I lived in fear of Mike.
He had long hair that hung below his neck, was wide-shouldered, foul-mouthed and smoked cigarettes. He even boasted that he'd already had sex with several girls...older girls, from junior high school. That alone was enough to impress most of Mike's sixth grade peers.
I, on the other hand, wore geeky clothes picked out for me by my overprotective mother, played the violin, and got good grades. I couldn't play baseball or football to save my life. The boys said I ran "like a girl."
I was the teacher's pet. In short, I was the perfect target for a boy like Mike.
Mike made himself out to be tough and cool. And just about everyone in school agreed he was.
One way Mike won his braggadocio was by bullying the less popular kids. I was one of them.
Though Mike's bullying tactics sometimes included beating me up on the playground, that wasn't his main diet of intimidation. After all, that was too easy. Even the girls could beat me up back then, so delivering me a swipe didn't earn any of the boys that much respect, really. Besides, the price was too high. Usually, a teacher would find out and some sort of punishment was meted out.
No, Mike's bullying was much more clever than that. It was a menu of less physically threatening misdeeds. But while they generally left few physical bruises, his tactics were frighteningly effective at the time.
There were the wedgies in the boy's room. And the times I'd open my locker, only to have everything in it stacked to spill out on the floor. Or the derisive names that trailed me down the hall whenever he and his friends shadowed me, giggling words that I only vaguely understood, like "fag" and "homo" and "cocksucker." Sometimes they'd surround me, either in gym or on the playground or in the cafeteria, and "jostle" me. Usually, there wasn't enough punching to draw blood or make me puff up in pain. It was more shoving and name-calling and tossing my bookbag around like a ball that terrified me.
I didn't usually report the incidents, because I didn't want to be any more of a sissy or crybaby than everyone thought I already was. Looking back, I think some teachers had to have known at least some of what was going on. But they probably turned a blind eye because they thought it was just kids do, or maybe they thought I need to "toughen up," as one teacher would tell me years later after I was beaten up for being a sissy.
As many of us know first-hand, bullying is nothing new. It is as ancient as childhood itself. But that doesn't make it OK. It never has.
And today, bullying has reached potentially dangerous proportions in American schools. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health lists bullying as a major problem to the well-being of thousands and thousands of American kids.
Another study, this one from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found that more than half of kids will at one time be harassed for everything from the way they look to the way they talk to the God they believe in. More than half of kids who are bullied are attacked with sexual comments.
As previous research has shown, gay and lesbian kids are at even higher risk than the average student for falling victim to this kind of abuse at school.
Some conscientious adults of all persuasions are making moves to crack down on bullying. In several states...including California, New Jersey, Washington, and Georgia...laws are being drafted that would outlaw bullying. In other places, individual schools or even entire school districts are drafting codes of behavior for their students as one attempt to get to the problem.
But the measures often run into problems when they specifically mention protecting gay and lesbian kids. The religious right has mounted a national campaign to defeat these school initiatives, claiming they would infringe on religious beliefs to condemn homosexuality in schools. And conservative politicians are beating the "freedom of speech" drum to defeat such measures in state legislatures.
Of course, any such law or school policy would have to make sure not to trample anyone's freedom of speech. As gay and lesbian people, we would do well to remember that, historically, when a group's free speech was cut short, it was frequently our own. So protecting and preserving the right to unpopular speech...even if we find it abhorrent...is critical.
But that doesn't mean that gay and lesbian school kids, who remain some of the biggest targets of school yard bullies, should be left unprotected. Laws and policies can, and often do, draw clear distinctions between acceptable expression of opinion, and unacceptable bullying. The religious right and their and conservative political allies are saying it's OK to carve out an exception against bullying gay and lesbian kids...the very students who, in many cases, are most vulnerable and need the protection most.
Maybe as children there was little we could do about the Mike's of our own school days. But as adult members of the gay and lesbian community, we mustn't allow bigots to get away with leaving gay and lesbian kids in the lurch. It's time we stood up to the bullies.
Mubarak Dahir receives email at MubarakDah@aol.com