In the more recent story, Grandmère Mimi raises the questions of the school’s culpability. And there is much to question there.
In telling my story, I certainly do not mean to minimize the horrors that these kids today are suffering. I simply want to underscore that it is an old, old story.
Quite a long time ago, I told the story about being attacked for being a “hobo” … and how it took decades for me to realize my attacker was calling me a “homo,” not a “hobo.”
Grandmère Mimi’s stories about the school administrators now force me to another recollection.
I was in junior high school – 7th or 8th grade. This was in the late 1960s.
From before I went to 1st grade, I knew I was attracted to girls. I had fantasies of marrying a girl and making a family. But, of course, that was in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, I never told anyone about that.
By the time I got into junior high, I suppose I was experiencing all the hormones that one did at that age. Of course, I didn’t know anything about being gay. I certainly didn’t know one could do anything about it. I was completely ignorant about sex of any kind.
I just knew I “loved” girls. And I had my schoolgirl crushes, with no idea about what one might do.
And, of course, I had my share of crushes on women teachers – especially women who taught Physical Education. [Didn’t we all??] I was tall, strong, athletic, and good at sports. P.E.. teachers paid attention to me, as I excelled in so many sports.
I’ll never forget one P.E. teacher from that time. Her name was Gay Sievers. … Of course, that’s a cruel irony now.
She befriended me. Not just as coach, but as friend … or so I thought. As adolescents were wont to do, I poured out my hear to her … in her office, in her car as we rode to games. She was a trusted soul. She understood. She supported me.
Or so I thought.
One day during 7th or 8th grade, I was called into the principal’s office. He was there, along with the guidance counselor and “Miss Sievers.” It was almost like a pastoral intervention. I don’ remember the details. But I remember that he used words I had never studied in my vocabulary tests. He began talking to me about my “aberration,” my sickness. He told me that “Miss Sievers” had been assigned to explore my aberration, to determine how aberrant I was. He used those words – “aberrant” and “aberration” – which I didn’t then know. Then he moved in for the kill: accusing me of being a “lesbian” – another word I had never heard. Of course, good fundamentalist that he was, he assured me these were sins that I could overcome through JesusChristOurLord – a term he spoke breathlessly.
The betrayal was clear to me: He had assigned “Miss Sievers” to befriend me, to explore just how sick I was. And she had handed it all up to him.
Of course, I left that office feeling flayed, betrayed, stripped bare. I am just lucky that I went out of there strong. Another kid in my place might well have gone home and killed herself. I certainly contemplated it as I rode my bike home. I was overcome with the feelings of shame that that principal had tried to pour over me.
But he and Miss Gay Sievers didn’t win.
This was the funny part: I was a curious kid who loved vocabulary. When he used the word “lesbian” against me, I marked that as a word I had never heard in my life. But, I thought, if there’s a word for people like me, maybe I’m not the only one. I remember I kept repeating that word – “lesbian … lesbian … lesbian…” until I could get home and find the family dictionary. I found the word in the dictionary, and I embraced it. If it’s a word, I can’t be the only one. “Lesbian.” I finally had a word for myself. It was clear that this was a shameful word, a word I should not share or claim. But I knew that day that I was not alone.
I hear these horrible stories that Grandmère Mimi has shared about kids who kill themselves. And I think back to my own experience. I was abused by my classmates and betrayed by the teachers and administrators whom I trusted. But I survived. Perhaps through sheer cussedness. I grieve that kids now – three decades later – are still suffering through things like I suffered.
The best day of my adolescent life was when a mean principal and a vile teacher let me know that the word “lesbian” existed … which let me know that I was not alone in the world. I thank God that moment led me to strength. I grieve deeply for the kids who are called “gay” and commit suicide. I wish I could say to them: “Claim it! You are not alone!” But I cannot. I do not know what to say to save them.