By Rob Watson
“Making headway, one step at a time”. This was the last communication from Joe Bell on his epic quest to walk across the United States and do everything within his power to end bullying, intolerance and suicide. His journey was not the result of an idealistic publicity stunt. It was a mission. A truck whose driver allegedly had fallen asleep at the wheel struck Joe down yesterday killing him as he fought in valor as a dad, and a hero.
Our country’s values had fallen asleep at its own wheel long before this accident. Jadin Bell, Joe’s 15 year old son, tragically took his own life earlier this year. Jadin hung himself after a barrage of bullying that even continued in the local paper while he hung on for days in a coma. One commenter, for example calling himself “PuzzleFighter” wrote in the thread commemorating Jadin, “BTW, some guy who hugs me for no reason deserves a punch in the face.”
Others gave insight to the environment the Bells faced. “ CMar74” addressed this by stating about La Grande, “the culture of intolerance in that town is horrific and am thankful we removed our family from it.
The loss of Jadin was a loss to the world. According to a family friend, he elevated those around him with a “couple quick words and everybody would just forget about their problems and smile. He just had a gift.” That loss could not have been felt more deeply than in the heart of his dad, Joe Bell.
As a dad, I relate to the soul that I know was in Joe. I know the feeling of looking at my sons and experiencing a love beyond that which I could ever dream possible. It is a love in which you want for, you would die for, that person to get every wish, every hope, every accomplishment they imagined. It is a love which puts the other person first unequivocally and calls for any sacrifice to keep them safe, healthy and well.
On the day Jadin died, I know as I breathe, part of Joe’s soul had to have been decimated. Mine would have been. According to his Facebook page, Joe “figured he had two choices, lay down and give up or stand up and walk.” For me, as it was with Joe, in that situation there are only two choices, lay down and die or fight to the death against the thing that killed your kid.
So Joe walked, and he walked hard. He traveled from Oregon to Colorado speaking to groups who would listen all along the way, including a youth group the evening of his death. “This is what I am out here for,” he said in a self made video a few days before. “I am out here to make Change.”
Moments before Joe was killed, he looked at a sign that said “Wild Horse 7”. Life, the ultimate wild horse, was about to knock him down, and end the pain and mourning that he still must have been carrying in his gut.
This is not the end of Joe and Jadin Bell however. As the horrible news of Joe’s death has spread, a common theme has left the lips of many : “We will continue the walk.”
We will walk. We will fight. We will love with a force that will eradicate fear, homophobia and the individualized terror known as “bullying”. We should have done it earlier so Jadin would not have had to die, and Joe would not have had to walk.
We can do it now, however. It is not too late. I wish we could have done it for Jadin, but as Joe knew, there are more “Jadins” out there, and we can do it for them.
And now, we can also do it for Joe.
To Joe, from me, and many dads out here: You died in the line of duty of being a dad. Rest in peace, man, we will not let you go in vain.
By: Rob Watson
Jasmyn Smith committed suicide. According to her family and friends, she had endured “a year and a half of being heavily bullied, both at school and online”.
I cannot stand that this happened. I cannot stand that she was only a year older than my sons. I am sure that every one in Jasmyn’s life is trying to understand what happened, what could have been done… what should be done to stop this from happening again.
We all have to address the fruitful environment where bullying flourishes. Certainly the homophobic and misogynistic voices in our society feed it… they give direct rationalization to those looking to beat up on someone who an “acceptable” target. Parents and school personnel have been lax with the idea that bullying is just a rite of passage and ignorable.
Another contributor to the environment is one that currently enhances the inspiration to bully, when it could be used instead to diffuse it. That contributor is the pre-teen, “tweeny”, medium on television and movies.
When my kids were in pre-school, the doled out programming they saw seemed to have high input from developmental professionals. The Sesame Streets, Backyardigans, Mickey Mouse Playhouse and others had deliberate socialization values built into them. As I watched these shows with my boys, I could see them picking up good ideas on how to interact with others. The shows taught them how to collaborate, how to use imagination and how to problem solve.
