Thursday, October 14, 2010

It gets better, really!

Joel Burns, currently on the Fort Worth TX City Council, was moved by the recent epidemic of gay teen suicide, to make his own video (and personal testimonial) for Dan Savage's It Gets Better project, encouraging gay teens to stick it out until, as it did for me, it does get better.

If you have not yet seen it, please watch it in its entirety (not quite 13 minutes, but if you must, you can skip to 4:20 for his personal story).

Joel Burns' story is also my story. What he so compellingly and tearfully recounts happened to me twice, once in my sophomore year of high school, and again in my sophomore year of college. Here too, as Joel did, I apologize that close friends and family are hearing this story for the first time. Some things are best said in public.

I was harrassed regularly before and after P.E. class, in ninth grade and especially in tenth. One of my teachers was an unsympathetic ex-Marine, the other a very unsympathetic coach who ironically had an openly gay son of his own. Both coaches were well flirted with by the girls, and neither seemed to mind this at all. I was physically assaulted (punching and shoving) maybe a dozen times or more, in and out of the locker room, a place of special dread I learned to avoid so assiduously that one girl remarked how my swimsuit stank. In fact, I was afraid to change out of it after swim class and it would mildew tucked safely in my book locker when I changed privately in a campus bathroom stall.

I was fired on by a boy at the top of our street using a pellet gun while I was walking home, and the pellet lodged in my knee. My mother stormed up there and banged on the door, threatening to return with the cops. I had never seen her so mad. Another time, while walking home, a thuglet from the high school football team stopped me, called me a fag, and punched me in the face. Or tried to, anyway. I raised my right forearm (to this day, I wish I had used the left instead!) to parry the blow, and heard a snap. My right ulna suffered a hairline fracture. I was too ashamed to tell my French teacher that my arm ached (lest she asked how it was hurt) and failed a French quiz that day. The school administration interrogated me at length seeking the identity of the assailant, but I yielded it not. The Vice-Principal and Head Guidance Counselor were both coaches on the side, and I knew deep down on where their inner loyalties lay. I did not trust them to protect me from the fallout, either further harrassment, or (far worse) total social isolation. I was not “out” to myself, much less my family, much much less to my peers, and I could not confide in anyone about this.

As it turns out, the broken arm was a golden ticket to Special Ed. P.E. Nominally for the physically disabled, it was filled with fellow misfits (read “gay” students). Long after the three weeks it took my arm to heal, I remained in this P.E. for Sexual Minorities where dear Miss Sensenbrenner (bless her soul) led us in gay-friendly sports like volleyball, swimming, softball, and non-competitive soccer while our straight brethren sweated and sweltered in the heat on the football, baseball, and basketball fields and running cross-country around the school. Miss S. and whatever other faculty members arranged this island of sanctuary for me may have saved my life, and I thank them.

In college, I lost my faith that this “phase” would ever end, and when my sister asked me point-blank if I were gay, I said No and hoped for the last time that it were true. Soon after, I confided in my closest friends and all but one was supportive. Unfortunately, that one was my closest friend and his rejection was devastating. We did not speak again for 30 years. It was ironic that he, a devout Christian, was the final catalyst in my abandonment of the myth of a benign Supreme Being, and after all who has use for a malign one?

I remain to this day a scarred optimist and devout atheist. Things did get better. I “dated” a few times (as in, I fell hopelessly in love, they never returned my call), I was Vice President of the UC Berkeley GLBA and put on their first major dance for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. I joined the Peace Corps to save the world and earned my way into a non-existent heaven with chronic diarrhea. I fell in love and “married” another man for 8 1/2 years, until he passed away leaving me even without the strength to cry. Now I am very happily married to the man of my dreams, one wonderfully overlooking of my flaws. We got to drop the quotes around the word “married” two years ago, with family present, but we refuse to reset the clock and are soon approaching our tenth anniversary. I have a great job and have been able to travel to almost 30 countries. Life is good. I wish the boy I was could see me now, he would be so proud.

I am here today because of the people in my life, the tremendous support I had growing up, an incredibly tight-knit large extended family (including one gay cousin, who was there when I needed him!) that gave me the self-esteem and strength to work through these issues and seek out help from others. Too many young gays teens today do not have this support network of family or friends, and the result is tragic and pointless.

If you feel as grateful as I am to Joel for speaking up, despite the potential backslash, about this silent pandemic, a near right-of-passage for gay teenagers, you could do worse than go to his his website at and click on the Get Involved! button. While you're there, consider a monetary contribution to his campaign. Even heroes need to eat.