Peter Monn and Alex Paredes

Bullies: The Wizard of Oz and Tomato Soup

Filed By Peter Monn and Alex Paredes | May 18, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: anti-gay, anti-gay bullying, elementary school, gay kids, homophobic bullying, middle school, queer kids

Editors' Note: Peter Monn (and his partner, Alex) is a Bilerico-Indiana blogger. We've lifted this up to the main site to share with everyone.

anti-gay bullyingWe have this amazing little girl that lives next door to us. Everyday when we take the puppies out she comes running over, filled with stories about her two younger siblings and frustrated that our oldest dog won't let her catch him. She is 6. Today, I came home and she was dressed, from head to toe, like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, complete with sparkling ruby red slippers. Her hair was tied back in braids and she was carrying a basket on her arm as she ran around the backyard, her sister, dressed like a beautiful princess in pink taffeta, chasing her around, reaching for her in the wind.

And I thought...what a wonderful thing to be a child.

But not for everyone.

Not for me.

12 Years of Dread

I had a great childhood, even magical at times, but school was often a place I dreaded and feared going to on a daily basis.

I loved lunch time in elementary school, especially the cold, autumn days right before Halloween when we would glide into the gym which doubled as a lunch room to find bowls of tomato soup already waiting for us at our tables with peanut butter sandwiches; it's still one of my favorites to this day. Yet, those beautiful memories are glazed with the most hideous of scenes.

Daily, the boys of my table would hold up their homogenized printed milk cartons and say, "See? Homo just like you!" and refuse to drink their milk. How could they have known something about me that I wouldn't know till much later in my life. And why was it so important at 6, 7 or 8?

I hid out in the school library and the pages of The House with a Clock in It's Walls and Are You There God? It's Me Margaret. Those characters were my friends because, honestly, I didn't have any. I had people I associated with at school, but no true friends.

This was how it would be for me through the years: people taped horrific pictures to my locker, wrote FAG on my car in lipstick, pushed me, shoved me, called me names, and elicited fake sexual innuendos. Several guys in my high school class even went so far that in our Senior Wills to our class, they gave me to the football team! Ahhhh, what a gift! To be gangbanged by an entire football team. How funny. How humorous. How degrading.

I was even afraid to walk across the stage at graduation for fear that my mother would be privy to what I had dealt with for 12 years if someone were to shout something at me on that sacred day. Thankfully, it never happened.

School Administrators Look Away

But the above... it all happened. Every day. Every year after year. And not one teacher did anything. Not one administrator. No one. Not one damn thing. And that is abuse.

I made it, and thankfully am probably stronger than I would have been otherwise. And they were right. I am gay, but I didn't need it shoved in my face. They made it the last thing I wanted to be.

I know my experience isn't different than many other people, because this week, an innocent young kid walked into my office with a story almost identical to mine although he had been hurt with a shank and his life had been threatened. This isn't 1990, this is 2010 and things are much, much different.

He was afraid - very, very afraid. He told me the only place he felt safe was at home and that resonated in me to a level I hadn't expected, because home has always been my safety net. And yet, he was even being threatened that he would be hurt at his home by some boys who promised to come there and get him.

The school's response was they were doing the best they could. I've read the emails between the parents and the school's vice principal. His lack of responsibility is sickening. Let him live a day in my life in school where I was called a fag, a faggot, a cumhole, and a slut. A day where his safety is jeopardized as he is pushed into lockers, fingers hurt as he scrapes down stairs or across the floor. Food trays pushed onto the floor, books pushed out from under you, slapped in the face or worse. No one talks to you because they don't want to be part of that punishment.

Shame on him.

Hold Your Head Up High

When I finally had the talk with my mom, she told me she wanted me to give her the names of all of the people who had done this because she was going to call their parents and tell them what their children were really like. I was 22. I told her it wasn't necessary.

Then she showed me a video an interview with Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's wife, where she was asked, "When you walk down the street and someone calls you a nigger, what do you do?" And she eloquently responded, "I hold my head up high, because I refuse to be a victim of their oppression."

I got it, but it still hurt.

Alex taught me that these are just words and we give power to words. He doesn't understand why I get so riled by these words, but, then again, our experiences are different. I just want a world where children can go to school and sit in class watching the snow fall outside into a blizzard and listening to their teacher read, Help I'm a Prisoner in the Library without praying for a snow day because the kid next to you is hissing "faggot" under his breath... in 4th grade.

