It took me 19 years to acknowledge I was gay but 50 years to admit I was a bullied kid. I did so last year, in honor of Spirit Day when a profound sadness in response to a dozen plus suicides of bullied gay kids in the preceding months finally forced me to face the residual shame I still feel almost forty years later for having been one too. Yes, bullying is that big a thing. Too often, the bullied only see one way to make it stop, leaving a family that will grieve forever wondering where they were when it started.
One of those family members left to mourn was the father of Jadin Bell, a fifteen year old who was taken off life support last February 3, sixteen days after he hung himself after being relentlessly bullied because he was gay. At the ceremony creating a non-profit foundation in his son’s honor called “Faces for Change,” Joe Bell said “I don’t want Jadin’s death to be in vain. I want it to stand for something. I think we need to look at people for who they are and not who we think they should be.”
Joe Bell was not content with a charity alone. To draw the kind of national attention he knew his anti-bullying message demanded, he quit his job and set out on foot, and on two artificial knees, for the 5,000 mile journey from their hometown of La Grande, Oregon, to New York City, where Jadin had someday wanted to live. Beginning his trek on Friday, April 19, 2103, walking his planned 15-20 miles a day and by last Thursday, October 10, 2013, he was 20 miles from Kit Carson, Colorado when then unthinkable happened.
Joe Bell was walking east on Highway’s 40’s shoulder when he was struck a killed by a truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel. This horrible tragedy robbed the anti-bullying movement of one of its most powerful voices. In a footnote both bitter and ironic, even this silencing was all but silenced in the media melee covering the Commedia dell’arte masquerading as what was formerly known as the United States Senate and House of Representatives.
Not quite as lost in the news cycle of the Washington theatrics was the homophobic back beat of the macabre tent revival of intolerance that was simultaneously taking place in our capital. This is not to categorize the event itself or all of its speakers and participants in the same light by simply by association, but specifically to those who chose to use this national platform to advance an anti-gay agenda as the true American way forward. The day after Joe Bell was killed and on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, an 105 pound, 21 year old that was pistol whipped, tied to a fence and left to die, a self-proclaimed Doyenne of Decency characterized Matthew’s death as a “total fraud” and “propaganda for gay activists.”
The speaker cited a new gay-penned book that suggests the actual motive in the murder was drugs, not sexual orientation, based on a theory dutifully discredited by both one of those convicted for the murder, Aaron McKinney, as well as his attorney. As if she attained some sort of victory in a morality play gone very wrong, she offered this tabloid conjecture as fact to mock even the name for the legislation his legacy helped create: H.R. 1913, The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This was actually an encore to the warm-up act on the House floor a few years earlier by a US Representative, mother and grandmother of two, who proclaimed it all a “hoax” and “used as an excuse for passing these bills,” as if a federal law criminalizing acts of based solely on hatred was nothing more than indentured judicial folly.
The parents of 12 year old heterosexual Rebecca Sedwick, who following a period of humiliating and extreme bullying, killed herself last month on September 12, would beg to differ. While the LGBTQ youth remain an easy target for bullies, hatred does not discriminate on race, gender, religion, physicality, nationality or sexual orientation. For me, it did get so much better and I speak first to those who do know that yet, hoping that they hear that part of the message soon enough. Intolerance for those not exactly like you does not come from a vacuum, it is a behavior learned in homes who opt out of teaching another message, treat one another with respect and civility. Bullying is not okay.
My name is Harlan Yaffe. I was a bullied kid.
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