Now they qualify for a different level of programming and the offerings have no such filter, even age appropriate ones, in place. Mostly set in high school, these shows depict cool, but slightly vulnerable leads around a set of misfits. There is usually one “strong” character that performs humor that should it be delivered without the laugh track, would basically be…abuse. This plays out in both direct and subtle ways and is often set up to give the impression of justification. Those cast in these shows as misfits are the recipients of jibes, remarks and insults. These “misfits” are usually overweight, nerdish, effeminate (if male) and butch (if girls). If the put downs for these characters are not coming from other characters, they are byproducts of the plots themselves in the guise of humiliating situations, demeaning costumes and embarrassing behavior. The shows nod to political correctness by making sure that effeminate recipients are clearly identified as being “not gay” and the quip turning bullies have shots at other “bad” bullies to show that they are in fact…the good guys. Yet the result is the same—find the acceptable target and denigrate them.
Who is cool is clear. Who is not cool is clear. Who deserves humiliation… is clear.
After watching several of these shows, my one son started to mirror different behaviors. A mantra that I had to repeat over and over as a result was “mean does not equal funny”. He got the point, but still the temptation to imitate the cool tough characters kept on. It was not long after that I banned the shows in our home all together.
ImageIronically, that same son got bullied in his summer school this last summer. A girl, four years older than him, started jeering him with lines from a tweeny show. The words and tone obviously embarrassed him and so not only did she persist in badgering him with them, she recruited more kids to do the same. This went on for two days before my son came to talk to me about it, and I contacted the teacher.
She worked with me, and the kids involved and we were able to diffuse the situation.
Jasmyn Smith’s situation was not diffused. Did tweeny television cause her death? I have no reason to think so.
This issue is complex however, and the foundation to impact it is to start with values. Tweeny television contributes significantly to these values, and to the actions around them. In the fabricated world it creates however, those who become victimized by bullying can laugh it off, or have some secret super power, or an even bigger bully best friend to come to the rescue.
Not so in real life. In real life, kids in that situation have depression, lack of self worth and self destruction. Since there is no Hollywood writer who can write their real life happy ending, we need those writers to do a better job up front in the fictional world that real kids emulate.
Bullying, in all its forms, should not be cool.
Unless you have been under a very heavy rock and buried deep in an undisclosed location, you know that the LGBT community scored significant legal wins at the Supreme Court last month. The Court decisions were not perfect mandates on equality—far from it, but they upheld the principles for which LGBT advocates have been fighting for so long.
Most important, the Court decisions turned back our abusers. They told many of them that they had no legal standing to prevent us from being treated fairly. They rejected those who lied about our qualifications as parents and spouses. They rejected those who painted us as perverts and drags on society. They turned away those who claimed a liturgical right to bully us. They looked in the eyes of those who wanted to define us as subhuman and were determined to keep us that way, and said, “you are wrong.”
The joy across the LGBT community was resounding. Many of us were euphoric, and who can wonder! In California the speed of the decision was that of a lightning strike. Infrastructure was turned on, court approvals were put in place, and happy couples started marrying almost immediately.
I looked at my partner, Jim, with whom I have been in a serious relationship for under a year, and suddenly our potential path had new options. A dear friend announced her engagement, and I no longer felt that deep sense of envy. In the past, such an announcement would have signaled that my friend was going through a door that I was only permitted to knock on. No longer.
So, with all this terrific progress, why do I suddenly feel in such a disoriented, numb, crappy mood? And why do I detect that I am not the only one of my LGBT advocate comrades who is feeling this way?
Allow me to offer my personal theory that some of us, probably myself included, are going though what I’ll coin a Post-Traumatic-SCOTUS Disorder mood right now. Bear in mind, I’m speaking as a layperson with no claim as a health or mental health professional, and I do not say this flippantly. Nor do I take comparisons to PTS(tress)D lightly. I became aware of the effects of PTSD in counseling several years ago following my divorce from my domestic partnership. She told me that the horrors experienced in the life-ripping events of divorce often create the effects of PTSD.
