I have an old friend who posted a very personal account of what it is like to be a young, gay man in Allentown. To all of you, Gay and Straight, please read what he wrote. We can all make a difference by the way we treat others, the way we raise our children and model for other children, the language we use.
When I was 13, I attended Raub Middle School in Allentown, Pa. I would wake up every morning and make the barely ten minute trek to school. There were things that I grew accustomed to greeting me every morning while on my short excursion. There was the old man on Chew Street who would just be getting into his red truck. He never said good morning as he was too busy loading all his tools into the back of his ride. If the truck wasn’t there, I knew I was late for school. Only one block further was the large brown fence that hid the dog that every morning without fail, would bark so loud my heart would stop. It possessed a bark so menacing, I thought a dog more rabid than Cujo lived behind it. I would pass by the Cohen family home, where all seven siblings would all pack themselves into their moms huge SUV and make their way to the catholic school they attended. I grew familiar with the odd porch decorations some people felt they needed to have on display. I memorized phone numbers to businesses I never cared to enter, just because I saw the store signs every day. I made up names to the stray cats I would encounter day in and day out. My favorite was Oliver. Whatever fur the feral creature had left was orange and mangled, and he had but one eye.
I recently made my way back to Allentown this past summer. It’s funny how things change, and even funnier when they don’t. The old man’s truck is there, but it’s green now. The rabid dog behind the fence? Yup, still there. His bark hasn’t lost its satanic spark at all. The Cohen’s don’t live in the same house anymore, but instead they moved across the street. The phone numbers I memorized now have area codes and the porch decorations are still as zany as they were almost ten years ago, just a little weathered. Oliver didn’t make an appearance, but I’m sure he’s cleaned himself up, found a nice feline and is a family man now.
There was something else very different about the path I took to school. I couldn’t put my finger on it. What felt so different to me? I went back and rummaged through the shoebox of memories in my mind. There at the very bottom of the box I found what it was. The faint but very permanent etching of my past presented itself to me. As I said, the walk to school wasn’t even a whole ten minutes. If I was late, it was just a four minute race to homeroom! But to a 13 year old like me, a gay 13 year old, who doesn’t fully understand what being gay means, it felt like an eternity. What made my walk so long? What made it treacherous?
It was the constant teasing by the other students walking to the same school. It was the lethal insults hurled from the lips of other children. Fire was spewing and shooting from the deepest bowels of hate and into my heart and soul. Words like ‘Faggot’, ‘Queer’, and ‘Cocksucker’ were what people defined me as. School days felt forever long. Every class seemed to drag on and on and on. I didn’t have to look, but I could feel the other kids whispering behind my back. I was too scared to answer questions everyone else was too dumb to know because some jerk would hint at the effeminate inflections in my voice, erupting the room in laughter. I couldn’t walk down the halls without someone yelling out, ‘Look, he walks like a faggot!”. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience being told by fellow peers when learning about STD’s that because I was a faggot, I would be doomed to AIDS and die. We had the same teachers, we had the same classrooms, we ate the same crap cafeteria food, but because I was slightly different I was their target. When the school bell rang indicating school was out, I ran home as fast I could in hopes of dodging the soul sucking bullets of insult. My vain attempts never worked. Stick and stones may break my bones, but words cut like a knife.
This treatment I received by my peers hurt me in so many ways. Not just emotional, but psychologically as well. I was in a constant fight against the feelings I felt towards other boys. I kept telling myself how wrong they were, how disgusting they were, how horrible they were. Not only did my peers turn against me, but now I was doing the same thing. I was at war with myself. I criticized everything I did. I couldn’t wear clothes a certain way, I had to speak in a certain tone, I had to walk with a certain gait, all in the hopes of changing who I was because I had had enough of the way I was being treated. I stopped myself from trying anything new and feared being good at anything because no matter what, I was just the faggot boy in their eyes. I was made to feel like I was nothing. They made me HATE myself.
Even with all I endured, I was one of the lucky ones. I’m a big guy. Tall, muscular, statuesque and always have been. No other kid dared put his hand on me even though everyone who knows me is well aware of the fact that I wouldn’t hurt a fly. I fear for those boys and girls who are subjected to violence and are too small to defend themselves. Also, and most importantly, I had support from my family. My mother always told me to never give up. NEVER GIVE UP! To hear those words and have them come from someone I could actually trust, and I knew loved me no matter what, were what saved me. I could have ended my life if I wanted to. I could have lived in denial for the rest of my days. But I knew that there would come a day when it would all get better. There was a faith inside of me that all those insults I endured would cease. There was a place beyond the borders of God forsaken Allentown, Pa where I could revel in who I was and all that I am. Because my mother told me to never give up, and push forth, and make something of myself, I did just that. Today, I have accepted myself for who I am. I will not let others define me with words such as faggot and queer. I will define MYSELF with words like dancer, artist, lover, friend, brother, son, uncle, champion lip-syncher, fan of Netflix, outdoor concerts, Starbucks and Barnes and Noble.
Why am I writing this note and airing all this out on Facebook? If you’ve read the news lately, you will see that there has been a trend in covering stories of gay teen suicides. They are the stories of 13 year old Asher Brown of Cypress, Texas, 18 tear old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, 15 year old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Indiana, Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, California, Caleb Nolt of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and 19 year old Raymond Chase of Providence, Rhode Island. These young boys must have felt that there was no other way out of the situation they were in. Where was their support system? Why did they see this as the only way? Who was there to tell them to never give up? I have cried for each and every single one of these boys because I know what they were going through. I know the pain of feeling like you’re a mistake. I know the emptiness and loneliness a person feels when everyone seems to be against you. Every single pain I felt as that 13 year old walking to school, I felt hit me at the same time all over again and they stung ten times worse. We need to send the message to today’s youth that hating another person, to make them feel that they are not worth respecting, is wrong, cruel, and inhumane. We must instill in them the values of love and acceptance or more little gay boys and little gay girls will grow up thinking that they are not cherished or needed in this world.
