It has been extremely upsetting to learn of the many teen suicides across the country in recent months - especially those driven to taking their own lives by bullies taunting the young people for being gay, or just presuming them to be gay. The words or actions of bullies can be extremely nasty weapons.
Photo by Daniel Macías, Lanterna Photography © 2010
In recent weeks many men and women have joined in the YouTube It Gets Better Project campaign initiated by writer and activist Dan Savage - someone I met when I lived in Seattle years ago. I initially considered making my own video. However, surprised by the emotions brought up by memories of childhood bullying, I've opted to make my feelings known in writing.
I was bullied a great deal as a kid in grade school. A skinny, gangly, bookish, uncoordinated and sensitive boy, I was about as non-athletic as anyone could be. I was that kid always picked last to be on any team. It seemed to be even worse that I was artistic. The combination of traits led to me often being called a sissy, fag, queer, homo and other demeaning or derogatory terms. Initially, I didn't even know what most of the words meant, but the manner in which they were delivered made the names incredibly hurtful. Occasionally the actions of bullies turned physical in the form of playground fights and once in a while I'd even get in a good return punch or two. Most often I just walked, or ran, away from the confrontation, feeling kind of worthless.
My parents knew little of what was going on in school. I never told them. I had great allies in a few good friends and my sister, who is one year younger. Some amazing teachers either knew or sensed what I was going through and offered valuable support throughout my school years. I found solace and personal pride in writing and artwork. I even won my first art award for a grade school painting.
It gets better.
In junior high school, instead of focusing on the ongoing actions of bullies, I directed my energies to the things I did best: art, writing, biking and even running. I was good at running - away from bullies and perhaps issues in my own life. When I went running or biking I had no cares in the world. No one could hurt me. No one could get to me. I detested P.E. in school, but my track running times caught the attention of the high school cross-county coach. He asked me to tryout for the high school team, but my heart just wasn't in it. Besides, some of my potential teammates were the same guys who continued to refer to me as a sissy, fag, queer and homo.
I was very good when it came to art. People began to take notice of my abilities. My art was shown in exhibitions, won awards and I had the first one-man shows of my work while I was in junior high. I was able to sell my drawings in galleries and at art fairs. My writing skills led to the enjoyable task of writing for the junior high newspaper. Putting my energy into personal passions boosted my confidence and resulted in some degree of respect from a few previous tormentors.
There were still a few bullies making aspects of my life a bit of a hell. I could never understand why these guys found it necessary to go out of their way to be so mean to me, when I had little or no interest in their lives. The continued teasing and taunting had an incredibly negative impact. As a teen I was already going through so much and didn't know how to deal with the name-calling, especially the gay slurs. I wasn't really sure what being gay was, but I knew I didn't want to be whatever it was. In the darkness of night, I would cry myself to sleep and pray that I wasn't gay. I was probably 13 or 14, and beaten up emotionally, when I first contemplated taking my own life; trying to figure out a way that would not leave a mess for someone to clean up after - still trying to be the perfect, tidy, best little boy in the world. Luckily, I never figured out such a method. I also never told anyone of the thoughts I was having.
It gets better.
The transition to a large high school was not easy. There were new bullies to be battled. However, the opportunities to thrive increased as well. I was never going to be a high school athletic star, so I again focused on my strengths and personal interests. There were also attentive friends, teachers and counselors with whom I could confide when problems, or particularly nasty situations, arose.
I became one of the "go to" students whenever art was needed for a school project. My writing again resulted in working on the school newspaper. Activities such as student government provided additional confidence building. In fact, my confidence had increased so much that I was able to personally take on a bully of a different type - a teacher.
An instructor in the art department had created an unpleasant situation. It seemed like a constant battle in attempting to please this individual. When she told me I "wasn't doing my painting right," I decided to stand up for myself. I explained to school administrators that there could not be a "right" and "wrong" in art - and they agreed. I became the first student put on independent study in art; allowing me to explore many art disciplines and begin my path to a life-long career.
The newfound confidence led to many other accomplishments. There were additional art shows and honors. I was named one of two editors of the nationally recognized school paper. At the end of my senior year I was selected "Boy of the Year" and received several college scholarships. Although I was battling some personal inner demons, I was no longer dealing with bullies. In fact, I surprisingly found myself calling some bullies on their shit when they choose to pick on younger students.
It gets better.
College offered incredible opportunities for personal growth and expanding my horizons. Every young adult should have the chance to experience such freedom. The negative aspects of grade school, junior high and parts of high school seemed to have taken place in a previous lifetime. Had I carried out any earlier thoughts of ending my life, I would have never been able to experience the joy I found in studying art, design and journalism in college.
However, I did occasionally struggle with the personal issue of my sexuality - and the taunts of past bullies would resurface. A favorite uncle being banished from the family, for surprisingly asking to bring his same-sex partner to a holiday event, made me realize that I could never travel down the path I seemed to question. Family was much too important to me to risk being an outcast myself.
For many years I lived the life I felt I was expected to live. I would be 29 years old before I could acknowledge, to myself and others, that I was a gay man.
It gets better.
