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.


Cynthia L. said...

I have been so touched by the idea for the "It gets better" project, and by many of the videos. But this I wish every person would watch this video. I, too, wish that I could go back in time and lead my oft-forlorn teen self on a guided tour of my better future days.

I hope the real effect of this project is to make itself moot.

Zo Kwe Zo said...

Cynthia, thanks for commenting.

This was a very difficult post for me. I usually like to play the sage voice crying out in the desert, detached and invulnerable. It was good for me to get out of my comfort zone.

It is frankly really scary and exhilarating to put your life out there for others, and I almost didn't post this at all. I am pretty shy (hence no video).

Still, I recommend it to everyone. Seriously, until you commented, I was starting to relive old feelings of loneliness. Stupid, how the past of so long ago can still have power over me. I feel better already.

Karen H. said...

Dan, thanks so much for this post. I think it's so important for people to hear real stories in order to empathize better.

Your idea about having your teen self meet your current self is pretty fascinating. My teen self would probably not approve of my current self. I thought I had it all figured out in high school, and while I was not overtly mean, I was judging in my heart. So I'd like my teen self to apologize to your teen self and then have my adult self give you a cyber-hug. Proud to know you as a blogosphere friend. Karen H.

Steve Evans said...

Dan, you're the best. Like you I often think about the lonely and isolated kid I was back then -- I can only imagine the level of isolation I would have experienced then were I homosexual. Your words are familiar enough to me to be incredibly inspiring, and powerful enough to give me some resolve to treat others around me more kindly.

Kevin Barney said...

Thanks for posting this, Dan. I'm a big fan of the whole project, and to see this account of your personal story helps to bring it home for me.

B.Russ said...

Thanks for posting this.

Don Daybell said...

Hi Dan,

I remember when you broke your arm...though I didn't know until now the real version of how it happened (as I recall it was an errant soccer ball, at the time :-)). A large part of me sitting here today wishes that I had known everything at the time, so I could have been a better friend, but sadly there's that part of me that recalls who I was back then.

You were my best friend, but I'm not sure how I would have reacted at the time. I'd like to think that our friendship would have trumped the insensitivity of youth, but sadly I'm not sure that it would have. I've grown quite a bit since then, too.

It's funny, until this very moment, I've always told myself that, despite my own flaws, and the checkered path I've taken to get where I am now, there's nothing I would change about my life, because each of my own personal setbacks have made me stronger, and made me who I am today; someone I am quite comfortable with.

I now realize, however, that there is one thing I would have liked to change. I would have liked to change myself to be someone that you would have felt comfortable confiding in, so I could have been there more for you.

Thank you for sharing your story.


Tracy M said...

Dan, thank you so much for sharing your story.I have been repeatedly moved to tears by the videos in the "It Gets Better" project, and am so grateful for the people who are doing. Your story becomes an important part of the symphony.

Thank you for your voice.

Cynthia L. said...

> I feel better already.

Well I'm glad my little comment could do that. Heaven knows I have a lot of silence over a lot of years to make for. I took a few doses of bullying myself, but what haunt me are the faces, the scenes, the times I was too cowardly to do anything.

Zo Kwe Zo said...

Cynthia, yes, I remember your telling of your experience. You remind me to point out, that I didn't want to imply in my post that I was never myself the agent of torment. I was and sometimes still am.

Although I am not a physical bully, I used to try to make such people feel stupid to make myself feel smart, or to neutralize a bully's brawn with my brains. Sometimes I still do, and invariably I am not proud of myself afterwards, even though it feels so good during.

But then I cut myself a break, try to do better the next time, and move on, because dwelling on past transgressions starts to become for me a subtle form of vanity, of making it (once again) about me instead of the people I injured, even as I am trying to be regretful. And it seems a bit greedy to profit twice for the same sin.