Guest blog by Mindy Forsythe, author of How My Eleven Year Old Son Taught Me That Having a Gay Character in ‘Train Your Dragon’ is Important
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, so I was told a very long time ago. Today I know that words not only wound and scar; sometimes they leave young people feeling so alone and unloved that they turn to suicide. The LGBT community is sadly and painfully aware of how bullies crush spirits and ruin lives. I know firsthand how gay kids can be driven to suicidal thoughts when attacked by bullies. My son was one such kid. Thankfully, our intervention came in time to save him. His pain etched itself deep into my heart; it was a pain I knew very well.
Middle school involves the most awkward years of growing up when hormones are raging and self confidence is lacking. Those years were a living hell for me . I was quiet and studious with a bad perm and thick glasses and very poor fashion sense. I was being raised by my single mother who worked menial jobs for our survival while living with my grandparents. I was still reeling from the death of my beloved step-father and I was struggling to understand the abandonment of my alcoholic, biological father. I was a constant mess of raw emotion. I listened to the saddest music I could find, read the saddest books I could get my hands on, and wrote dark, soul searching poetry. I was described by the adults in my life as smart, talkative, and mature beyond my years. It was true; I was most comfortable around adults. Around kids my own age, I was a different person altogether.
At school I was painfully shy. I was the kid that walked through the halls with her head down hoping not to be noticed. Grades came easily to me, but I had nothing else…no extracurricular activities whatsoever because I was too afraid to try anything new.
I had few friends, but I did have one very important and special friend. I can’t even remember how we met, but from the moment I met her, I loved her. She was everything I wasn’t. To me, she was confident and beautiful; she played the saxophone and excelled at sports; she intrigued me. She was protective of me, and she knew all of my deepest secrets; she knew my heart. She held me when I cried and listened to me when I talked. She needed me too; she had her own amount of sadness, and she let me in to share her pain. She valued me and told me I was beautiful. When she said it; I believed it. She was the only person that kept me from losing myself to a very dark place. We were inseparable.
Looking back, I see that she was as lost and as vulnerable as I was. Although she was popular and well acquainted in school, our peers teased her relentlessly for her masculine tendencies. Sometimes their teasing was gentle and friendly, but by some people, it was mean and ugly. One time she wrote me a note, and it was signed, “Love you more than a sister.” A girl next to me, who I will refer to here as “Tormentor”, saw the signature and laughed, and a whole new hell engulfed me.
Her laughter was not the giggling, mouth covering, titter of adolescent friendship, but the ugly, hateful, vengeful sneers of hatred and disgust. “You’re gay!”
Her words, or rather the way she spat them at me with such utter disdain, sliced me. I had never even considered that I might be gay. I knew most of our peers suspected my best friend was homosexual. It didn’t matter to me.
I loved my friend with all of my heart. She told me she wasn’t gay even though I suspected she was, but I trusted what she told me to be true. I felt that only she would know.
Now with this sudden accusation towards me, I was 13 years old, and questioning my own sexuality. We had held each other through many nights of tears; I always found her closeness comforting. We often cuddled up for a movie night, but all of my other girlfriends did that too, and they were straight. I knew I loved her intensely, but I had a romantic crush on the eighth grade quarterback. No, I knew I wasn’t gay…even if my best friend was.
Yet, the acidic attack stung me. My world was turned upside down…not because this girl thought I might be gay, but because the daggers she spewed could kill the only person keeping me sane on this scary journey of growing up. I quickly came to assert myself and protect my friend. Something changed for me in that moment. Her words were meant to defeat me, but they helped create me. In that moment, despite being unwilling to reveal what I suspected to be true about my best friend, I became a lifelong LGBT ally. Meanwhile, Tormentor became obsessed with the idea that my friend’s outward expression of love made me gay and rallied her troops against me.
Unfortunately, Tormentor and her posse of followers rode my school bus and got off at the stop just before mine. One day soon after the note reading incident I noticed her crew did not get off at their own stop. I knew what was coming, and it was not going to go well. Sure enough, as I stood to get off at my stop, Tormentor and her lead follower I will call “Lackey” stepped into the aisle. I could feel my heart pounding as I hugged my books to my chest and rushed to make it home before they could attack. My haste was wasted because they were on me before the bus was even out of sight.
I refused to cry. Lackey pushed me…hard. I stumbled back, and she told me to take my glasses off so she could hit me. I snickered and told her she was nuts to think I would remove my glasses SO she could hit me! I wanted to hit her but could not. I found myself feeling sorry for her. Tormentor ran her mouth, but she made no move to help Lackey with her dirty work. Eventually they gave up on trying to get me to fight back. They left and I walked home telling nobody. From that day forward I avoided Tormentor and Lackey as best I could. They still found opportunities to throw obscenities my way, but eventually my lack of response bored them. By my freshman year they had found new targets, and I was safe from their attacks.
As high school unfolded, I found my identity and so did my best friend. We drifted apart. By college she was an out lesbian, and I was married. We reconnected after high school and had lots of good laughs about those tumultuous years of self discovery. Even then however, the memory of the biting words from Tormentor and Lackey made me sad and angry.
It turns out, however, the conversation was not yet over.
Twenty years after our original encounter, Lackey “friend “ requested me on Facebook. I laughed at the thought of her daring to request my friendship! Then I realized we were children when I knew her last. Curiosity got the best of me, and I accepted her request. As I perused her page, I saw that she was married with children and still living in our hometown. Everything on her page looked so peaceful and normal. I laughed at my surprise that she wasn’t a hardened criminal. She was a mom and wife just like myself. Then I got a message from her.
“I don’t know if you remember this, but I do and even if you don’t, I need to apologize for my behavior! This one day we got off the bus at your stop and I was being mean to you for absolutely no reason in this world! I just want you to know that I’ve never forgotten about that and I’m so very sorry for being like that to you. I had no reason to as you have always been so very nice, kind, sweet, and one of the most good-hearted people in this world. I just want you to know I’m sorry. I know it was a long time ago but I’ve thought about it a million times. And why would I do that other than because I was being pressured by Tormentor to do it and prove that I wasn’t afraid to fight someone. Actually, I was afraid, I was and still am NOT the fighting type, it’s just not me. I’m so very, very sorry, again, for my behavior. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me someday! You’re so sweet and have always been nothing but nice to me. I’ve wanted to tell you I’m sorry for years! ”
There it was. Did I remember? Yes, of course I remembered. I remembered so well that I had even shared this story as a teaching tool with my own children, and now here I was filled with emotion, crying my heart out over an apology so long overdue. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. She was scared. She was sorry. She did it because Tormentor told her to. She had never even known about the note! She bullied me because she had been trying as hard as I had been to fit in. I accepted her apology, and as we continued to chat, the news she shared with me left me sobbing deep retching sobs.
Tormentor’s true target was not me at all. It was not my best friend either. Her intense homophobia was for herself. Her own self loathing had eventually become so engulfing that she took her own life widowing her girlfriend and leaving behind a daughter.
My heart shattered for a lost, teenage girl that read a note over my shoulder and much to her own dismay, recognized herself. I became the target so she could send herself a message that she wasn’t the way she was, and by hating me, she would not have to hate herself. She feared herself so intensely that she had forged a war against anyone who represented what was inside her own heart.
My heart broke for her. All I could feel was a sense of mourning for another life that homophobia had taken. I was filled with a new perspective on my past, one colored, now, with forgiveness.
My scars began to heal .
More on Mindy’s story here: The Real True Story About How Parents Adopted Out Their Child When He Told Them He Was Gay
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