My story begins in 7th grade.
But let me be clear. I don’t simply mean that a story I happen to be about to tell began in 7th grade. I mean my story. I mean the story that is me. I mean, take away this story, and you would no longer recognize me.
I grew up healthy and happy. I was outside a lot—running, climbing trees, throwing footballs, being a kid. I did well in school. I was active, secure, confident, and had a good number of friends. I felt basically free to be and to do whatever I set my mind to. But in 7th grade, I moved to a new state and that’s when the bullying began.
The first years of my life were cloaked in the protection of youth and innocence and—most importantly—familiarity. The friends I had at the end of 6th grade were basically the same friends I had made when I was in 2nd grade—when kids were just a bit more kind. And this was important considering my disadvantages. I was small, dorky, sheltered, dressed terribly, was entering this new district with no friends, and had a bit of a speech problem.
Today, I could anticipate how that combination might be problematic for a boy entering a new school district at that age. If I had known then what I know now, I could have masked much of it and gotten by. But remember I’m 12 at the start of this story, and I didn’t yet know what cruelty waited out there. No idea did I have what an obvious target I would be, not to mention the deep psychological need for many of these children to exploit obvious targets.
Really, there are several cruel parts of this story, but the whole thing might have been avoided were it not for this next one. I took the bus to school each morning, and my bus stop was the second to last one on the route. This meant that each morning by the time the bus got to my stop, I had to find someone who would share their seat. However, like I said, I was a confident child and found it more exciting than worrisome. I had no doubt that someone would not only let me sit by them, but probably become my friend once they got to know me—until this morning.
“Don’t sit by me, faggot,” the first kid said.
Those words surprised me, but didn’t cause me to lose my composure. I probably wanted to avoid sitting by that kid anyway, so I moved on to the next seat. And that’s when, for the first time in my life, I experienced what I’m going to call and elaborate on in this essay as “the wave.”
“Yeah, don’t sit by me, faggot,” said the next kid, who had heard that from the kid ahead of him and decided it was in his best interest to just keep it going. A small tremor in my insides began to develop, but I still kept my composure and just moved on.
“Don’t sit by me, faggot,” said the next kid.
And this kept happening.
“Don’t sit by me, faggot.”
It happened again.
Until finally I reached the end of the bus, and literally every person had channeled this momentum of energy that was set in motion at the front. I reached the end of seats and was the only child still looking for one. This was bad enough, when the bus driver inadvertently turned the dial up yet further. She hollered back at me to take a seat, which only had the effect of drawing more attention to what a defenseless soul I was. “No one will let me sit next to them,” I had to loudly announce to her and me and every boy and girl in between. And this too was bad enough, when the bus driver finally dialed it to the 10 when she forced one of the kids to let me sit by them. It’s one thing to know you are helpless and pathetic. Her “rescue” made it known to everyone else.
Everybody goes through challenging social situations and rejections. I’m not unique in this way. What you need to understand though is this was basically my every day for several years. I really mean that. The only question was which boy or girl would have the misfortune of having to sit by the gross gay kid.
And word that I was gay reached only the entire school, meaning the harassment followed me even when I got off the bus. Boys felt free to push me around, which honestly was the easy part. It got harder with words. I would walk by a group of boys when one of them would start laughing, cover their crotch area, and say, “Don’t you come over here so you can look at my dick.” Then they would slowly uncover that area and continue with, “I know that’s what you want!” It was hilarious to everyone but me, and the routine would make it to the next group. It became a thing. It became the thing to do when that gross kid named Chris came around. Like the bus thing, this became a thing. Not to mention all the other things that became things.
This is the wave.
Recall that I was a confident and happy child. Before that critical day on the bus, I was as confident and happy and carefree as any parent could hope for, and I continued that way for a while. But I lost all of it not long after. You can handle only so much piled on collective adversity. You can handle only so much dedicated opposition. Like what happened on the bus, ridicule moved in waves. And no amount of cleverness can stop a thing like that. I lost my ability—and, perhaps more importantly, confidence—to defend myself. Every time I was around anybody, especially other kids my age, I became overwhelmed with an anxiety I’d not yet known. Every morning before school I felt like my stomach and esophagus had collapsed in. When I could hear the bus coming around the corner, I would notice my heart rate accelerate until it arrived when my hands were visibly shaking.
But there’s a part to this story I haven’t told you. If you didn’t know me already, it’s possible that you might assume I’m gay. Why else would the whole school make fun of me for being gay if I wasn’t? Here’s the thing:
I’m not gay;
Nor was I gay then;
Nor have I ever been gay;
I’ve never wondered if I was gay;
I couldn’t make myself gay if I tried.
And this brings me to my first point.
Today, if someone wanted to insult me, and the word they chose was “gay,” my first concern would be their warped thinking that led to using that word as an insult. I might be inclined to respond with something like “and so what if I was?” I wish that was my reaction then, and I’m starting my series this way because it’s important that we talk about why it wasn’t. My concern was not about the darkness within them and their families or the wave that beats up against the LGBT community every day.
