Author Archives: Joel Derfner
Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a murder mystery set in ancient Greece in which Socrates was a bumbling idiot.
It has taken me a while, partially because I’ve been focused on other projects and partially because certain aspects of ancient Greek society presented obstacles I didn’t know how to overcome. I’ve figured out how to overcome them, however, and am now working on the book.
I’m finding fiction about ten thousand billion times harder to write than nonfiction, but that’s a post for another day.
Today I want to discuss a small problem: Thucydides.
It turns out that pretty much every single ancient Greek person you've ever heard of lived at the same time. Pericles, Socrates, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippocrates, Alcibiades, Protagoras, Zeno, Anaxagoras, Pindar—in 449 B.C., every single one of them was alive (and most of them knew each other). Go fifty years in either direction and you add Plato, Aesop, Xenophon, Pythagoras, Aeschylus, and Themistocles. For Homer, Draco, and Solon you need to go back from there, and for Aristotle, Demosthenes, Archimedes, and Euclid you need to go a little forward, but the point is: they’re all mashed up together.
This is great for me, in that I get to write about how annoying Euripides finds Pericles. This is bad for me, however, because, since nobody had last names (well, they sort of did, but using them in genre fiction would be impossible; Socrates’ full name was “Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, from the deme Alopece,”and doing it that way would be worse than a mystery in which everybody went around calling each other “Mikhail Nikolayevich”and “Stephan Sergeyevich”), there are other people with those names as well.
So my current problem is that a major player in my mystery is named Thucydides—but he’s not the Thucydides we all know and love from the History of the Peloponnesian War. He's Thucydides’ grandfather. The Thucydides we all know and love from the History of the Peloponnesian War is ten years old in my book. But there’s a frame, and in the frame the Thucydides we all know and love from the History of the Peloponnesian War has just started writing the History of the Peloponnesian War. So it’s becoming more and more difficult to give the reader a clear guide in how to tell them apart.
Actually I may have it covered; I'm calling them “Thucydides” and “Old Thucydides.” The real reason I'm making this post is that I was talking about it to somebody the other day and discovered that it’s incredibly difficult to say, “The Thucydides.”
Go ahead. Try it.
N.B.: This is a very long post, because it's essentially the transcript of the keynote address I gave a year and a half or so ago at the Mid-Atlantic LGBTA Conference, the theme of which was "Making it Better." Part of what makes it so long is that it includes the entire text of an already long Huffington Post piece I wrote in 2010. I've posted the HuffPo piece a couple times before, so if you've read it already at least you needn't slog your way through that part. But I came across this file recently while cleaning up my computer and it seemed worth sharing.
Hi, everybody. So I figure I’ll start by reading the entirety of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.
No, just kidding.
I have to say that I do feel this is an uncivilized hour to be doing this. I feel like nobody should really be required to pay attention to anything before two. But this is when they scheduled me, so let’s pretend.
Let me ask: Did anybody see this show that was on TV on Sundance Channel about a year ago, a little under a year ago, called Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys?
You did? Oh, crap.
Okay, so I was on this show on Sundance Channel, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, and it was what is apparently known in Hollywood as a docu-reality show, meaning that it’s not fake enough to be a reality show, which I think is kind of fabulous. And what that meant was that it portrayed things that actually did happen, or might have happened, or could have happened. And there were four couples of a gay man and his female straight Platonic friend, and I was on the show with my friend Sarah, and our plotline was the gay marriage plotline, because I was running up to getting married to my then-boyfriend, Mike, whom I have indeed since married. Though the filming made that almost not happen.
So they told us, they kept saying during filming, this is going to be so deep and honest and true and real, and I, like a moron, believed them. And some of it—there was a scene, for example, in the first episode where I told Sarah that Mike had proposed to me. And I did in fact tell Sarah that Mike had proposed to me; I just did so three years before they filmed the scene. So Sarah and I are fun people, but we’re not really actors, so that scene is particularly not really believable. And for those of you who saw it, in the scene I say, Mike proposed! And then Sarah’s like, Oh, my God! But it should be me! Which was the line that led all the reviews of the show to call her a selfish nightmare. The thing is that “it should be me” was a joke that she made after fifteen minutes of being heckled by the director:
“Well, aren’t you jealous, Sarah?”
“Well, no, actually I’m really just, I’m really thrilled and I’m happy for Joel.”
“But aren’t you jealous?”
“No, I’m not jealous.”
“But isn’t some part of you unhappy that it’s not you that’s getting married?”
