I spent a lot of time contemplating the topic for my first Bilerico post. I wanted to write something uplifting and light in order to introduce myself to you. But the rash of suicides of gay youth this week have weighed heavily on my heart, just as they have on many of yours. I find myself thinking about the young people who have died as I'm eating dinner, writing sermons, or doing laundry.
Tonight I was thinking about them as I prepared for a conference call with two friends whose marriage I am performing next week. I've been moved by the "It Gets Better" campaign launched by Dan Savage because of its combination of utter simplicity and undeniable hope. As I prepared to plan a joyous event with a happy and wonderful couple, I couldn't help thinking about the fact that at least four young men would never be able to experience a celebration like this.
Whether all four young men were gay or not is something we don't know. But we do know that all four were targeted because they were at least suspected to be gay. Bullies harassed them to the point where they believed life was no longer worth living. And, after enduring hell on earth, they made a choice to not be with us anymore.
Many of my LGBTQ friends faced bullying in their teens. It's something I've talked about as a pastor for a long time. But it's not something I have talked about in regards to my own experience until fairly recently. Bullying breaks down your spirit so much that you start to think you deserve it. You begin to feel guilty, like you're the one responsible for what is being done to you. You start to think that you should be ashamed that you were bullied.
I felt that way for years. I never spoke about it, even with those I trusted most. But a few months ago I was sitting with several friends and one was talking about how her daughter, a young woman who is the same age now as I was back then, was being bullied at school because people thought she was gay. For one of the first times in my life I talked about being bullied. It's amazing that now, almost twenty years after the fact, it irrationally still caused me incredible shame, embarrassment and pain to think about it.
In the ninth grade at Winter Park High School, I met my bullies. I was 14. I was undeniably butch. I was the sort of kid you look at and know that they are struggling to come out. It was a town with a strongly religious feeling in the South. Our fundamentalist school principal allowed anti-gay literature to be passed out in the hallways. It was no wonder that I was afraid of who I was deep inside.
When the two bullies started in one me, I didn't know what to do. I was so ashamed of being called "gay" or being asked, "Are you a dyke?" that I didn't want to tell anyone what was happening. One teacher heard the comments and did nothing. She was my only hope, and she stood by and let it continue. I was too scared to tell my parents or anyone else at the school what was happening.
I thought that my life was not worth living. Thank God I didn't do anything to end it, but I understand those who feel as though they have no choice. I look back now and understand how easily things could have gone the other way for me. I think about all that I would have missed had I decided to let the bullies claim a final victory.
Like Dan Savage says, it gets better. By the time I graduated from high school, the bullies were long gone. I was gradually coming to terms with being gay. I was surrounded by friends who, I came to find out, loved me no matter what.
When I got to college I came out. Despite the fact it was 1994 in the deep South, I found acceptance. My classmates elected me repeatedly to student government. I marched for LGBTQ rights and found a community of people just like me. I found nothing but support from my parents, love from my friends, and hope from people who believed in me. It was the exact opposite of all the fears I had had as a freshman in high school.
Today I'm a minister in the United Church of Christ, a denomination which fully welcomes LGBTQ people. I have friends who are truly my chosen family. I have opportunities that I could not have imagined as a 14 year old kid. And I have hope.
But when I hear about yet another gay, or suspected-to-be-gay, kid taking his or her own life, I remember what it was to be 14 and afraid. I remember what it was to think that my future would hold nothing but misery. I remember wondering whether life was worth living.
If you are a young LGBTQ person reading this and thinking about ending your life, please know it gets better. I promise. You will do things that you can't even imagine yet. You will meet amazing people. You will have incredible experiences. You will live in a world that is better than you can believe. You just have to choose to stick around, even though it might suck now.
If you're being bullied, talk to a teacher you trust. Talk to your parents if you can. (You might be surprised. In retrospect the one thing I wish I had done differently is to tell my parents what was happening. I know now that they would have done anything they could have to support me.) Find a gay-friendly clergy member who will support you. (The UCC, MCC or Episcopal Church are all good places to start.) Find a youth outreach program. Or call the Trevor Project at (866) 4-U-Trevor. Do anything except hurting yourself. The bullies do not get to erase your right to have a long, happy, exceptional life.
When I made that call to finalize the details of my friends' wedding tonight, they told me that they wanted to add one more piece. Like me, they were wrestling with celebrating in the midst of so much pain and loss in our community. They asked that at the beginning of the ceremony we add a moment of silence for all of those who have lost their lives because of homophobia and hate. Together we will remember all the people who should have been able to be there that day to see how great life can be if you can just make it through. I wish every LGBTQ youth in this country could get a chance to see a wedding like theirs, and to know that life can be that awesome.
Until that day, the ball is in our court. Those of us who have lived through bullying because of our sexual orientation or gender identity have a duty to speak up about what we endured. We have an obligation to work against bullying, and to support LGBTQ students who are being bullied. And, most of all, we have the privilege of being able to show youth that there is something better. Because it does get better.