My real concern was that people might think I was gay.
Because, as different as I was from my bullies, we shared one assumption: Nothing in the world could be worse than to be gay. Nothing could be worthy of more shame. That word was a toxic weapon, and we both understood it. My first point is that it’s worth asking where that comes from. As more of my friends have braved the world and come out as LGBT, I’ve put a lot of thought into that question. I think you should too.
And this gets to my second point. As much as I desired for everyone to know that I wasn’t gay, this was the power of fighting against a wave—I could not do it. You get beaten down enough times by standing at the receiving end of the wave, and soon enough you will lose all power to stand up for yourself. This was my experience.
LGBT youth have been found to be about four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. They suffer much higher rates of depression. They descend into drug abuse at a much higher rate. You the reader need to let this affect you.
As I tell you my story, I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to grow up as one of these remarkable children. There are countless things that actual LGBT youth experience that I’ve never had to. I never had to worry about coming out to my family, coming out to my church, or coming out to anyone. I’ve never had to worry about what coming out would mean for me when I applied for my first job. I’ve never had to worry whether teachers might assign lower grades. I never had to worry about whether my desires reflected something wrong with me. I’ve never had to worry about whether my attractions were dirty. I’ve never had to wonder if I was an abomination to God. Not to mention whether the desires I had always known would lead me to burn in fire for eternity.
That’s a lot for a kid to worry about, and I didn’t experience any of it. Yet, the small amount I did experience was enough to appreciate the parts I didn’t experience. And to cultivate over years a healthy dose of constructive anger.
This gets me to my third point. We have to deal with what various writers of the Bible—in particular, Paul—say about gays. In this series, I will deconstruct much of how you understand your Bible. It will take a lot of time and a lot of words. But if I’m going to ask you to take that time and risk, first I need you to see what’s at stake here. I need you to care about changing your mind. I need part of you to want to. That’s why I tell my humiliating story.
I wish mine was the story of how one day I got a taste of what gay teenagers go through and next thing you know it I was a champion for LGBT equality.
Actually for almost twenty years I continued to believe that anyone who practiced homosexuality was living in sin. I thought I was being faithful by affirming horrifying things like God loves gay people, but cannot accept those who practice homosexuality until they repent of their sin. After all, I had a Bible, and the adults in my life could point me to what Paul said. To Leviticus. To the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I never liked that practicing gays and lesbians had no chance to “be saved,” but I always took pride in how the logical part of me overcame the emotional part of me.
(Fundamentalist Christians are trained from an early age to take pride that when the world opposes you, it’s because you are the logical one and they are simply emotional).
But, while my opinion on what God thinks about his LGBT children took a long time to change, what grew quickly was my understanding of the wave. Waves become a real source of energy and power. They take on their own spirit and become a kind of life form. Where you see systematic injustice, you are seeing a bigger version of what I saw on the school bus.
But it’s hard to see the waves that you yourself ride. In fact, I ride the great big wave of white male privilege. I can identify it because I’ve been the one being beaten by a different wave. But most white males (and I am an extremely white male) assume that their lives are the baseline by which to compare the life chances of all other people.
We also greatly fear getting off of our wave. This is to lose all power. It is painful. It is totally vulnerable. It is terrifying deep in your bones. It is debilitating. It is paralyzing. Every single child on that bus who chose to join the school bus wave subconsciously understood this. They saw the benefit and solidarity of joining the wave, so they did from front to back.
So when, much later in life, I left my early bubble and befriended gays and lesbians, there had formed a pocket in my brain that had become receptive to the phenomenon of waves—how they form, those who ride them, and those who are hit by them. And when the good people I came to know didn’t match the out-of-control caricatures I’d been saturated with in churches, I began to see them as everything I hope to be: compassionate, funny, interesting, driven, intelligent, imperfect like everyone, but good. Not that it matters, but most of time I didn’t know that a person was gay until much later. Once I began to couple my friendships with knowledge of their difficult circumstances, I began to see a wave I could not ignore.
There came a point when I could no longer deny that the Bible—or at least how we read the Bible—was essential to the waves that crash against the LGBT community in the 21st century. After years of searching, I became convinced that what many understand is a high view of the Bible actually is the thing that robs it of most of it power. Most churches think that affirming “hard truths” about the LGBT community is faithfulness to the “clear authority” of scripture. It’s not.
That gets me to my final point.
Suppose I’m wrong. Maybe God cannot accept a man who enters into a committed relationship with another man. Maybe it’s fire and brimstone for eternity for two women who devote their all to one another. Maybe I’m just a soft liberal who reads into the Bible only what’s easy and convenient and politically correct. Maybe Jesus’s words, “peace be still,” can calm the waves of the Sea of Galilee but not the waves experienced daily by LGBT teenagers. Maybe, after all, that’s what the Bible is teaching. If that’s what you want to argue, I can show you how to open up your Bible and do it.
But if you’re wrong, you’re just part of a wave.