Helpguide.org states that causes for PTSD include assault, childhood neglect, the sudden loss of a loved one, terrorism, and abuse. How many elements of these have we been bombarded with in various ways during the reign of homophobia over the past forty years? Sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, these factors have been a constant presence in the lives of many LGBT people. To be sure, we have stated that “it gets better,” and we have gotten stronger against it, but no one I know asserts that homophobia has disappeared.
Then came a President who stood up for us. Like the satisfaction we have had from many allies, he gave us an even more powerful release. He also helped accelerate the death of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” a policy that demeaned LGBT military heroes specifically, and sent a demoralizing message to all LGBT citizens as well.
Nothing said “homophobia is going to go away” like the Supreme Court decisions however. Those were based on principle, not personalities and popularity. They did not address everything, but they opened the door for a full vision. Above all, they gave reassured us that we are out of the legal grasp from our oppressors, once and for all.
So, in a sense, many of us are feeling “post trauma.”
Here are the symptoms that would indicate a stress disorder over these events:
Re-experiencing the event. Do you feel that you are being judged for being LGBT now more than ever? Do you have feelings of shame, fear, or self-oppression around who you are? Do you feel traumatized over the things that have happened to or been said about LGBT people in the past?
Avoidance. Is there a feeling of detachment with your LGBT rights buddies? Are you avoiding reading the articles and pages you used to seek out voraciously? Is there a feeling of numbness, and even a sense of trying to remember actual things that occurred and disturbed you greatly at the time?
Increased anxiety and emotional arousal. Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you feeling agitated and unfocused? Are you feeling hypervigilant and prone to outbursts of anger?
These feelings can be exacerbated by feeling that we should be contented and elated over the recent gains we have made.
If this describes your current emotional state, here are some key things that you can do, in the immortal words of Cher, to “snap out of it.”
Reach out to others for support. We have networks with one another. Let others know you are feeling this way, and work through your feelings in conversation.
Avoid overusing alcohol and drugs. Did partying at Pride seem even more pronounced this year? If you are in this kind of mood, it is probably best to avoid the “solution” that becomes more of the problem than the “problem” itself.
Challenge your sense of helplessness. We have changed the world—all of us. The sense that we are helpless is an illusion. The best way to overcome this is to reach out and help others. Now, more than ever, it is important to reach out, advocate, and work to make others’ lives better.
Spend time in nature. The Sierra Club has instrumental programs for veterans who suffer PTSD from the horrors of physical war. We have experienced it from a virtual war. Nature is our friend too. It is powerful, principled, and beautiful. Embrace it and allow it to reach the depth of your soul. To quote Desiderata, “you are a child of the universe, just like the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.”
Seek therapy. If you are finding yourself responding to these historic Court decisions with more than simply a mood, please consider seeing a trained professional who can open up the possibility to more in-depth assistance.
When my counselor suggested the existence of PSTD in my life, I found comfort in hearing about it. I was able to give myself leeway around feelings and temporary dysfunctions. I found strength to move myself through the moods, thoughts, and dejection I was going through at the time.
We still have a lot to do as a community. We have to ride this momentum and keep working to get our society to understand us better. We also have to acknowledge that we have been harmed, and in many cases intentionally so. We need to take a minute to stop and allow ourselves to heal, and, once healed, to reach out our hands to our brothers and sisters and allow them to do the same.
Here is my hand for you.
By Rob Watson
It was the Friday before Mother’s Day. I had published a blog piece on thenature of Mother’s Day and the celebration of all who feel mother love running through their souls. I was finishing up a high-tech piece at my desk at work when my work associate, Kathleen, approached. She politely interrupted me to ask a favor. “I may need to work altered hours on Monday, if that is okay,“ she started. “I have a memorial service that I need to go to.”
I must have looked a little startled at the request. She continued, “Oh no, it’s nothing. Well, it isn’t nothing; it was a very distant cousin of mine. One I hardly knew,” and then, almost under her breath, “It was a suicide.”
With that, my chair spun around and I said whatever feeble words one can say to that kind of news. My friend’s eyes filled with tears as she told me the story of her cousin, who we’ll call “Grace.”
