The first time someone called me a “faggot” I didn’t hear it at all. That’s because my head was being slammed against a locker, the syllables crashing together like cymbals in my ear.
When I arrived at this new private school in seventh grade, after my mom got a job teaching, I hoped Fred and I might be friends. We were both faculty brats, and the school catered to elite students from wealthy families.
But our similarities ended there. Fred was tall for an eighth grader, and he was clear-skinned and golden, with hair so light it seemed more than blond. I was short, stocky and pale. He wore clothing emblazoned with Hilfiger and Klein. I was perpetually clothed in hand-me-downs. People whispered that he smoked pot and felt up girls after school. I had changed schools so often I’d forgotten how to make friends.
Something about my incompetence made Fred furious. In the locker room after lacrosse, he would snap at my ankles with his stick until they turned bright red. One day during practice, he dropped any pretense of chasing after the grounded ball and simply rammed into me with all his force. My helmet disappeared; my sweaty gloves flopped on the ground.
“Are you OK?” asked the assistant coach, a tall, heavy-set man who was also the head of the upper school we would both be joining next year.
I nodded, trying to breathe and pretending I wasn’t about to cry. But I lived the next months in fear. That August, before the start of high school, I walked into my brother’s room and asked him, with the most serious face I could muster, if he could teach me how to punch somebody.
But I didn’t have to learn. Fred left our school. I heard his dad was seen screaming in the office about what a screw-up his son was, a detail I relished with a grim smile. Mostly, I was relieved Fred was gone, and I could stop jumping every time I heard a locker slam.
Life was good. It got even better when I met John during soccer practice. He was quirky; he wore the same pair of purple sweatpants to school every day, and he joked about how much he masturbated.
“One time I did it 10 times in one day,” he said at practice, both of us standing at the end of the field waiting for the coach’s call.
“How does that even work?” I asked.
“I guess it was more just to prove that I can.” He shrugged. “By the end nothing was coming out.”
We became best friends.
I was happy to have someone to sit with at lunch, but eventually John started to do something I didn’t understand — he would constantly tell me I was gay. He wrote it on my textbook in biology, where we sat together, and he would whisper it while pointing at me. At that point, I had only had the most fleeting of interactions with girls. I was 14 and barely knew what sex was beyond the definitions I’d gleaned from health class and pornography. But I knew that “gay” meant more than having sex with men. “Gay” was a word that boys tossed around like hot potato, everyone hurling the insult in the vain hope it wouldn’t stick to them. It was a word to be feared, but still buoyant enough not to always be taken seriously. I figured John was using it playfully, among friends, the way he would also call me “Jew.”
A few weeks later, John invited me to join an online conference using our school’s in-house email system for a movie he wanted to make. The film was about one of our heavier friends, Drew, escaping from fat camp. (Fat. Gay. Jew. The words were piling up, but I didn’t care. I had finally wedged my foot in the door.) We went over to John’s house to mess around with a camera one Saturday, but all we ended up filming was Drew chasing a line of bagels rolling down the street while chanting “donut, donut, donut!” Instead, the conference became a place to jab at each other while sitting on school computers. Eventually, John started making more of his gay jokes.
At first I was flattered. This was still a form of attention. And, frankly, I craved attention. But things got weird around spring break. John wrote stories about me taking little boys and animals into the woods to have sex with them. Stories about me being molested by priests and loving it.
Finally, I asked him to stop. The insults meant nothing, I told him in an email, but I agreed to bow out of the group. Still, I would stay up late at night at the family computer, reading and re-reading more elaborately crafted insults and waiting for the page to refresh.
“Since Yannick isn’t reading any more,” he posted, “I can now say: Yannick is GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY . . . ”
It went on like that for a while. The other boys just laughed.
Then one morning, I checked my email in the school library and saw a note from our IT adviser. He had discovered the online conference. The news spread quietly through the administration, which did its best to stop any further damage. A faculty member reminded kids during Monday announcements to be mindful of the correspondence we keep on the school’s email. John was identified as the ringleader and quietly whisked away for probation. Drew was called out for a note saying he was going to kill me (something I again took in jest).
I was rushed in to meet with the head of the upper school, my old lacrosse coach. Again he asked me that bland, unanswerable question: Are you OK?
I thought back to that sunny day on the lacrosse field when he looked down at me with concern while the other boys milled around idly, waiting for the drill to restart. It was all too familiar. Again he towered over me with concern, again the rest of the students milled around idly, having no idea what just happened right next to them. Only this time, the tears were in his eyes as he apologized for what the school had let happen to me.