Maybe my Dad's to blame because when I was four he knew how much I loved Wonder Woman so he made me a Wonder Woman costume complete with a lasso of truth and I proudly wore it around the house, carrying my raggedy ass baby doll. I never wanted to be a woman. I still don't. Hell, I've never even dressed up as one. I just wanted the opportunity to spread my wings and be whomever my imagination yearned to be. Maybe I wanted to be Dorothy, but I didn't. I was told who I was by those kids and somewhere deep, deep down, I believed it.

That is the real abuse.

Dorothy and Tomato Soup

I'm not mad anymore. I'm way past all of that. I've forgiven those guys and girls that made my life miserable every day for 12 years. In some strange ironic twist, they gave me the strength that I posses today: the strength that got me through my 15 years of recovery, my mother's death and, well, everyday life. Twenty years is a long time to hold on to resentments.

One person has reached out and apologized. That made all the difference, because I realize that we all deserve a second chance - even the bullies.

So today I stood out on our back porch and watched those girls run around the backyard all dressed up and spinning around in the sun, and I envied their childhood. I don't want to dress up as Dorothy, but I do want a world where we can be who we want to be and smile at each other over tomato soup and try to be a little kinder to each other every day.

Because you know, we're on borrowed time as it is.

(Peter's personal blog is Thoughts From the Couch!)

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I stopped teaching for public schools because of the general low quality of many of the teachers and most of the administrators. It was my hope that they had improved since I was in school.
Our schools here in town now have rules against this sort of bullying and the teachers and administrators generally enforce them.
But all in all the quality of the teachers is based on the fact that so many of them just need a job that is hard to lose and the union defends them heavily in Mass. It attracts those who can't make a living in the regular world.

I can certainly sympathize. My junior high classmates seemed to have figured me out long before I did, and they manifested their knowledge in such interesting ways as throwing a bottle at me from a moving car. But by high school, I wasnt about to take any more of that crap -- thank you, Uncle Fritz, for teaching me to stand up for myself. I got into more fights than I care to remember, and it didnt take long for my schoolmates to figure out that it was best not to fuck with me... not unless they asked politely.

Yes, it was a barbaric way of establishing myself, but we're talking the late 60s in the Texas panhandle here, a place where one of the few things people understood was "solutions" like this.

Did it make me a better man? Hell if I know, Peter. But I *can* tell you this: I never once worried about being gay from that day forward. It became a non-issue for me, because I made it very clear that I wasnt about to let it become one. Sure, I still had my share of enemies: a couple of guys couldnt deal with getting beaten up by "the fag". But as far as I was concerned, that was their problem, not mine. No one was gonna steal my life, not without my permission.

Now, having said all this, I can tell you that this is not a solution I recommend for just anyone. It worked for me only because I made it work for me. We all have to find our own way, our own solution. There is no one-size-fits-all. But there is one out there for everyone. No one has to take that kind of bullshit - not you, not your student, no one.

Thank you for this very moving essay. Youth issues are something that resonate for me as well.

kori mika | May 19, 2010 1:19 AM

Very good essay! Thank you for letting us see part of your life and the horror you went through. As for Sean's response, it mirrors somewhat the trauma that I lived through. After being taunted and bullied I did something that I still regret, I learned how to fight. I decided that my fem side could be hidden and that I would act out the part of being a man. I still regret that decision and wish that I had started my transition much sooner in life. I felt that the social pressures were just too great and even if it drove me crazy I would endure acting like a man no matter what!That was better to me then fighting all the time. Something that I've always hated! I was wrong and evenually I would have ended my life rather than continue to live and portray a deception. When people ask why I'm acting like a woman, I can honestly tell them that I'm not acting, the acting was when I tried so hard to stay in denial and "act like a man".