Grace had been a bit of a rebel and a free thinker. The daughter of a conservative Catholic family, she ran with a wild artistic crowd. The days with that crowd left her with independence, and a pregnancy. Her single motherhood presented yet another contentious issue with her conservative family.
Now that she had a daughter in tow, Grace started a responsible life. The rift with her family did not start to mend, as it became progressively obvious that Grace’s daughter, “Glory“ (not her real name), was a lesbian. In the central California region where Grace and Glory lived, it was not only a distant family that they had to contend with, it was also the homophobic mob mentality of their immediate community. Glory was taunted, abused, and verbally assaulted constantly. She was open about who she was, with the support of her loving mother, but her coming out only intensified the hatred perpetrated toward her.
Glory finally reached her limit. Grace came home at dusk one evening and turned down the path toward their cozy home. There she found Glory, who had hung herself from a large limb of their prized oak tree.
As a parent, I cannot fathom the hurt and devastation that must have slammed Grace. I freely acknowledge that I love my sons on a deeper level than I ever imagined possible. They have connected me to a selflessness that has altered all the values I’ve ever held dear. Whenever I have empathized with the story of a parent’s loss of a beloved child, I find myself facing a cold debilitating darkness, a thought that if such a tragedy were to befall me, I might never recover.
And so it was with Grace. She went to that place immediately. Her family kept their distance from the tragedy, not wanting to deal with the “lesbian issue.” That night Grace set her home on fire, hoping death in an intense heat would offset the frigid state of her grieving soul.
Grace did not die. She was saved from the fire, but not from her pain. She returned to the lot, which now held the shell of her former house, a dilapidated fence, an old shack . . . and an oak tree. She took up residence in the shack.
A family friend came by every once in a while to check up on her, to make sure she was eating. One evening at dusk, the week before Mother’s Day, he found her. She had hung herself from the branch of the oak tree in the same spot where Glory had taken her own life.
My friend and I sat and looked at each other as she concluded the story. “My family is actually only distantly related to Grace. But her family won’t do a thing. No funeral . . . nothing.”
“You take all the time you need. Whatever you need, let me know,” I muttered before she walked away.
The story haunted me all weekend while mothers around the country were glowing in the love of their families. I could not help but be in awe of the horrible force that homophobia still exerts in our world. It is the force that inspires a mob to destroy a teenage girl, it is the power that drives a family to abandon a daughter at a time when she needs them most, and, worst of all, it is a hatred that through its destruction can turn the brightest, most unconditional love a human being can experience in on itself and into a dark and evil grief that devours every iota of life. A black hole that dissolves the spirit into nothing, it is a mother’s day turned into an evil night.
I saw my friend that Monday morning, the day after Mother’s Day. She was not supposed to be there. She was supposed to be at a chapel honoring her cousin Grace. She saw my quizzical look, and she sighed angrily. “I know. I am at work. They wouldn’t let us do it. Her family put their foot down. There will be no funeral, no memorial service for Grace.”
“No memorial? “ I said, as irritated as she was. “No memorial? Oh, yes, there will be a memorial.” With that, I opened a notebook and wrote the words across the top, “Homophobia’s Cruel Mother’s Day.” I lifted the page and showed my friend what I was going to do. She nodded. As she started to walk away, she turned and said, “Just don’t use their real names.”
Dedicated to Grace and Glory. Your lives will not be forgotten.
I had this sense that we were all in it together: Me (the product of a purposeful one night stand by an out lesbian), my A.I.-produced younger brother, and all the kids whose parents came out when they were 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, whatever.
It didn’t matter how we got there. It was Us against the Fundies, I thought. Family vs. Family Values. Maybe I had some sense that the older you are when your gay parent comes out the harder it is likely to be for you. I will admit to that. But it was only recently that I saw the clear illustration of the difference between children whose parents were out vs. those who are closeted. The longer one waits, the worse it is. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Because, if we as a society are really working in the interest of the children involved there is plenty of evidence to support being proud and happy,and children whose parents hide their identity for years end up feeling betrayed and disappointed.