There’s a weird tension once authorities become involved in teenage arguments. The “can you take it?” approach to maleness sees running to grown-ups as an act of cowardice, which is the very reason I never told anybody outside the email circle what was happening in the first place. In that way, it was a relief that someone finally made it stop. But it was equally bizarre to hear our conversations reinterpreted by adults who were trying to determine the arbitrary moment when a cruel jest slid into unacceptable hatred.
I sat with my mother and the school counselor as they flipped through pages of our correspondence. Read aloud, they sounded different than the jokes I’d convinced myself they were.
The night the news broke at school, John’s mother called me. She was livid with him, she said, and didn’t understand why someone would do something like this. She couldn’t say she was sorry enough. I stammered out the same response I would learn to tell everybody.
“It’s OK, I’m fine.”
Then she put John on the phone. It was the first time we’d spoken since an army of adults swarmed around us. It was the last time we would really speak for almost three years.
“Yannick?” John’s voice was frail, as if he was barely finished crying. I thought about his parents standing above him as he sat on the couch in his living room, face buried in his palms, trying to explain things he couldn’t and didn’t want to. It was the same position I was in earlier that day, the same position I would be in many times in the coming weeks. “I’m really sorry."
“It’s OK,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“I really don’t know why I did that. I don’t know what I was thinking — I wasn’t really thinking, was I?” he asked to his mother. “Still friends?” he asked me.
We both knew the words were hollow. I switched seats in biology. One day, John and I got trapped walking down the same hallway. We joked weakly until my mother rounded the corner. An hour later, she yanked me into her office with my brother. This man is a monster, she said, and now you’re walking down the hall laughing with him? My brother fumed about how the school needed to expel him, to call the police. I sat with my face in my hands, telling them that everyone wanted me to be angry, but all I wanted was to have my friend back.
Hating Fred was much simpler. The violence of getting your head kicked into a locker is so obvious— I could either let it fester within me or redirect it. At night during that spring lacrosse season, I would stare at the knife rack in my kitchen and wonder what it would be like to make one of us bleed. I don’t think I really wanted to hurt him, or even myself. I just wanted him to go away. But John hadn’t hurt me in a way I understood. The standard call-and-response of bullying was gone.
So I did my best to disappear. I spent days down in the photo lab, bringing my lunch there to avoid the cafeteria. I took as many classes as I could. Empty space and time were to be feared. I pretended to search through my locker until the hallway was empty so I could walk to class alone. I tied and retied my shoes.
The next fall I dropped out of soccer. The coach didn’t ask why. John went to the varsity team and became class president. Every time he did something remotely public, someone would whisk me into an office and ask how I felt.
“It’s OK,” I would say. “I’m fine.”
By the end of senior year, my classmates would ask me periodically if I still went to school there.
The last time John and I spoke about what happened was senior spring. Each student was asked to give something called a “focus speech” to reflect on their time in high school. I emailed him that week to let him know I’d be talking about what happened between us.
“You were my best friend at the time,” he wrote back. “I can’t believe I messed that up so much.”
John wasn’t in the room when I gave the speech, but three of the other guys were. Afterward, one of them stood up and said he wanted to publicly apologize for what he participated in. The other two came to me later. Apologies are always awkward, and these were no exception. Our eyes never met.
For a long time, I didn’t hate the people in high school so much as I loathed the school itself for forcing me into this situation. The irony of our cultural anxiety over homophobic bullying is how people deplore it in teens even as it mimics the very policies of our most respected cultural and political institutions.
In that way, bullying isn’t a disease but a symptom of a larger social problem. We can gaze aghast at the horror of bullies every time a new tragedy surfaces, but asking where this violence truly comes from is much more difficult. The year after my school recorded its first case of cyber-bullying, the same administrator who cried in front of me in his office did his best to stop the school’s Gay Straight Alliance from hosting a queer prom. Lower-school parents, he explained to my friend who was planning the event, had seen posters in the high school hallways and didn’t want their children to be affected. I wonder if he ever questioned why there wasn’t a single openly gay teenager walking down those halls.
I’m grateful for one thing my school did, though. They forced all of us boys out of a little world where “gay” could mean anything and everything and into one where we had to look at each other and ask what we were doing. They were trying to foster our empathy.
But did it work? I still don’t know what the answer is.
One summer during college, I logged on to Facebook and saw one of the boys’ statuses unfold down my newsfeed. “Max is gay,” it read. Then a moment later, “Max is really gay,” followed by “Max is super hella gay.” Finally, it ended: “Thanks Dan for updating my status.”
I don’t know if John would still do the same. But I doubt it.