I pretty much only read The Root for one reason these days: my buddy’s Michael Arceneaux’s writing. Today he posted his thoughts on the lives of the two young boys who killed themselves after being bullied with homophobic taunts.
I know all too well about kids going after anyone they suspect as gay or “soft.” Whether I was stepping onto a school bus, into a classroom or inside the cafeteria, I felt like a target. I was that kid who went through school listening as other students—and in some cases teachers—made jokes about the way I walked and talked.
I worried constantly about whether or not I was going to have to get into a fight on any given day because someone mistakenly made me out to be an easy target. Everyone around me wanted to be considered “hard,” and since I never felt compelled to put on airs that way, some thought they could test me.
And I lived with the fear that it would never end.
I understand the sadness each boy probably endured, and though I did often fight back, I still contemplated killing myself just so I wouldn’t have to fight ever again. I wasn’t sure if I could take it, constantly being attacked for something I had no control over. I thought I was strong, but dealing with people’s hatred started to drain me. After a while, I felt like giving up.
It took me a long time to come to grips with who I was, and even now, at 25, at my most secure, I still have to contend with the fact that more times than not, people hate anything and anyone that is different.
As a gay black man, I find myself at the top of the list of people to hate. That’s a hard fact to contend with at 25, let alone at 11. The accepted notions of how a black man should look and act are confining and dangerous, whether you are gay or not. As a grown man, I still hear other black men say things like all gay men should be sent to a women’s prison to be raped and killed. I had to endure this most recently while sitting in the chair at the barbershop. None of the people so casually spewing hate knew I was gay, so all of their smiles and gestures toward me did nothing but make me feel more unwelcomed.
‘Suspect,’ and ‘sus,’ and ‘soft,’ and ‘sweet,’ and ‘has some sugar in his tank.’ These are all terms I’ve heard used to describe black men who don’t exhibit certain predefined hypermasculine qualities that ‘real’ black men have. I think that the insidiousness of an ‘acceptable’ black male identity is that it doesn’t just elicit teases and taunts, it wears our boys down slowly by telling them they’re not what they should be and probably never will be. It doesn’t matter if these boys were gay or not, they should have been able to just be who they were, and have the time to figure themselves out, just like the rest of us.
Update: I’m going to highlight Grump’s comment, because I’m seeing variations on it in a number of places.
Yeah, the behavior should be stymied and checked by the teachers in a school envitronment and the community shoulda/woulda/coulda. However, I disagree that a kid should go through childhood without being challenged on multiple levels. Especially in regards to “who they are”. In the long run, I think that will hurt more than help. When and where will a child learn responsibility and accountability for their actions and thoughts? Especially if they have not seen the day somebody challenges them on it.
There’s a huge difference between making fun of a kid for having out-of-date clothes and harassing them because they don’t fit your group’s idea of what a black male should be. The former can always be fixed or explained away; the latter can’t be changed so easily and has much larger social repercussions.
Now. I was teased as much as most kids are. In school, I was often obnoxious and nerdy (and still am) and I was teased for it. I was never cool, but I was smart, and I knew how to give as good as I got and then some. I think basic, playful, teasing is a part of growing up, and it’s up to us to do with it what we will. I think kids should be teased and questioned, and they should learn to tease and question; those are both huge parts of how humans interact.
However, the acceptable black male identity is a harmful construct that it engenders more than just ‘teasing.’ Boys’ identities are tied up in how ‘hard’ or ‘manly’ they are, and there are little boys who aren’t ‘hard’ or ‘manly,’ and possibly never will be. These ‘soft’ ones become targets for more than just teasing — they become targets for taunting. The distinction between teasing and taunting is this: taunting is purposely hurtful, and it’s a way for one person to become the arbiter of another person’s worth within their social circle. There’s no ‘giving as good as you get’ in taunting. It’s about power, and aggression, and humiliation. Kids don’t kill themselves because they’re weak and they can’t take all the ‘teasing.’ They do it because they feel defeated and worn down.