Post 5.9 - Standing Up

I debated whether I would write this article. I have been inspired by the actions of Dan Savage and his husband-in-Canada/boyfriend-in-the-US, Terry Miller. I find myself wanting to speak up every time I hear either of them speak about the It Gets Better Project. I feel the tears come when Dan talks about the bullying his brother suffered, and his brother replying that at least he had the support of their parents, while Dan had to suffer alone.

What is bullying? This is a question that has bothered me of late. It is very difficult to define. Is it harassment? Is it a demonstration of free speech? Is it an assault, or does it depend on the emotions of the recipient? When does it cross the line from teasing to bullying?

The thing about bullying is that we all know it if we see it or are ourselves the target. It's about humiliation. It's about making another person feel that they are not only less important, but less of a person. It can be verbal, social, physical, or in this age, electronic -- via text, video, or other means. It is about the reaction of the victim as well as the intent of the perpetrator, and perpetrators tend to be persistent to the point of active torture. It is a special kind of harassment intended to make someone suffer. It's about sadism and cruelty.

And bullying happens to adults as well as children, but the tragedy for children, as many of us know, is their limited worldview -- school is their world, their peers comprise the entire population of their world, and they lack the physical, emotional and/or psychological development to offer any effective defense in their already awkward and compact existence.

I was bullied in some form from the time I started school at age 5 until roughly age 20 when I was in college. I have been bullied over my weight, my overall appearance, my hobbies and interests, and my perceived sexuality, in increasing severity in that order. I was also bullied for being younger, smaller, and weaker by older kids, who most often resorted to physical and violent attacks. And I was one of those kids who did try to get help from parents, only to have it fall on deaf ears -- no comfort, no support, no defense. I was on my own, feeling completely alone, frightened, confused, overwhelmed, and yes, at times, suicidal.

It is a difficult set of emotions and experiences to describe. When it was outside my social group, like another age group or kids who were complete strangers to me, it was frightening, but it hurt much less; it seemed like random violence in the world. The real pain and injury came from the collateral damage -- dealing with people that I might see often who bought into what bullies said -- denying me friendship because of a bully's humiliation of me or in their own defense, because associating with me would bring unwanted attention to themselves. Their silent complicity was devastating. It wasn't enough to feel I was different for any number of reasons -- the bullies were setting a standard by saying that my differences were wrong, worthy of abuse, and made me less of a person, and the people who silently went along with it were just as guilty.

The sense of hopelessness was profound.

Unless you've been through it, you can't know what it feels like, but you'd have to be made of stone not to recognize when it is happening to someone else. We can all see when that line is being crossed from teasing to bullying, even if it is hard to put into words. Friends know where the line is, but so do disconnected observers. It's more than name-calling, it's more than the threat of physical danger, it's more than rumors being spread and other social sabotage -- it's an overall feeling and atmosphere of oppression that feels omnipresent.

I am not suggesting that we all need to lock arms and sing kumbaya. Not everyone likes me, and not everyone has to, and that is true for all of us. It's ok not to like me for who I am, my personality, or the choices I make. My own grandmother doesn't like me. But how hard is it to walk away? Why is it necessary to torture another person? Why must we destroy people socially? And why do we let this happen around us?

The media focus on LGBTQ kids has come from the increase in reported suicides that can be attributed to bullying over LGBTQ issues and perceptions. LGBTQ kids are four times more likely to commit suicide, and if they have a hostile or otherwise unsupportive family environment, that figure jumps to eight times more likely. But it's not just LGBTQ kids -- it's fat kids, skinny kids, awkward kids, quiet kids, smart kids, less-than-smart kids, well-dressed, poorly dressed, uniquely dressed -- just kids who are in any way different, weaker or perceived as vulnerable. And just kids.

I had originally written this article as a chronicle of various incidents, but it occurred to me that none of them are important. Who did what, when and where are not relevant -- many people reading this were there. Anyone bullied has his or her own stories, and many defy the imagination. The point is, it has to stop.

For me, it's meant that I don't tolerate bullies when I encounter them. I am usually not the person being bullied now -- it's usually a colleague, a child, or even a service person, like a waitress. My response is to go after the perpetrator and defend the victim. I've called up clients' superiors to report the behavior of their workers toward my colleagues. I've taken bullying children aside and discussed their behavior. I've called over restaurant managers or even (verbally) smacked down people in my own dining party for mistreating anyone serving us. It's wrong, it's unnecessary, and none of us are entitled to mistreat anyone for any reason.

I even hung up on a bullying boss immediately after quitting my job a few years back. My cell phone rang and rang with him trying to apologize and "calm me down". I finally e-mailed him and told him I was not going to take his call until a particular date and time; his behavior was wholly unacceptable and I owed him nothing in the interim. A condition for my return to work was that he was never to speak to me that way again. And I got a raise.

But the days of being bullied are over. Even if you are paying me.

We all have a role to play. We can control our own behavior, but we can stand up for anyone who can't stand up for themselves. We can let people know they are not alone, that they have allies, and be ready to take action. It's ok to be different, in whatever ways a person may be. And if we, ourselves, are guilty of bullying or having bullied someone, we can apologize -- and then be an ally going forward.

Again, we don't have to like everyone -- but we can walk away and simply do or think about something else. Torture is not the answer. Is it really necessary for you to feel better about yourself at someone else's expense?

In enduring what I did, it was never about "it gets better" for me. I didn't know it would. It was about surviving day by day. It often felt like there would be no escape and the suffering would go on forever, that I would never fit in and always be "wrong" and people would always hate me for it. I wish I had had someone to tell me all I would get to experience and the amazing life I would get to lead for being so different. Some of my bullies never left the town where we grew up, but I've traveled the world. I've loved and been loved, and have had friendships that words cannot do justice in expressing their depth, loyalty, and affection. And the things I've seen -- my life has been an incredible journey.

And no, I haven't forgiven anyone for what they did. No one has apologized. I'll never have to see these people again, and they aren't worth my energy to even let them enter my thoughts. I've been too busy enjoying myself.

So it does get better. If you're a young person, you will find your way. It may mean waiting for that right social group to come along, or finding a place where you are safe to express yourself openly and completely, but you'll get there. You just have to hold on, and take it day by day if you have to. It does get better.

And your allies -- many you don't know -- already have your back.

And if you, yourself, are a bully, stop and think. You can stop doing what you're doing anytime you want to. If you aren't sure if you are being a bully, answer a few questions for yourself:
  1. Do you consider this person a friend?
  2. Are you referencing something he or she finds funny about him- or herself already? Or a funny thing that happened to the two of you?
  3. Are you trying to hurt this person, physically or otherwise?
  4. How would you feel if someone said this about or did this to someone you loved, or even you?
You know the right answers to these questions. Listen to that inner voice. And if you're still not sure, err on the side of caution and walk away. You can be better than that.

Have a question or a suggestion for a future topic? E-mail me at


  1. I was bullied too - usually about my weight or my brains, in no particular order. I laugh at those bullies now - last time I heard, my main tormentor from the catholic grammar school I attended was pregnant, kicked out her parents house and a drug addict - all before the age of 17 - and the last picture I saw proved that Father Time was NOT kind to her at all. I'm not a vindicative person by nature and I like to think that all the hell she put me through made me a stronger person, etc., but THHHHPPPT (me blowing raspberries) - childish I know but that girl tormented me for 4 miserable years. Man, Karma is really a b!tch!!


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