There will always be bullies in life. However, as I learned late in high school, with confidence in yourself and your abilities, you don't have to put up with their crap. You do have the ability to stand up to such individuals, express faith in yourself, make the most of allies, and move your life in the best direction for you as an individual. For me, being different is a positive attribute - not a negative.
My first real job after college was as the art director for a group of medical publications. After an incredible bossed moved on to a better job, a woman was hired to oversee my department. I suspect her own insecurities about her abilities in the position led to her being a bully in dealing with staff. I was having none of it. One day I overheard her yelling at my assistant and actually calling him a "liar." I'd had enough. I walked into her office, literally stuck my finger in her face and said, "We don't talk to people like that around here." I was as stunned as she, but no one should have to put up with what she had been doing for weeks. I then went to my office and wrote my letter of resignation. The company administrators couldn't understand that I had not been offered another job - I simply was not going to work in a situation with such a bully. As I was walking out the door the receptionist said there was a call for me. It was a former client asking if I had time to take on a contract design job for several months.
In 1985, I finally acknowledged I was gay and came out to family, friends and co-workers at the ad agency where I was an art director. For the most part all were very supportive. In my time at the agency I'd heard the owner make a few homophobic remarks to others - bringing back memories of the bullies of my youth. Although not surprised by his personal attitude, I was not prepared for him to call me into his office to tell me my services were no longer needed, as he was "taking his business in a different direction." At my farewell party, co-workers told me the agency principal was taking his company in a "straighter direction" and was "uncomfortable having a gay man in the office." I'd lost my job because I was gay. I was stunned, but vowed to never again allow myself to be put in such a situation.
I opted to simply be honest and open about the fact I was gay. Never again would I allow someone else, especially bullies, to use my sexuality or their hateful homophobic words against me. Pro bono work for AIDS organizations, and causes supportive of gays and lesbians, lead to a great deal of design work for businesses and groups in the LGBT community.
My gay-themed work was displayed proudly in my portfolio of work. If someone choose to not work with me because I was gay, that was just fine with me. I most likely would not want to work with them either. The positive impact of my personal stand was amazing. Potential clients often contacted me specifically because I was gay, or had done work for gay organizations. Often those contacting me would mention that they had a gay son, daughter, sibling, grandchild or friend. Over the years, I received many emails from gay teens around the country; pleased to learn they were not alone in their hopes for a successful business life while being openly gay.
Such design efforts lead to being asked to serve on the founding board of a local organization for businesses owned by gays, lesbians and supportive individuals. With the anti-gay Oregon Ballot Measure 9 campaign in full swing, I agreed to be the public face for gay and lesbian business owners in a Portland television station interview. And then came the death threat voice mails on my answering machine. Bullies again.
These bullies were taken a bit more seriously than those of the past. Pleased that I already lived in a security loft building, police officers suggested that I not walk anywhere by myself. Friends, neighbors and clients expressed their concern and support. Luckily, in the volatile political climate of the time, I was not the victim of greater anger, hatred and violence as experienced by some others in the state. Still, I did not live my life in a fear defined by bullies. The bullies did not win.
It DOES get better.
Today, I have an incredible life. After 32 years, my design career continues to be a successful and wonderful ride. I've received a ridiculous number of awards - many for gay-themed work - and my designs appear in over 140 books. I've written many articles for design publications. In the last six years a book I wrote about having a career in graphic design and another about identity and branding have been published. A third is in progress, with more in the planning stages. Each year I speak about design, marketing and social networking to design school, high school, university and business organization audiences around the country. I even taught a week-long class at a design and innovation college in Mexico this past summer.
Most importantly, I have an incredible personal life. My partner, Ed Cunningham, and I have been together for 20 years. In 2004 we were married during a time when it was possible to do so in Portland. After the marriage was annulled by the courts, we pressed forward and became official domestic partners. We are whole-heartedly supported by a number of family members, amazing friends, co-workers, my clients and industry peers, and a great "family of choice." Being gay is not our entire life; but rather one aspect of well-rounded lives.
Make it better.
Do not let bullies define or control your life. If you are being bullied, find the courage to inform a trusted parent, classmate, family friend, school counselor or teacher - especially if you are having thoughts of harming yourself in any manner. Bullying cannot be tolerated. The problem is the bully - not you.
Be proud of your talents, skills and passions. Focus your energies on the things you do the best and enjoy the most. By doing so you will surround yourself with similar, and supportive, individuals.
Make use of the limitless resources available. Participate in the gay/straight alliance at your school - or start your own organization. Get involved in the community center in your own town, such as Portland's Q Center. Many LGBT newspapers, like Just Out in Oregon, have great directories of local resources and events. Valuable resources on a national level include The Trevor Project and GLAAD, and many others.
Create your own support system. If you are turned away by friends or families, form your own "family of choice" made up of friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family who do offer love and support with no conditions.
You are not alone. Help is available at every turn - just for the asking. Be proud of yourself and all that is combined to make you a unique individual. You do deserve to have a wonderful life.
By taking control of your life and destiny, you are making sure that those who bully do not win.
I've rambled enough...all I really wanted to say was: It gets MUCH better.
© 2010 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives