I remember going into the girls’ washroom on what should have been a joyful day, my last day of high school, in June, 1986. My name and the name of my best friend had been written all over the stalls in thick black marker with variations on: “Lesbo, disgusting, can’t get a boyfriend, gross, slut, pervert.”
It was a big washroom; there must have been 12 stalls, each of them defaced with more than one person’s handwriting. It was a whole lot of hate, the icing on the layer cake of my high-school experience (topped with two brides holding hands).
I went into each stall, carefully studying what was written there. Then I hid in the last stall awhile, composing myself. I put on some lip gloss and brushed my hair, and when I left the washroom I breezed past the evil girls who had gathered by the door to observe the impact of their handiwork. I feigned nonchalance, informing them of a spelling error in the words of their hate crime.
Do you remember Jamie Hubley? He was a sweet 15-year-old Ottawa boy who killed himself in 2011 after being bullied because he was gay.
I am 30 years older than Jamie was. In 30 years what has changed?
Social media enable like-minded people to find each other more easily, but they also allow hate to be administered long-distance, so the abuser cannot see the effect on his victim and develop empathy.
And hate is still being delivered the old-fashioned way, too. Jamie’s father recounted how some boys once held Jamie down on the schoolbus and tried to force batteries down his throat. If Jamie’s suicide was a death of many cuts, this event was one of them.
You can smooth out a crumpled piece of paper well enough to read what is written on it, but the creases will remain. It’s the same with past experiences of hatred and bullying. At age 46, I sometimes still feel it.
When I was an undergraduate, a friend was assaulted by police. She was strikingly beautiful, and as she left what was then the only lesbian bar in Toronto, she caught the eye of two officers parked nearby.
One let out a long, low whistle. It was late and the streets were deserted. They got out of their car and walked over to her. Terrified, she tried to run, but one grabbed her arms and the other opened her leather jacket. She struggled and kicked out. One of the officers cursed her and hit her in the face before she got away.
The next day her eye was puffy, and her cheek was swollen and red. It didn’t occur to any of us that she should report the officers, because it would have meant coming out.
There is no doubt that being in the closet is harmful. Every lie, by omission or commission, starves blood and oxygen from your heart and kills a little piece of it.
By hiding ourselves, we allow the misperceptions of people who hate us to continue unchallenged. By not reporting crimes we are complicit in their continuation.
But sometimes the burden of coming out, of revealing an intimate personal detail about yourself, is more than you can bear. It’s true that if everyone did it the burden would be lighter, shared among many. But it can be frightening, and apparently with good reason.
I had to come out to my daughter two years ago, when she was 11. I realized that as I’d been partnered with a man since she was born she probably thought I was straight. She was briefly intrigued by the information that I’d had past relationships with women, but mostly uninterested.
Her response reminded me of the first time she saw the giant tyrannosaurus rex at the museum. She was going on 4. I had been studying to qualify as a yoga teacher at the time, so there had been a lot of anatomy talk at home.
My daughter gazed at the massive skeleton in the direct and uncompromising way of children that age. I watched her carefully, wondering what she would think of this unusual artifact, which was unlike anything she had ever seen.
“Look, Mommy,” she said after a moment. “He has a scapula just like you and I do.”
All she could see in the giant plaster cast of reptile bones was her commonality with the ancient creature.
Now, at age 13, she is being well schooled by her peers in the importance of sameness, but I like to think that she will be able to resist the blandification of teenager-hood.
All hate has its source in an over-emphasis on the importance of difference: Prays to Jehovah, prays to Allah. Hutu, Tutsi. Believes the imam should be elected, believes the imam should inherit his title. Skin light brown, skin dark brown. Likes hockey, likes figure skating. Loves Sam, loves Sally.
When unchecked, an excessive focus on difference can transform hate into atrocity. We all have a duty to stop hatred in its tracks, to save our children from becoming victims, bystanders or perpetrators.
We are all mostly the same, with our scapulas and tibias, our joys and fears, and we are all longing for love and acceptance.
Robin Parker lives in Toronto.