This is not the first message I've received of its kind, but it was the latest and one of the more lengthy. Now, a bit of backstory. I come from a very small town, boasting a population of 585 as of 2004 when I graduated high school. I graduated with a class of around 62 kids. I say 'around', because I'm not honestly sure how many kids technically graduated with me. Between drop outs and transfers the number of kids in the yearbook and the number of kids that graduated and the number of kids that got held back or whatever myriad reason you want to choose the number is vague. Either way...the number is small. Over half of those 60-some-odd kids were there with me in kindergarten on the same campus.
I have one of the more typical growing-up-gay-in-a-small-town-in-the-south stories. Very few people. Lots and lots of Jesus.9 baptist churches. Even more of other denominations. Theatre. Theatre camp. Band. Band camp. Poetry. Diaries. Artsy. Too feminine to pass as straight. Not feminine enough to - as the gays these days say - have a purse fall out of my mouth. Love of divas. Secret crushes on boys that not-so-secretly treated me like shit. Name calling. Physical altercations. Teachers that encouraged and/or participated. Death threats. Public humiliation. Suicidal thoughts. Prayers to whatever god I thought would listen to wake up dead or straight. Can't tell which would have been worse in retrospect.
I wish that life were like teen movies. Movies in general, really. I wish that I could tell you who made my life hell. I wish I could say, "Life would have been fine in high school had Billy Turnbuckle fallen off the face of the earth." But, there was no Billy Turnbuckle. There was no one person. There was a culture of fear and revilement of the 'other', and being a feminine theatre nerd who literally surprised zero people when he came out of the closet definitely fell into my small town's 'other' camp. So, there was no one villain. The villain was small town fear. I know that now. I know as a grown adult with distance and time between that fragile little boy who dreamed of disappearing. There were many people who said many, many awful things to me, about me, and around me.
Once, after news broke out of yet another school shooting, there were parents who tried to get me thrown out of school, because their children had bullied me so much they were afraid that I might eventually snap and kill their children, too. They recognized I was being bullied and ostracized, and rather than helping, they wanted to divest themselves of me. Get rid of the inconveniently ostentatiously gay child. As I've grown older, even more stories have come out. Former teachers of mine apparently used to talk much more shit about me to other teachers and parents than I ever knew, absolutely further encouraging violence and bullying - both verbal and cyber - both directly and indirectly. I had it coming, after all, for being infected with the gay.
There is a large part of who I am as an adult that is very much influenced by the fact that, for nearly 2 decades of life, I was scared. I was scared to go to school. I was scared of this thing inside of me that felt like cancer and contagion and some indefinable thing that was somewhere between shame and apology. I was angry, because nobody else had to deal with something like this...something they couldn't apparently control, but according to the preachers and therapists and townsfolk what I had should have been very easy to control. Much of how I view the world and respond to situations - both personal and hot topics in culture - is directly informed by that fragile little boy who sits, scarred and not-healing, behind a very thick wall of time and self-defense.
I graduated high school, as I said, in 2004. It's been almost exactly 12 years since then. About 1/3 of the way through that time, thanks to the advent of social media and my very small town being very small, I started to receive apologies. Not many, and it's not like there was some great flood of apologies at some point over the years, but I've received enough to know the formula.
Dear Guy I Beat Up/Called Names/Spread Rumors About,
Boy I was a real dick to you in high school. Now that I'm an adult, I know gay people aren't bad. I saw this story on Facebook/the news/overheard at a cafe about how this bully reached out to the gay guy he bullied and it inspired me to reach out to you.
I'm really sorry I was a shitbag to you, but...man...kids are cruel.
Anyways, hope you're good. Boy, do I feel so much better after forgiving myself for being a total fuckface.
Someone Who Actually Thinks This Is How Forgiveness Works
Needless to say, I have some feelings about these letters. At first I wanted to participate in this culture of forgiveness. We are told that when someone asks for forgiveness, you're kind of an asshole if you don't give it. I mean...that's the narrative, isn't it? Let's all be "adults" and forgive one another, and if the victim of your decades of abuse doesn't particularly feel forgiving then they're the ones who have the problem. They're the ones who haven't grown up. They're the ones acting like children. Who need to understand forgiveness. Who need to understand that you've already forgiven yourself after you saw an Upworthy video and you're feeling pretty good about reaching out to the gay kid from your hometown and doing the right thing.
There is a real part of me that still has nightmares about high school. Actual wake up in the middle of the night screaming nightmares. Nightmares that make my husband have to wake me up and tell me I'm safe. I don't know how memory works for everyone else, but mine is pretty vivid. I remember that I was the one who got corporal punishment and detention when one guy tripped me and busted my head on a filing cabinet while calling me a faggot...but I yelled "fuck" after the injury because it hurt like fuck so the teacher punished me for disrupting class. I remember the teachers that picked up whatever the new name kids were using as a verbal punching glove at the time and calling me that in front of the entire class and then telling me I needed to grow a pair and stop being sensitive when I started crying. I remember crying. I remember crying. I remember begging god to wake up dead and straight. Crying. I remember wanting to die. Planning to die.
But you watched an Upworthy video, and I'm older now, and I'm in a place and surrounded by people that have assured me that who I am isn't going to send me on a bus ride to hell...so let's be adults and just forget all that, right?
There are scars that will never heal. I will never get back the 13 years I spent locked inside that school, inside that culture of fear.
I don't like feeling this way. I want to be one of those people with a clear bully and a clear story and a clear arc of forgiveness, but my story isn't like that. It wasn't one person. It was a network, a web. It was everyone. It was the not-so-subtle prayers at church. It was the unconscious agreement that everyone had that it was perfectly safe and acceptable to treat me as something inhuman. And, I'm not at all sorry that I think an apology for that much hurt and that much damage should be more than a Facebook message over a decade after the fact. That town and a lot of people in it took something from me: my ability to grow up as a normal kid and do normal kid stuff and have normal kid memories.
And I realize that a part of me puts the full scope of my small town experience on the individual messaging me about their regretted wrongs. I realize that's not fair in the microcosm. I think I have been the bigger person in many situations that called for it. I think I've done a lot of work and healing, and I think I'll probably be working on healing for the rest of my life. But that is my story.
I am not your Upworthy story. I am not your Facebook post. I am not the story you get to tell your Sunday school class about how you reached out to the sinner and got forgiveness. I am not your absolution. You were not the victim here. You don't get to feel good. I am a facade of an adult housing a scarred little boy inside a stitched together shell Gorilla Glued together with bits of time and distance. I have to remind myself everyday that I am worthy of love and friendship and remind myself to trust other people sometimes and that being gay shouldn't be the topic we talk around at Thanksgiving dinner. And...if you're not going to become part of my ongoing healing...if you're looking for digitally obtained absolution...if a Facebook meme or viral video made you feel guilty... Sorry, but I'm not going to be your Forgiveness Porn.
I sign off acknowledging the immense irony of the words...
Love and Lyte,