By Warren Blumenfeld
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” This stands as one of the great lies our culture teaches us growing up. Another myth states that bullying is simply a sign of a youthful rite of passage, that “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls,” and that it will toughen them to better meet the demands of life.
In a new longitudinal study conducted by Boston Children’s Hospital and published in the February 17, 2014 online issue of Pediatrics, while the results might appear rather intuitive, researchers confirmed that the longer the period of time peers bully a young person, the more severe and lasting the impact on that person’s health.
I did not have to wait for the recent study to understand full well the long term consequences of bullying. For most of my years in school, I was continually attacked and beaten by my peers who perceived me as someone who was “different.” Names like “queer,” “little girl,” and “fag” rained down upon me like the big red dodge ball my classmates furiously hurled at one another on the schoolyard. I would not – or rather, could not – conform to the gender roles that my family and peers so clearly expected me to follow, and I regularly paid the price.
This kind of bullying and policing of my gender started the very first day I entered kindergarten. In 1952 I attended public school in Bronxville, NY. As my mother dropped me off and kissed me good-bye on the cheek, I felt completely alone and began to cry. My new teacher walked up to me and said, in a somewhat detached tone of voice, “Don’t cry. Only sissies and little girls cry.” Some of the other boys overheard her, and quickly began mocking me. “The little girl wants his mommy,” one said. “What a sissy,” said another. Without a word, the teacher simply walked away. I went into the coatroom and cried, huddling in a corner by myself, until she found me.
Not knowing what else to do at this time with what they considered as my gender non-conformity, my parents sent me to a child psychologist at the age of four until my 13th birthday because they feared that I might be gay (or to use the terminology of the day, “homosexual”), and because they were afraid for my safety.
There was a basic routine in the “therapy” sessions. My mother took me out of school every Monday and Thursday at 11:00 to the psychologist’s office. I walked in, took off my coat, and put it on the hook behind the door. The psychologist then asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to discuss. I invariably said “no.” Since I did not understand why I was there in the first place, I surely did not trust him enough to talk candidly.
When I was less than forthcoming in our conversations (which was on most occasions), he took down from the shelf a model airplane, or a boat, or a truck, and we spent the remainder of the hour assembling the pieces with glue. In private sessions with my parents, he told them that he wanted me to concentrate on behaviors and activities associated with males, while of course avoiding those associated with females. He instructed my parents to assign me the household tasks of taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn (even though we lived in an apartment building and we did not have a lawn), and not washing or drying the dishes. Also, he also told my parents to prevent my playing with dolls or to cook. And – as if this all was not enough – he advised my parents to sign me up for a little league baseball league, which despite my hatred of the sport, my father basically forced me to join for two summers.
“When you wave,” my father sternly warned one afternoon on the front steps of our apartment building when I was eight years old, “you MUST move your whole hand at the same time. Don’t just move the fingers up and down like you’re doing.” He grabbed my arm, and despite my free-flowing tears and cheeks red with shame, he vigorously demonstrated the “proper” hand wave for a “man.” Then, as if anticipating the scene in the film La Cage Aux Folles (and the U.S. remake The Birdcage), my father took me into the backyard and forced me to walk and run “like men are supposed to move their bodies.” Obviously, I had previously been doing something wrong. “Of course the other children pick on you,” he blamed. “You do act like a girl.” I was humiliated.
Despite this, I developed what would become a lifelong appreciation of music and art. In the fifth grade, I auditioned for the school chorus and the music teacher accepted me along with only a handful of boys and about 50 girls. The scarcity of boys in the cast was not due to any gendered imbalance in the quality of boys’ singing voices. The determining factor was one of social pressure. I and the other few boys in the chorus were generally disliked by our peers. In fact, most of the other boys in our class picked on us, and labeled us “the chorus girls,” “the fags,” “the sissies,” and “the fairies.” The girls, on the other hand, who “made it” into the chorus were well respected and even envied by the other girls.
I can see now that this all amounted to an insidious and dehumanizing fear and hatred of anything even hinting at femininity in males. This is, of course basically thinly veiled misogyny, and it nearly succeeded in taking my life.
Looking into the bathroom mirror, my 14-year-old self stared back at me, tears rolling down into the sink below. All I could envision was the continual and relentless attacks: boys flicking my ears from behind aboard the school bus, girls loudly giggling as I walked by, peers isolating me on the school yard keeping me from playing games or joining them for lunch, students flinging food at me from multiple corners of the lunchroom, boys waiting for me with constant blows to my stomach and face when teachers weren’t looking.
I don’t remember where, but I learned that if I took more than the recommended dosage of aspirin tablets, I could develop serious internal bleeding. Seeing no way out, I opened the bathroom medicine cabinet turning my 14-year-old reflection away. Reaching inside, I grabbed the 1000-count aspirin bottle, and with hands shaking, soundlessly twisted off the cap as not to arouse suspicion from my family just beyond the door. Then with seeming effortlessness, I poured a handful of pills as if I were pouring salt into a shaker. With little hesitation, I lifted my clenched hand toward my mouth and tossed the white disks into my mouth, choking and gagging as they hit my throat, then heaving back toward my tongue, then teeth, then into the sink.
Though I was angry at myself for not having the “stomach” to kill myself, I was also relieved because I suppose at least a part of me still wished to live.
All things considered, my life turned out fairly well. I entered college in 1965 during a time our society underwent dynamic changes. I joined with others to demonstrate our opposition to the war in Vietnam; I worked with students of color in our common struggle against housing discrimination around our campus, and I helped plan ecology workshops to highlight the state of our increasingly polluted planet. I chose to join a therapy group in my college counseling center, which gave me the support to “come out” as gay. I later went on to become a teacher for blind children, a journalist, and a tenured university professor.
As I am writing this today at age 66, I consider myself not as a victim, but rather as a survivor of the bullying and abuse from those earlier times. When my therapist diagnosed me having Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, along with Social anxiety disorder, moderate agoraphobia, and clinical depression nearly 25 years ago, I was actually relieved, for then I could begin to let go of the self-blame I had carried for so long.
Today, I often hear Steven Sondheim’s song, “Anyone Can Whistle,” in my minds ear, a Broadway show tune about a person who has accomplished many difficult tasks – like speaking Greek, dancing the tango, even slaying a dragon – but who seems incapable of managing simple things like whistling.
Anyone can whistle, that’s what they say — easy.
Anyone can whistle, any old day — easy.
It’s all so simple.
Relax, let go, let fly.
So someone tell me, why can’t I?
In my life, I earned numerous degrees including a doctorate, and I published quite a number of books and peer reviewed journal articles. I have been asked to speak throughout the United States and around the world on varied topics, and I have been given a wonderful opportunity to travel to places I only dreamt about when I was younger.
I have come to understand full well, though, and I have come to accept my severe limitations due to the damage I endured from those earlier times. Sondheim’s “whistling” stands as an analogy for relationships.
Though I have attempted to develop long-term romantic relationships along my way, I have come to endure the harm to my emotional self. I have lived alone since 1977 following a series of tries at sharing residences with trusted roommates, though none of these living arrangements worked for me.
In truth, sticks, stone, and names can damage the body as well as the spirit, and they all can kill. Fortunately, schools have at least begun to leave the myths and lies behind, and to take actions. Most notably, we are witnessing more schools conducting programs to empower the so-called “bystanders” – those who know of the bullying, but often feel powerless to step in – transforming them into active “upstanders” intervening to stop the abuse.
With knowledge, understanding, and interventions, young people are now leading the way to a better future. So…
Maybe you could show me how to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor ofHomophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).