Peter Monn and Alex Paredes Peter Monn and Alex Paredes | May 19, 2010 2:29 AM

When I first posted this on my personal blog I received an alarming comment from one of my readers. "I don’t think the boys with the milk cartons had any special insights. That type of harassment is just something that young boys do."Signed Anthony the News Guy, whoever he is, afraid to post his real name. Upon reading it, I thought! I almost never comment back on my own posts but I couldn't resist. I am only sharing this because I think it's important to understand the ignorance we all, as most of you know, continue to face everyday. My response, "Since I rarely respond to my own posts, let me comment by saying this is a special and much needed response…”That type of harassment is just something that young boys do”, is neither appropriate nor compassionate. I don’t really care if you’ve suffered the same injustices or if you just don’t understand, it doesn’t matter. The post was addressing the fact that small things in our childhoods do have an impact and that we are given the chance for growth through these experiences and forgiveness as we age. My response to you is simply this clip re: Jaheem Herrara from April of 2009…” Jaheem Herrera, a fifth-grader at Dunaire Elementary School in the Atlanta area, hanged himself in his room after enduring extreme daily bullying that included antigay taunts. His 10-year-old sister discovered his body.

Herrera’s mother and stepfather say they were aware of the consistent bullying, although their son tried to hide the extent of it. His mother, Masika Bermudez, complained to the school, reports WSB-TV, and she talked with his best friend about the situation.

“He said, ‘Yes ma’am. He told me that he’s tired of everybody always messing with him in school. He is tired of telling the teachers and the staff, and they never do anything about the problems. So, the only way out is by killing himself,’” Bermudez told WSB-TV.

Jaheem was an excellent student who moved with his family to the Atlanta area last year from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, said stepfather Norman Keene.”

YOU..Anthony the Indianapolis News Guy…be the one to tell these parents, its just something that young boys do…Shalom!

I, of course, signed my name. I no longer have any reason to hide, especially if it means allowing children like Jaheem to cling to my shadows.

for most of my adult life sex had to be fraught with real danger to turn me on. a direct result from being bullied as a kid.

Andrew Conte | May 19, 2010 7:53 AM

Peter,Thanks for sharing your story. Let us keep working for a better world for our children. Keep up the good work

What a moving story. When we're going through it, it feels like there is no one else in the world that feels the way we were made to feel going through all of that abuse. It's only later in life, through stories like yours, that we realize that although we were isolated from each other at the by fear of association, we were not alone.

You were very fortunate to have the safety of home and family to retreat to. As the fourth of six kids, all of whom went through the same school system, I wasn't so lucky. I endured the same abuse at home.

Like you, I am a stronger person because of what I went through. Straight folks will never understand the damage they do. They will never understand what it takes to overcome these childhood traumas.

Some in the straight community say that gays and lesbians think they're better than everyone else. Well, when the people in your life make your childhood a living hell and you somehow work your way through it a day at a time over the course of years or even decades, you do become a stronger, more confident and happier person. If that qualifies as better, so be it.

I've come to the conclusion that bullies are psychic. Because they all seemed to know (and regularly reminded me) before I knew that I was 'queer'.

Years after graduation from high school, one particular little pissant who loved to make fun of me in front on his buddies (and who, I'm sure, probably enjoyed their little afternoon circle jerks after school) walked into a radio studio where I was spinning platters in a glass booth, and introduced his girlfriend to me as "his old buddy".

Ha! Is there a God or what! I was polite, but less than cordial. With friends like him, who needs enemies.

AS GLEE producer Ryan Murphy says, anybody who ever got a wedgie or was called a 'fag!' in school can relate.

I had the last laugh in more ways than one. Why stay mad at those jerks. They're out dancing. As long as you stay mad at them, you're letting them win.

Ron in NY | May 19, 2010 9:21 AM

I forget where I saw or read it, but someone once had the perfect response to being called a 'fag' by a bully.

"And YOU are the alternative?"

Okay, just letting you know right now... I am SO stealing that line! LOL

I told you before, but I'll say it again here for everyone to see. Peter, I think this is one of the best posts you've written. I'd love to see more like this; you do a great job with the personal essay format.

The advantage of being in Catholic schools in the 1960's was that the faculty wouldn't let the bullies get away with it, at least in my case. The (probably gay) nuns and the (probably gay) priests recognized one of their own, and acted like adults and were my defense. Nobody messed with me. (No, these weren't pedophiles, although those were about as well.)

John Rutledge | May 19, 2010 10:07 AM

Thank you! You have touched, moved and inspired me and others I am sure. I read Mitchell Gold's book "Crisis". Your post reminded me of that and refreshed the inspiration I feel to continue my education. I hope to make some kind of impact on other's lives so maybe we can spare some a bit of the pain we felt, that they can know love, safety, and freedom. Thank you for your passion and compassion.

Great post! A lot of people share these experiences.