  She never said a single word of reproach to my father when he was brutal to me.

But she made it clear, by her eloquent looks and her very different way of dealing with me, that she did not and would not countenance the brutality.  And that it pained her to witness.

As did her peculiar daughter, who provided me with one book after another that permitted me to discover other very peculiar characters around the globe and throughout history, characters who had somehow run the gauntlet of their own cultures and managed not only to maintain their distinctive peculiarity intact, but who had also learned to celebrate that peculiarity.  To build healthy, happy lives around the stigma despised by everyone else, which turned out to be saving grace for them.

I will never forget my aunt’s words to me, in a letter, when I wrote to tell her I was gay.  She wrote back promptly: “This changes nothing.  I have always loved you and I will always love you.”

And that was that.  Nothing did change.  The love remained constant—as it had always been—a rock-solid foundation on which to build my self-esteem, precisely because it never shifted and could not shift, no matter who I was or what I might do.

And those books, which this teacher-aunt supplied with such perspicuous insight into just what I wanted or needed to read at the moment,  books she showered on me at every turn, tattered Victorian morality tales culled from her school’s library when they became too worn to remain on the shelves, books she sought in bookstores when I tried haltingly to explain what I wanted to learn, and no other adult understood my request: these are the third factor that somehow carried me through, as a gay boy susceptible to abuse at the hands of my father and school mates who had the tacit consent of teachers to inflict pain on me and other gay boys.

Books were a world for me.  A world of escape, yes, but also of redemption.  A world in which I learned that I was far from the only peculiar little soul in the world.  That the world was, indeed, full of peculiar souls, and that the peculiarity of other souls—of Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, of Hans Christian Andersen and Beverly Cleary, George MacDonald and Lois Lenski—was wonderful in the extreme, cause for joy and not for shame.  A world so engrossing, so redemptive, so available to me because of the loving care of my teacher-aunt that I was, my fourth-grade teacher informed my parents, reading at college level by fourth grade, according to the Iowa Basic Skills test that we took each year in school.  

Through reading, I had built a world I needed in order to survive, at an early age.  With the encouragement and active assistance of my aunt.

And so when I dealt with the verbal and physical blows, I could escape through books.  I could touch my soul by encountering the souls of others through the words they had placed on a page for young people like me to read.  

I am at a point in my life at which, honestly, I almost don’t remember the details of the abuse.  Perhaps I have chosen to forget.  Perhaps it no longer matters so much to me, that rosary whose decades are too full of sorrow, too short on the joyful and glorious mysteries of human existence.  

Or perhaps it’s that, in the final analysis, the abuse is not what has mattered to me in the end, not what has determined the course of my life and the shape of my character.  As the love of my aunt, my grandmother, and other loving people has done, throughout my life.  Or as the souls I’ve touched through reading, dialogue, and loving relationships have done.

I can certainly remember, and if it helps anyone to know, I can share a few stories of the pain—of a kind of pain still all too common in our families and schools, which, shockingly, can result in the choice of young people who endure it day in and day out to end their lives.

I remember, for instance, the two cousins in my hometown, Mark and Randy J., who had a sadistic streak a mile long, and were permitted to manifest it frequently, because they were from the town’s “old” families, wealthy families that did as they pleased.  One of their favorite pastimes was to fill tow sacks full of stones and bricks and then climb into trees and drop the heavy bombs onto the backs of unsuspecting dogs and cats.

I endured the torments of the damned at their hands for years—particularly at the hands of Mark, who was in my class and obsessed with me.  With what he imagined my non-existent sex life to be all about.  And with his taunts about that non-existent sex life which ended only when I pointed out to him that his fantasies might say more about him and his own hidden desires than they said about me.

And here’s the scene that stands out in particular: it’s 1964, and I’ve gone with some of my classmates on a trip to New York to attend the world’s fair.  Along the way, on the bus, Mark and Randy constantly torment my best friend John and me, intertwining our arms if we fall asleep on the bus, putting lipstick onto our faces while we nap and then informing the husband-and-wife chaperone team of teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, who are accompanying us that we’ve been kissing.

Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, who receive this news in silence, sneers on their faces, cold blue disdain staring out from their eyes at John and me.  Who are fourteen years old and who do not have a clue what any of this talk about sexual orientation means.

And then we stop for the night in Virginia, where the room in which John and I are staying has a bathroom shared with Mark and Randy’s room.  And Mark and Randy imagine that John and I have locked the door of the bathroom, so that they cannot use it—and why do those two queers need privacy, anyway?

We tell them repeatedly that the door isn’t locked.  If they can’t open it from their side, the problem is not with us and not on our side.

But this fails to satisfy the J. cousins.  They run to get Mr. Barnes.  Who stands watching as they batter the door down, knocking me down in the process and then pummeling me for having locked the door—which had been stuck and not locked all along.

And as this happens, and as the vile taunts about sexual orientation pour forth, the adult, Mr. Barnes, stands by in stony silence, permitting them to punish me for something I haven’t done at all.  For who they imagine me to be.

And this doesn’t end with junior high school.  It continues all through high school, particularly in p.e. class.  Where a mean, bitter little thug named Lavon P., who is like a character from a Flannery O’Connor short story, repeatedly launches into me from behind, knocking me down, if I make a mistake in a volleyball game.  As the coaches stand by in silence, doing nothing, while he rails at the limp-wristed queer who can’t even punch a volleyball right.

Lavon P., who helps found and is vice-president of, a Christian prayer and bible study club at our public school, a club that sponsors daily flag ceremonies the whole school is expected to attend, to satisfy the “Christians” who sponsor them.  And who quotes bible verses at me as he punches me in the face on the floor of the gym.  While the adults, the gym teachers, stand by in silence.  As they do when he and other boys come up behind me in p.e. class, and then reach around and twist my nipples as they proclaim that they have to feel my titties to see if I’m a man or a woman.

Yes, I can remember.  And I have no doubt at all that the pain those precious young people who have now ended their lives endured was real.  And fierce.  And daunting and unsolvable enough that they made the tragic decision not to endure the pain any more.

If my experience is any indicator, I suspect that the worst of their pain was not precisely the taunts and the abuse of peers but the refusal of adults with authority to stop the abuse.  The tacit approval of adults.  The loud, clear message that adults continue to give bullies of gay youth, that they are doing a holy and righteous thing in pummeling the queer.

Because his or her life is not worth anything at all.  And he or she is better dead.

Where my experience differs—and this I can’t explain: it is grace, amazing grace—is that, early in my life, I encountered countervailing forces that allowed me to surmount the indignities, no matter how gross they were.  Because I knew, due to those forces and the grace they brought into my life, that nothing could touch the soul shining bright inside me. 

Where love lived.  Which was full of love.  Which no amount of hatred or abuse or taunting could quench.  Because the source of that love is not inside me, but is entirely outside and beyond my control.

I am deeply pained that the irreplaceable young people we have lost in recent weeks do not now have the chance to shine forth in their own souls in life—as I have no doubt each would have done, given the chance—but are able to shine for us now only in death.  It should not be that way.  And I hope that the many adults who stand by in silence and permit these tragedies to occur will look at the shining and ask how much the world is losing when they permit bullies and thugs to drive these valuable youth to early graves.

No comments: