Some time ago I wrote a short article about my experiences as the victim of bullies when I was in the seventh grade. That time in my life and the ongoing problems which resulted from those experiences were certainly not unique to me. But they were to some degree formative for me and helped shape my outlook on many things.
When the bullying incidents started, for the first time in my life I found myself without friends. The only kids who would pay me any attention at all, who would spend time and talk to me, were two boys who were themselves outcasts. They were gay. Not openly, but obviously gay. Like me, they were only in the seventh grade, and it was 1963.
Those boys didn't seem to mind my visiting with them, and they were perfectly happy to include me in their conversations. So, I thought, what did I care if nobody else liked them? I liked them and they liked me.
I was a very sheltered and naive child, and at that time I couldn't define either heterosexuality or homosexuality. I didn't really know that either existed, so I couldn't make any judgment about such things at all. Both terms included the three letter word “S-E-X”, so they were never mentioned in my home.
A little later on I heard uglier words. It took me a while to figure out that a fag wasn't just a cigarette, and a dyke wasn't just something that kept water out. I still don't know how those words developed their offensive slang meanings.
As our friendship progressed, Jack and Joe nicknamed me “Bracey”. I hated the ugly dental braces that filled my mouth, and I would have been hurt and offended had anyone else called me by that name. They never made fun of me any more than they made fun of themselves. We laughed with each other rather than at each other. When other kids would say something hurtful to me, they were truly sympathetic. And, like me, they tried to avoid becoming targets.
Over the next few years, I drifted apart from Jack and Joe. I became more confident of myself, our class schedules never seemed to match up well, my braces finally came off, and our almost daily gabfests became weekly, monthly, then not at all. After high school, our paths took completely different turns. But once in a blue moon, for several years at least, we would run into one another. Ten years after high school they still called me Bracey, and I still liked it.
I learned something important from my friendship with Jack and Joe. I learned that differences don't matter so much. It's what we have in common that counts most. We all want to be liked. We all want to feel safe. We all want to be ourselves without fear that bullies will try to take away the most important things we have—our dignity and sense of self-worth.
Jack and Joe were different than me in two obvious ways. First they were boys, and secondly, they were gay. Throughout our few years of talking, they expressed a lot of opinions I didn't share, but we always shared a respect and caring for one another.
I liked Jack and Joe, and I was proud they were my friends. They were never users or manipulators, mean, arrogant or hardhearted. They never choose to hurt rather than help the weak and vulnerable, and they weren't bigots, racists or snobs. They were two young boys, each an individual and each different. But, Jack and Joe had every quality to recommend them as friends, and nothing to weigh against them.
Jack and Joe represented a lifeline to me. I grabbed onto them, and they pulled me from some turbulent water at a difficult time in my life. They gave me something I couldn't give myself—the feeling of self-worth that comes from having friends. I hope I gave them something too.