Monday, September 25, 2006

Just Ignore It

Just Ignore It

A letter signed by Senate co-leaders Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, and Mary Lundby, R-Marion, calls for a vote on anti-bullying legislation next session. A bill proposing the reforms has circulated for three years but failed to clear both houses of the Legislature, despite bipartisan support.

Back in my day they told me “just ignore it.” Over and over and over again.

I was surprised a couple weeks back when Tom Vilsack spoke of being bullied in school, of the need for this bill. He didn’t offer details of his hurt, but there was an odd catch in his voice.

I’m going to fill in the gaps as much as I can make myself.

I was young for my grade, had no athletic or social skills, geeky interests back before geeks embraced the word and made it cool.

I walked home each night to taunts and often in tears, and escaped to the Starship Enterprise. Then I'd wander around the woods behind my house alone, losing myself in fantasies. Often I wished Scotty would just beam me up, to that imaginary world that seemed so much better than junior high, where people were accepted as they were.

Just ignore it.

“Name-calling and bullying have very serious consequences.” said Brad Clark, executive director of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Youth in Iowa Schools Task Force.

According to the anti-bullying letter, 83.3 percent of gay and lesbian students in Iowa are verbally harassed...

I still remember the specific nicknames – those I can’t make myself say. I still remember the Beavis and Butthead age when “gay” was the catchall derogatory term, when “faggot” was the ultimate putdown. Still is for an adolescent male. And sometimes I got so angry, so hurt, that I lashed out with my screaming unchanged voice, my skinny toothpick arms, my laughable little fists, wanting desperately to do SOMETHING, to have someone do something, to make it stop. That just made it more fun to pick on me.

Make it stop… make it stop!

Just ignore it.

...and 33.6 percent are physically abused.

And then I was the one who got in trouble, from the teachers or worse yet from my peers. More than once that landed me in the garbage. Literally. I was gang-banged in dodge ball, I was tackled with cigarettes shoved in my mouth.

In seventh grade, I was afraid to go to my locker so I carried my mountain of books and messy papers around all day. They were heavy and my arms were tiny. I had to set them down once in a while.

One day, a guy pissed on them.

Try to forget this,
try to erase this
from the blackboard...
- Pearl Jam

And two decades later, I heard “Jeremy” on the radio. I saw the reports from Columbine. And while I could never condone the violence, I could understand why a kid could hurt so much, feel so hopeless, that he’d bring a gun to school.

Nothing has changed.

Being bullied made me what I am. I’m more insecure, more afraid to be alone without a relationship, less self-confident. You get told how much you suck every day from fifth through eight grade, it sinks in pretty deep. It made me more desparate to be loved and accepted, prone to unrequited crushes on unattainable girls, later unattainable women. Sometimes I’ve thought that I ran for office because I sought that kind of mass approval, that very public acceptance, that I could not win from my adolescent peers because I couldn't shoot a basket.

It drew me away from my family for a while – it was the jocks who bullied me, Dad was a coach, and I blamed him. It took me till I was 25 before I figured out he’d been on my side all along, working behind the scenes to soften the blows yet keeping silent to protect my pride. I’m glad he’s been around long enough for us to make amends. Thanks, Dad. And I was distanced from a brother who was two years behind me, close enough to see it happening, close enough to be put at risk himself through guilt by association, caught in the middle of it, torn between support and self-preservation.

And when I was away from home for the first time, away from the teasing but still seeking acceptance, I tried desparately to finally be One Of The Guys. But I couldn't do it with basketballs or with women. So I tried to do it with beer. I hurt my grades, I hurt my friends, I hurt my first love and lost her. Would I still have been an alcoholic if I hadn't been bullied? I don't know and I take responsibility. But those underlying emotions, shaped by countless adolescent incidents, definitely played a role.

I sobered up 21 years ago but bullying hurt my physical health for decades. It took till I was 40 years old and 40 pounds overweight to reject my aversion to exercise and fitness, to break my association between the weight room and the jerks who hung out there. And it was a woman I loved, not my dad the coach, who got me over it.

But if I could, would I change what I am? Did being bullied break me out of the framework of my white skin, my middle class background? Would I have been as supportive of gay civil rights if I hadn't been called a faggot a thousand times? Did it help me look beyond the privilege of my straight male orientation? Would I still have found the punk rock music that I so love even to this day?

Did being a scapegoat trigger my passion for justice, my sympathy for underdogs, my adamant egalitarianism? Did it make me a better father, help me teach lessons to my daughter? Or do I just sound pathetic, preoccupied with 1985 (few years earlier, actually) and fixated on "The Breakfast Club"? Maybe this sounds like cliches, but it was my own very real life and it's still relevant, now on the political stage.

I’m 42 and I like myself - more than I ever have. I'm comfortable enough in my own skin to tell these stories. They still hurt, but maybe sharing them helps. And the geeks have inherited the earth. No, I would not change who I am.

But it wasn't worth seventh grade.

House Speaker Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, has said anti-bullying legislation should not offer protections to specific groups.

To the theocratic wing of the Republican Party, ideology is more important than reality. They actually believe that if this bill passes, we’ll be saying that it’s somehow wrong to hurt a young boy by calling him “queer,” and we’ll maybe just maybe imply that it’s NOT WRONG to be young and gay.

Which of course it isn’t. But they’re more concerned with their dogma, with Motivating The Base, that with the real tears of our children. Kids like me.

We can’t just ignore it.

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