Cut to me being on this listserve for adult children of gay parents, sponsored by a favorite non-profit of mine, COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everwhere). So far, I’d kept a place on the sidelines of the virtual exchange. It seemed to function primarily as a vehicle for giving and receiving support, a place to seek advice and safely vent while finding common ground. Since, even there, my situation was unique, I’d kept quiet. I’m 30 and was raised by a group of lesbians in San Francisco. My parents were all out before I was born and I’ve been blessed to have as mothers four of the most amazing women on earth. Consequently, I had never dealt with my parents coming out or any of the turmoil that comes with it.
When I finally felt the need to chime in, I wanted to make sure that it didn’t come off like I was bragging, as though to say, well, my family’s so much better… but to address some of what I’d been hearing in the stories being shared. There seemed to be a common narrative of angst over the destruction that their parent’s coming out wrought on their “normal” family. I get that- though I have no experience as such, I can see how having your reality turned upside down would be a frightening and disappointing experience. In particular, one woman’s version of events — in which multiple disclosures from her father revealed a positive HIV status and a very unhealthy lifestyle as well as a new orientation — must have been hard to accept.
Still, I wanted to put out there that these are the dividends of shame and secrecy and ultimately we need to blame our bigoted society, not our parents. If it were not for a culture that is so homophobic that people feel the need to create whole lives to hide their true identities, they’d not be put in these situations. People who repress their real nature for years often have serious issues like addiction, and internalized homophobia -which you’d expect must be a factor in staying closeted for that long and probably complicates their sense of self worth. I know many people have succumbed to self-destructive behavior for similar reasons. I hoped these adult children might find a measure of compassion for parents by looking at it through this lens.
So I wrote a letter to the listserve saying as much. To the lady who had complained that her relationship with her dad had changed for the worse. I basically said: Can we hold them accountable for their behavior- expect them not to be assholes or abandon relationships/parental duties? Of course! To the person whose dad was dating someone her age, I rhetorically suggested, is it generally embarrassing when parents date radically younger people? Definitely! Just as much for the kid whose newly divorced dad shows up with a bright red Porsche and a college coed in the passenger seat. But also added that it could partly be that the years when he might have otherwise enjoyed the company of hot young beefcake, more appropriately perhaps (although it is partially ageism that leads us to feel this way), he was full of guilt, shame, and fear, and was keeping his identity a secret. Now he might just be trying to make up for lost time, make up for all the years when he had to pretend to be someone else. The same way people who are denied a childhood for some reason often try to make up for it as adults, with occasionally bizarre and inappropriate results.
Imagine denying who you are for decades at a time –I challenged my peers. I am by no means saying anyone doesn’t have a right to their feelings, including anger, but I caution placing blame on the heads of those who have been victims of cultural oppression. If you are angry that they were dishonest, think about why they felt the need to keep it a secret. What was at stake for them? Their jobs, friends, standing in the community? Your love, potentially? It is hugely scary to come out, especially that late in life when the chance to build an alternative life might have passed them by, how unhappy must they have been, for years, to make them brave enough to do so now?
In my life shame and secrecy have played no part and I have huge gratitude for that. When we give up our secrets and hatred as a society no other children will be put in the position they have been. This is my wish for the future that people won’t have to hide their true selves and consequently won’t have to betray those closest to them when they can no longer repress themselves. But to fight against our homophobic culture we must start by forgiving those who have been victims of it. Getting perspective and cultivating compassion is a first step.
What I was trying to say was- If y’all can accept your gay parents and create a new, more inclusive “normal”, that will be part of building a more just world. One where your situations will not repeat themselves.
I felt like they should know.
By: Selina Boquet
One bright, peaceful day, I was effortlessly frolicking through a field of daisies, the wind in my hair, petals at my fingertips, the sun drenching my upturned face when suddenly, I heard a strange sound. It was a rhythm, so faint I had to stop and listen. It was getting louder. It sounded so strange and out of place…my cell phone. Someone was calling.
