“She did apologize and said that it was a joke and that it shouldn’t have been a joke and that she felt bad for it,” he said. “My sexual preference at all shouldn’t be something someone should joke about.”
“Faggot” was the word that cut to my core when I was growing up. The first time I heard it, I had no idea what it meant. I soon learned.
In the next several years I heard it almost every day. I avoided people I knew would say the word. I walked different paths to and from school. I would skip lunch so that I would not have to go into the cafeteria and have it said to me.
But I still heard it — from my own teammates when I played tennis, during baseball or soccer practice, and shouted from buses by classmates. I remember one time when the bus driver encouraged it.
It did not matter how many national poetry awards I had won, nor how well I played the bassoon, nor how many great tennis matches I played, nor that I was a good runner. The word, and the snickers and imitations of my voice, how I walked, even how I moved my hands, became part of my life starting when I was nine years old.
I went to college at a young age, hoping to escape as quickly as possible the small town where I grew up.
The escape wasn’t what I quite imagined. I would sit in my dorm’s study area and the whispers and snickers would begin, usually followed by the word “faggot” being spoken. I would look around and see many grins, return to my studies, and hear the word and snickers again. I soon found the least-visited area of the main campus library to study.
I would take a shower, or try to in my dorm’s common bathroom. Many people would leave as soon as I walked in, especially the guys. I soon became a swimmer during times when the pool was least-visited and shower after doing my laps.
But one evening, about three months into my college experience, I could think of only one place to escape.
I had gone into the cafeteria and sat down with a group of students I did not know. I tried to make conversation, but no one would speak to me. The five students finished their meals and left a note behind. I knew I had to pick it up even though part of me did not want to. After l read “Let’s get away from the faggot now. He can pick up our trays and trash,” I tried again to stay in my dorm building to study. I left soon after the familiar snickers and anonymous whistles and shouts of “faggot” returned. I walked the long hall to my room and past the common area. As I passed, I heard, “Why do they allow faggots to live here?” By the time I got to my room, I saw “faggot” written in marker on the door.
In a trance and in tears I went to a building called the Hall of Languages. All I could think of was, “If life is this cruel, I don’t want to be part of it.”
I found an empty classroom, stood up on a chair, and tied a rope around my neck. I jumped.
A few minutes later, my eyes opened but I could not see. A large map of Austria had covered my eyes. “Austria?” I wondered.
I went back to my room and studied and thought about Austria.
Oddly enough, life got better soon afterward. I ventured into the cafeteria and again sat down with a group of students I did not know. This time, though, they talked to me, found out I was a tennis player and that I liked movies. A few months later, they invited me to live in their section of the dorm building.
I became fast friends with them and joined my college tennis team. Years later, I learned that at least four of us on the team were gay.
Day by day, my confidence increased and I perhaps stopped looking like a kid who was afraid of being bitten by big, bad wolves. I graduated in three years. A year after that, I received a Fulbright scholarship to study and work in Austria. It was meant to be.
I’m glad Kyle Griffith, the server in the restaurant in Kentucky, shared on Facebook the note left behind by one of the patrons. I’m glad she apologized, but I don’t buy for one second her excuse that it was a joke. That’s a way too convenient truth for bullies.
The truth is bullies almost drove me out of a life I’m glad I’ve lived — in many countries and cultures but also in parts of the United States where I would not dream any more of living with my husband and our daughter. Bullying is not a joke, nor is hate, nor is using faith as a defense for actions no one should have to tolerate.
I was lucky that the rope I used around my neck when I was in my first year of college unraveled. Many years later, different threads in my life, the most beautiful of which are my husband and daughter, have formed a rich tapestry. I walk proudly in Hawaii, our home for the past three years. We have found a wonderful community here, one that feels safe from the unraveling in other parts of the country. Unlike my early years when I walked many miles to avoid having everything about me derided, I speak my voice and I am teaching my daughter to speak hers.