Graphic by Mark Julien. CW: mentions of suicide, pejorative language
Words have power. They can bruise and they can cut. Although you cannot see the scars on my skin they are there. I have been carefully and skillfully cut and the word “faggot”, though only visible to me, is etched across my body in thin red lines that sting and burn with recollections of the past. I have a history with that vicious and ugly word; a history that I wish to share with you in the hopes that sharing my past will help to strip that word of its power.
So where do I begin? How did this awful word become so entrenched in my life?
Well, my relationship with that word began in 1982 when I was enrolled in a Catholic middle school for grades 7 and 8 students. Transition to middle school, that year had not been an easy one for me. A friend that I had been extremely close to in elementary school had decided, for some unknown reason, that he no longer wanted to be my friend and I started my grade 7 year alone and adrift, looking for a place to belong. While at that time in my life I didn’t identify as being gay, I did feel as though I was somehow different from the other boys in my grade. They seemed more interested in having a girlfriend than I was and I didn’t share their passion for sports, choosing instead to devote my time to more artistic pursuits.
Though I longed to have a group of guy friends to hang out with, I spent most of that year alone. Early on I remember being drawn to a very handsome and popular boy in my class. We sat together in homeroom and, though we did not hang out after school or in the schoolyard, I felt as though we were developing a friendship. One day, unfortunately, we had a misunderstanding. He caught me giggling with a girl in our class. For some reason, he got the idea in his mind that we were laughing at him and, though I tried to reassure him that we were not, he refused to be convinced. Our burgeoning friendship was crushed.
After our quarrel, the boy decided to turn his many friends against me. Because of his popularity, his influence spread throughout our entire grade and I soon became ostracized and unwelcome. For the first time in my young life, I felt hopeless. I felt as if I would be alone and isolated forever and, with the earnestness and heightened emotions of an adolescent, I began to feel as if there was something wrong with me. A belief I’m afraid I never fully discounted until years later when I met and was loved by my husband, Stacy.
For Christmas that year our teacher organized a secret Santa gift exchange for our class. Excited to take part in this ritual, I purchased a giant candy cane for my secret classmate. On the last day of school before Christmas holidays, our class exchanged our gifts. Turns out there were many giant candy canes that day but, despite my unoriginality, the person whose name I got was thrilled with their gift. When it came time for me to open my gift, I found that there was no gift for me to open. Upset, I remember returning to my seat, reassuring myself that there must have been some sort of mistake; that perhaps my name had been omitted from the draw.
Alone at my desk, I watched my classmates laugh, joke and celebrate with one another. The boy that I had quarreled with, the one that I secretly wished was my friend, broke away from the rest of the class and approached my desk with a medium-sized gift in his hand. My heart raced. Setting it down before me he let me know that he was my secret Santa.
Examining the gift placed in front of me, I soon realized it was unlike any other gift received that day. The paper was crumpled, torn and dirty. There was no bow or tag and the package itself was dented and misshapen. It was clear to me that the gift had been abused and mistreated. With shaking hands and teary eyes, I reluctantly tore into the soiled paper to find a box of broken candy canes. The boy’s friends, later, would rejoice in telling me that they had played street hockey with my gift on the way to school that morning. But the boy, in that key moment, gave no explanation for the state of my present.
Noticing the tears in my eyes, the boy apologized and assured me that he would replace the mangled gift. Wanting to save face, and let him off the hook, I replied that he did not have to, that the candy canes would only get broken when I ate them anyway. I never let him know how much he hurt me that day and never spoke about this to anyone. When the day ended and my classmates exited the room I simply slipped the broken candy canes into the trash on my way out the door.
I remember thinking during the Christmas holidays that perhaps the boy had had a change of heart that day. That perhaps his apology was a turning point and that he would treat me differently once we returned to school. To my disappointment, however, I was treated only with more hatred and isolation when I returned after the winter break. It was after the break, in fact, that the boys at my school began to refer to me as a faggot.
That word followed me through middle school and all the way until my last years in high school. I would hear it shouted at me in the hallways and, in stolen moments, behind the backs of teachers, whispered about me in the classroom. For the longest time, no one came to my aid, no one was my champion and I, in defiance, just held my head up high and pretended like that word had no effect on me. It did. The truth is, in my sad and lonely reality that word began to define me.
By the time I got to high school, in my heart of hearts, I began to suspect that I was actually gay. Although consciously I would never admit it to myself I would occasionally find myself crushing over some guy. When this happened I would explain my feelings away by telling myself I was lonely and in need of a friend while, in actuality, I wanted much more than just friendship. I wanted a boyfriend. In the end, I just ignored those feelings and pushed them away. In my mind, everyone in my peer group hated me because they thought that I was a faggot and the only way that I would ever be happy was to prove them all wrong. I wish I could have had the strength back then to be true to myself, but years of being alone and bullied had me frightened and convinced that I must distance myself from any and all things gay.
When I finally found my peer group during my last years of high school, the years of bullying had taken their toll on me. Not wanting to be excluded again, and extremely afraid to lose my newly acquired friends, I chose to express my heterosexuality in any way I could. It had been drilled into my head that being gay was wrong and I was determined never to be perceived that way again.
You would think that after being bullied and called a faggot for so many years I would have loathed using that terrible word on anybody else. But during my last year in high school, I used it in anger to hurt someone. A young man who was openly gay got into a heated and very public argument with me one day. Wishing to win the argument, I reached for the one word that I knew from experience would shut him down. Before that word was even out of my mouth I regretted saying it, but I refused to take it back.
I wonder now if my victim had the same relationship that I myself had with that word. I hope to hell that it did not scar him but can only assume, based on my own experience, that it did. Regrettably, I was in self-preservation mode, convinced if I accused him of being a faggot no one would dare point the finger at me.
I wish I could apologize to that person. I wish I could let him know that I carry similar scars, and the word I used that day to hurt him has hurt me as well. Part of me hurt him that day because I wanted someone else to feel the pain that I had endured. I wanted someone else to know what I felt like. For what its worth, and I know it isn’t enough, I have never used that word to hurt anyone else.
I have a complicated relationship with the word “faggot”. It scars me not just because it was used against me. It scars me because I was frightened, confused and willing to use it against other people in a misguided attempt to protect myself. Though I may be a victim I am far from innocent. I am human. I have made mistakes and have sadly victimized others and for that, I will be forever penitent. Life has taught me, however, that things are rarely black or white and though we like to pretend that we are the hero in our story sometimes, in the stories of other people, we take on the role of the villain.
I have tangled with my share of villains and bullies over the years. Those that made regular use of the word “faggot” and those that have just taken advantage of the scars that word has left behind. We all have scar tissue though; words that wound and trigger us, thin red lines that mar our skin and dominate our memories of the past. For most of my life I have chosen to hate the bullies that have tormented me; remembering them in the ugliest of light, seeing only their negative qualities, and despising them for the way that they made me feel.
About a year ago, however, something changed the way I feel about those hurtful people from my past. It made me realize that I never understood their motivations at all and, in the saddest of ways, took some of the sting away from that nasty word. I found out that the handsome and popular young boy who once gifted me a mangled box of broken candy canes all those years ago had taken his life.
That tragic news left me reeling. All my life I thought I hated that boy. But when I found out the horrible news, that hatred began to fade away. He was not, it appears, so different from me. He was not a monster. It is obvious that he had his own scars, his own pain. I can’t help but wonder if he had a word etched across his body that only he could see. A word spoken from cruel lips meant to both label and diminish him. A different word than mine but one with the same awful power to both hurt and degrade.
Perhaps he hurt me because he wanted someone else to feel the pain that he had to endure. Perhaps his cruelty was a form of self-preservation. Whatever the reason, I wish that I could have told him that I am no stranger to emotional pain or self-hatred. I wish my adult self could have looked into his adult eyes and told him that I understood. I wonder if it would have made a difference for him to know that, through it all, I always secretly just wanted to be his friend.