The saddest part of all this is that these are the stories that find their way into the media. Recent studies have indicated that a third of American teens who commit suicide are gay. Now what fraction of these stories will go unnoticed, unpublished, and unheard? How many poor, helpless, gay teens will take their lives and the world will not know?
They will never graduate from high school, as I did.
They will never pursue higher education, as I did.
They will never attend prom, as I did, twice.
They will never see the Phillies win the World Series again, as I did.
They will never fall in love, as I did.
They will never realize how much they are loved by friends and family, as I do.
They will never aspire towards goals, as I do.
They will never be married and have a family, as I WILL!!!
In writing and publishing this note, I, as well as those reposting it, vow to never let an act of ignorance and hatred go by without speaking up against it. I will stop using phrases such as ‘That’s so gay.’ I will not listen to music that uses derogatory language towards gays and lesbians, and I will not tolerate other children using these words and phrases to hurt one another. That’s how it all starts. It begins with a few ignorant, hateful words, but they later evolve into ignorant, hateful, and often times, violent actions. If we continue to slip this under the rug, to ignore the fact that people think it’s ok to hate, to teach the children of America that there are no consequences for bullying another person because they are different, to not teach our children kindness, acceptance, and tolerance, there will be more teens taking their lives, there will be more sadness in the hearts of families who felt powerless against the monster that is bullying, and we will be adding fuel to the flames of hatred.
Who created this inferno? There’s no need to look around for something or someone to blame. We must look to ourselves. We have created a world where treating people who are different in disrespectful ways as the norm. How can we call ourselves the United States of America, when all we do is exclude those who are of different ‘states’?
I love this country. From its spacious skies to it’s amber waves of grain and from sea to shining sea, I carry the spirit of an American in my heart. I believe in The American Dream that a person can come here, can rise up, and be all that they aspire to be. My father and my uncle are men of service to this country. I look up to them in being able to defend this progressive nation. I am a gentle giant, so the army does not beckon me. In the event that armed forces did call me, I would be willing to lay my life on the line for them. The question is, would they allow me to? Service members are discharged left and right for being who they are. There is 1st Lieutenant Dan Choi, who is right in saying that by having to live a lie, his country is doing a disservice to him. There is Mike Almy, a well respected air force cadet who worked his way up to being one of the top in his field, told that by being gay, he was no longer needed. Karen Mesko, decided to opt out of being an active duty soldier, even though it was her dream, in order to live her life openly. Fellow Americans, any skilled man or woman who is willing to defend your country, to defend your life, your liberty, and your pursuit of happiness is an equal on that battlefield. When you hear about the troops being killed in Iraq on your television sets, do they talk about the soldiers who happened to be gay? No, they acknowledge that a man died for his country. How can we continue to defend this great nation if a soldier who is eager to protect the rights we citizens take for granted, is not deemed equal in the eyes of his brothers and sisters in battle?
I am here to spread a message of love, because I have loved. Yes, I have loved another man. I did not look at him with lustful intentions. In honest retrospect, he is not one to catch my eye. But I fell in love with him because of his character. I loved the way he made me look to myself, and made me want to change for the better. He pushed my buttons, forced me to think in a different way and helped me grow. In loving him, I began to love myself. I loved spending days with him just talking about anything. He taught me about the things that piqued his interest and opened up a new world for me. He taught me the difference between spark plugs and brake pads, of Hondas and Toyotas and in return, I taught him the difference between a Dali and a Kahlo, a Graham and a Taylor. He was my best friend. Who can say that what we had was not of God when the joy he filled the cup of my spirit with runneth over. The time we shared will always be cherished by me. We only held hands in public once. It was in the late of night and the only ones to witness were the moon and the stars. If the sun shone a light on our affections toward each other, we were vulnerable to attack. How I long to grasp the hands of the man I love in public and without shame and without fear that someone may hurt us.
I walked past the old house I used to live in. It used to look so big to me, but in reality it was a small, modest home. On the third floor was a single window, my old bedroom. The lights were on and I wondered about the person who slept there now. Do they see the old man and his truck? Does there heart stop when they hear that dog bark? Do they know whatever happened to Oliver? But most importantly, do they know they are loved? Do they know they should never give up because it gets better? Do they know that God made them in his image and as they are, and there is no need in asking him to change them? It is my sincere hope that they do and that for whoever shall walk that path to Raub Middle School, or any other school in America, will never hear those hateful words or feel the pain as I did.
If I should ever cross paths with the classmates who made me hate going to school again, I would embrace them. I would want to hear that their lives have been filled with good fortune, well being and love. What’s the use of throwing all the hate they spewed back at them? Two wrongs do not make a right. Some might say that they owe me an apology for what they put me through. If an apology is owed, then all I ask is for them to teach their children, as well as others, about the importance of treating others as they would like to be treated and that words wield a tremendous amount of power and they must use them for good. I would forget every incident that occurred to me if that were to happen.
To the gay youth of America, please know that it gets better. Hold your head high and face the day knowing that one day you will graduate and those people who hurt you will never be seen again. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There is much happiness, success, and an overwhelming amount of love waiting for you in your life. To experience that, you must keep going, you must push forth, and you must NEVER GIVE UP! You are needed in this world and your experience is so valuable to us. We love you and we support you.
© Fernando Quinones October 1, 2010
Temple University class of 2010
Boyer College of Music and Dance