This week on Thursday, people around the world wore purple in response to a spate of suicides has raised the profile of bullying dramatically. Specifically, bullying of gay and lesbian adolescents and teens. Watching this video of Google employees got me thinking about my own experiences of bullying as I grew up.
For the first 8 years of my education, I attended New Danville Mennonite School, a small Mennonite elementary school in Lancaster county. Almost as early as I can remember during my time there, I was picked on.
It started on the bus ride to school, which included two bus trips. The first one went from my home to Penn Manor, the local public high school. Most of the other riders were going to public elementary or high schools. The second bus took us from Penn Manor to New Danville and so only had kids going to New Danville. It was on the second bus, of mostly Mennonites, where I faced regular bullying and harassment through my early grade school years.
Often one or two kids would egg each other on and so the tradition was passed down from brother to brother and cousin to cousin. Some of the names they called me still hurt enough that I won’t repeat them here. I remember the bus drivers one or two ineffective attempts to stop the harassment. But it was impossible for them to maintain any discipline while safely driving a bus full of kids over Lancaster’s winding hills.
Starting in fifth grade, the bullying became more physical. It seems I was a good way for boys coming into their adolescence to try out their new-found strength. I remember Todd* in particular because he was the popular boy in the class. It was as if he was experimenting to see how much pain he could inflict, where hitting me under the desk in class or kicking me in the back while we walked down the hall.
By sixth grade, a boy named Ted* became my most regular tormentor. I still remember the day I sat at my desk in a way that he didn’t like. “Why are you sitting that way?” he asked. “You are so gay.” The fear and loathing that washed over me embedded that moment into my psyche far more deeply then any grammar, math or science I learned that entire year of school. Then there was the time in the hallway he managed to pick me up off the floor just by pushing really hard on my ears. But the words hurt the most.
There was no one way to get away from my identity as an outsider in such a small school. The stigma that surrounded me impacted the few friends I did have. I remember one day when I was locked out of the school. A girl who was a friend of from church, was sitting with her school friends inside. When they saw I needed the door opened for me, she started over to let me in, but the other girls began making fun of her for being friends with me. To her credit, she eventually came over and opened the door any way.
I never did find any coping behaviors that worked. I’ve since heard stories from close friends who early on learned to hide their academic abilities in order to survive. I was never clever enough to figure that one out. The closest I came to coping strategies was burying myself in books. Unfortunately, I also picked on my younger sister at home, replicating some of the patterns I experienced at school at home. It is thanks to my sister’s tremendous capacity for grace and forgiveness that we are good friends today. You can read her perspective on our relationship as children here.
It got better
For me things only really changed when I left that Mennonite community all together. My family moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Goshen, Indiana. I spent my 8th grade year in a school with 300 kids in my grade. It was new and big, but once I adjusted, it was a huge relief. I remember two times I was picked on in the entire year. For the other 178 days, I blended into the crowd.
After the breathing space of 8th grade, I went to a Mennonite high school in Goshen that was a world apart from my experiences at New Danville. There were teachers who affirmed the gifts they saw in me. But most importantly, the bullying was gone. I was still nerdy and geeky, but found other nerds and geeks to befriend. There were other people who always knew the answer in class and weren’t afraid to say it. It was through these relationships that my sense of call to peace and justice work emerged.
So what have Mennonites got to do with it?
In understanding my experience at New Danville, I can’t help but come back to the small, insular Mennonite community at that school. I was with more or less the same 20 or 30 kids from age 5 to age 13. Once I was established as the outsider, my role was cast. I had the occasional respite when I went to a program for gifted kids at a local public school (God bless you, Mrs. White), but I’m sure this didn’t help matters any with the kids I spent most of my days with. I also believe that the teachers were completely unequipped to deal with the recurring patterns of bullying. They would occasionally see individual incidents, but were completely ineffective in dealing with the overall sweep of the pattern.
Looking back, one of the things I notice is most of the kids who bullied me were from working class or farming backgrounds. Quite a few of them struggled with school work that I sailed through with ease. I remember my mom telling me that they were trying to build themselves up by knocking me down. I’m sure she was right, but understanding why they did it never really helped.
I also don’t think that that the peace teachings I grew up with helped. As I remember, the focus was on “heaping burning coals,” which seemed to boil down to “grin and bear it.” There was no exploration of what it might mean to stand up for one’s self (or others) in a nonviolent way. This is one of the dangers of a peace divorced from justice, contrary to Psalm 85:10. Unfortunately, I think there’s still a strong resistance to looking at structural justice issues as part of the gospel message in many Mennonite churches.
Twenty years later, Mennonites still have surprisingly little to say about bullying. A search on the topic turns up a short pamphlet on bullying from Mennonite Publishing Network , statistics in an MCC newsletter, a master level EMU course and articles from the Gay Mennonite League about this recent flurry of bullying related suicides. This is hardly the signs of a serious church-wide conversation. Will it take the suicide of a Mennonite child before we take this issue seriously?
Exceptional, unusual and Queer kids have the potential to bring incredible gifts to our church. They could stretch and grow our movement in tremendous ways. Some will struggle through and stay in the church against all odds. But most will leave and take their wild imaginations, rich faith expression and outside the box thinking with them.
Why we can’t confront bullying without confronting homophobia
I’m sure that some of you would like to imagine that we can separate homophobia and bullying. You believe you can challenge bullying while condemning “the homosexual lifestyle.” But I for one, do not believe it.
I’ve described m experience as a straight, if bookish and nerdy, child. How much worse must it be for adolescents growing up gay in Mennonite elementary schools today? In my memories, much of my bullying was rooted in homophobia and its loathing of behavior outside traditional gender norms. The fear I felt when told I was gay or sissie cut me off from a whole part of myself. I learned to shun dolls, cooking, dancing, or worst of all, crying. While I’ve learned to cook, dance and play with dolls, I still find it nearly impossible to cry. Above all else, being a man meant full emotional control. Only anger was valid. This was battered into me at a deep, deep level. It will take decades to overcome these barriers if I ever do.
Unfortunately, in many Mennonite communities today, having a gay or lesbian son or daughter carries deep social stigma. Children soak up their parent’s attitudets with razor sharp clairty. They do not grasp the nuances of love the sinner and hate the sin. They do understand right and wrong and sin. And if they find a child who fits their image of fag or queer, they will do their best to give them their own little hell on earth: just punishment for the damned.
Update: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Peacemakers Academy, based in Goshen and founded by Mennonite pastor Steve Thomas. From my conversations with Steve, its clear that he’s serious about exploring nonviolent approaches for kids to problems of bullying.