When I was in middle school, a classmate of mine started a rumor about me. This is not unusual. It happens in middle schools all around the world, every day. While this particular rumor appeared to be about me, it actually said quite a bit about the person who started it. This is also not unusual. My classmate told a few people that I was staring at her in class, apparently with great longing and desire. I wasn’t, but that is beside the point. By the end of the day, half the school was whispering that I must be a lesbian.
This was in the early 1990’s. AIDS had come out; Ellen had not. It was not a good time to be considered homosexual. People were being beaten and sometimes killed simply for being gay, on a regular basis. Please understand, I recognize homosexuality is still not fully embraced today. People are still being beaten and killed for their sexual orientation. But any acceptance we do have now was certainly not present then. And at the age of 13, I was the recipient of the bullying you would expect from middle school kids towards the local gay kid. Thankfully, I was never threatened with physical violence. I was lucky. But I still remember the names I was called, and every finger that was pointed at me, accompanied by much laugher and jeering. The more upset I appeared, the more they taunted.
The fact that I was not actually gay was completely irrelevant. In the eyes of my classmates, I was guilty and therefore deserved to be dehumanized. I clearly remember wishing I was sick so I could go home. I wished so hard that I often talked myself into an actual stomach ache. I called home so much that my parents told the school not to call them unless I had a fever or was throwing up. My escape route was cut off.
I had been invited to be part of a program through the school that took students on adventure-based outings of about three days in length. It happened that one of them was coming up during this time. We were going on a cross-country skiing trip that involved staying in two large cabins, one for the girls and one for the boys. I would be on an extended trip with my classmates, most of them popular and some of them kids that believed this rumor about me. I could have backed out. But that has never been my style, so I decided to go. I had the strong feeling that if I could go, and if I could be brave and just be myself, the other kids would see that I was not a threat to them. I went, and I did my thing, which generally means keeping to myself. I tried to ski, and I hung out in the cabin, reading and writing. I remember one of my classmates stopping on her walk through the cabin to grab something, looking at me trying to write a poem in my journal, and saying “You know, you really aren’t that bad. You’re actually pretty cool.” A week after we got back, the bullying and rumors were over. The girl who started them tried to start them back up, and my classmates just stared back at her, no reaction whatsoever. Her power had evaporated.
I still don’t know exactly what happened. I don’t know why believing in myself made a difference. I didn’t stand up to my bully directly. I just didn’t let her stop me. I didn’t let her hold me down. I didn’t let her influence my opinion of myself. I can’t say that this would work for everyone, and I am certainly not saying it is the only way, or even a safe thing to do. Everyone’s context for their life is different. I just know my story. I know that my experience taught me that everyone’s life is valuable. Everyone’s experience is important. I know that the right to be accepted as you are is a basic right that applies to everyone. The rights of women, of homosexuals, of people of color, are not really political issues or religious issues. They are human rights issues. When we take away the basic rights of anyone, we are actually saying that that person does not have the right to exist in the world in the same way that another person does.
My experience with being bullied was life-changing. It turned me into a fierce advocate for the rights of everyone on the planet. I have a fire burning in my heart for the oppressed and marginalized. I will keep trying to speak for them for as long as I can. And for that reason, I owe a debt of gratitude to that classmate of mine. I’m glad she pointed the finger at me, so I was able to see why she felt the need to point the finger away from herself. I don’t blame her. People can be cruel. No wonder she was afraid. And thanks to her, I can work to create a world in which she doesn’t need to hide.
**as published on Holl and Lane blog