I sat up out of my lovely dream with a jolt, gasping for air and blindly answering my phone. Before I could even say hello, reality instantly hit my body. Like watching a movie in fast forward mode, flashes of San Francisco, the road trip and all of the walking we had done that weekend was summed up in one tired, mumbled word, as I put the phone up to my ear. Ouch.
“Hello?” I managed to utter, still trying to separate dream from reality.
I’m not sure how I got that nickname from my Dad. It used to drive me crazy, but now it’s endearing. Some things become more precious to you as you grow up. At least it’s better than the nickname they had tried to place on me. I had one little potty accident at the store when I was about six years old and they started calling me “Li li a la tee tee”. I turned into a little green hulk whenever they called me by that name.
“Hey, I’m flying in on Southwuhwuh on flight woahwoahwaoh. Do you have a pen?” English was not quite making sense yet at this point. Then, a faint knocking at the door. Am I being woken up from another dream?
“Dad, hold on, I think someone’s knocking at my door.” I stumbled to the door and winced at the bright sun from the outside world.
Surprise. The kids were home early.
“Mommy!” I was bombarded with hugs as a somber-faced baby daddy looked on.
“Can we talk?” was his profound request.
Really?! Right now? Why NOW?! Can’t you see that I just woke up? Besides, I hate that question at any time! Difficult and awkward conversations always follow.
“What? What do you want to talk about?” was my confused reply as I tried to keep my composure. With one hand, I unsuccessfully attempted to tame my sleep-induced Mohawk and with the other hand, I rubbed my eyes to see if I was hearing correctly. My hair sprang back into its upright position as he stated,“I want to apologize.”
Great. Gay Boy wants to talk about his feelings. Can’t close the door in his face after those words. Besides, this might be interesting. He might have had a change of heart.
Sigh. “Come in.”
I finished grabbing my dad’s flight information for his nearing visit, and sat down to talk with Omar. He explained that he had never had a chance to apologize for all of the pain he had caused me in our marriage and in the break up. He said that he’s not trying to get me back; he just wanted to know if I had forgiven him. I replied that I had forgiven him for the past, yet the present was still very unpleasant, especially with the way that he hated me and all gay people. When he replied with his usual response that he doesn’t hate me, he just doesn’t agree with being gay, I decided it was a good time to break the more than obvious news to him.
“Omar, you are gay.”
“I’m WHAT? Now how do you figure that? How do you know?”
“Ummm…the biggest clue would be the guys you slept with before and during our marriage. Besides that, you can see it in the way you walk, talk, and dress. You are gay. There’s nothing to be ashamed of and the sooner you can accept that the happier you will be.”
“Wow, I’ve never had this conversation with someone before! I’m not gay! I’m attracted to women and if I was attracted to men, I would fight it with everything I have.”
“I know, and that is exactly what you are doing.” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation at this moment. I wished my head was clearer. Coffee. I needed coffee. Instead, I talked on. I went into a lecture on authenticity, acceptance, and the joy of living in the truth and loving yourself for who you are. When I finished my speech, I observed his confused expression.
“I hear what you’re saying but I’m having a difficult time following you,” was his earnest reply. Perhaps it was a combination of my sleepiness and his denial that was making my communication unclear.
“What I’m trying to say is, Omar, you’re gay.” We both laughed at my blunt repetition. I was surprised by his relaxed mood. Maybe he is changing. Maybe there is hope. Being able to sit down and have a civil conversation was a big transformation from the beginning days of our break up three years ago.
Back then, our interactions consisted of him peering at me from behind bushes, and driving slowly by my house late at night. Once he even broke into my house to steal a picture of me with my girlfriend at the time and threatened to send it to all of the parents of my students. Considering the fact that most all of our interactions over the last three years had been regulated by a judge, this simple, relaxed conversation was truly a break-through. I know that he’ll come out of the closet soon and I choose to see his improved attitude as a step in this direction. We’ll just wait and see if he remains this friendly when he finds out that I’m sending the state after him for the child support he owes! Until then, I’ll just enjoy the increased level of peace in our required current interactions. Sometimes the universe throws us the smallest of miracles at the most unexpected of times.