“Fine, fine, let’s film it again. IT SHOULD BE ME!”
…“Joel’s friend Sarah, however, is a selfish nightmare.”
Another sad part of this is that literally five minutes later, while they were filming, Sarah and I had a conversation that I think was not above the heads of reality TV viewers that was also interesting. We were getting legally married in Iowa, where Mike was from, and then later on we were having a ceremony in Brooklyn. And we had a conversation in which I talked about being worried. I said, “I’m having two weddings. Why am I having two weddings? Because if I’m having two weddings, then which one is the real one? When is my wedding anniversary? Is it going to be the anniversary of the day we get legally married or the day we have the ceremony? And if that’s the real one, then why am I having the other one?” And I’m a Miss Manners fetishist (with my clothes on, at least) and so this thing really mattered to me. And I think that was a really interesting conversation. And instead, what viewers saw was, IT SHOULD BE ME! So that was kind of upsetting.
In the second episode, Sarah said, “Oh, Joel’s getting married and I’m still single. He’s living my fantasy.” And what those of you who saw the show did not know was that that was cobbled together from three different interviews in one of which she said, “Joel’s getting married,” in another of which she said, “I’m still single,” and in the third of which she said, “I don’t think he’s living my fantasy.” And they just cut off the “I don’t think.” It’s like, really? Really, did you need to do that?
We also had a terrific, terrific meeting with a friend of mine who’s a gay orthodox ex-rabbi calligrapher about doing a ketubah, which is a Jewish wedding contract. It’s often a very complex, beautiful document. And so they filmed this, and we talked a lot about Jewish views on same-sex relationships and marriage equality, and we were talking about activism, and we got into this idea: in Jewish legend, when God was creating the world, He did so—He slash She did so—using light, and the light got put into jars, but there was too much light, and the jars broke, and so the world is full of shards, of broken pieces of these jars that actually contain light from the creation of the world. And the idea is that activism is what’s called tikkun olam in Hebrew, and it’s our job as people to go through life putting the pieces of these jars back together, and that as marriage equality activists we were trying to do that. In joining two people, we were also trying to put back together the broken world.
None of this made it onto the show. Instead—well, whatever, it’s just too depressing. And then there were things like—the day we got married in Iowa happened to be, we didn’t plan it this way but it happened to be May 17, which was the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which essentially desegregated America (de jure desegregated America, of course—go to my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, and look around, and you’ll see how desegregated America actually is) but at least legally. So I talked about this a lot in my interviews. My father, who came to the wedding, talked about it a lot—my father, who is a civil rights lawyer, talked about it. None of that made it on. So I guess really all I want you people who saw the show to know is that I’m more interesting than that.
During the publicity for the show, one thing that—Sarah is also a writer, Sarah wrote an amazing book called For All the Tea in China, which you should totally buy. It’s about a guy who in 19th century England—China had a monopoly on tea, and this guy went to China and stole tea to bring back to England to break the Chinese tea monopoly. And there are pirates, and he dresses up in drag, and—it’s a terrific book, and I encourage everybody to buy it. So since we were the authors on the show, they had us write things for various writing things—sorry. And one thing they had us write for was the Huffington Post. And my first piece for the Huffington Post was called “Against Gay Marriage,” talking about the idea that the term “gay marriage” itself is really problematic, because it’s not gay marriage, it’s marriage. Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, when they got married, didn’t get interracial married, they got married. And in ancient Rome, soldiers—soldiers in ancient Rome were forbidden to marry—but when they finally left the army and got married, they didn’t get military married, they got married. I don’t want to get gay married, I want to get married.
So they posted this on the Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys—or, as I like to call it, GWLBLB (really, you couldn’t come up with a title that had a better acronym?)—on the Facebook page, and of course the whole thing was full of people ranting against homophobes who were against gay marriage. And it’s like, just click on the link and read it, please. My favorite was the guy who left a comment about how much he hated fucking homophones. Now the B and the N are literally right next to each other on the keyboard, so it’s very, very possible it was just a typo and he didn’t notice.
Anyway, the marriage equality piece was very popular and it got two thousand likes on Facebook, two thousand people liked it on Facebook, which made me very excited. The next piece that GWLBLB wanted me to write for the Huffington Post was an “It Gets Better” piece. And I thought, “Okay, great, I’ll write an ‘It Gets Better’ piece.”
Part of the problem was that I think that the “It Gets Better” meme is amazing and wonderful, and I also have some serious reservations about it or some problems with it. So I hope that you will follow me as I read the piece that I ended up writing. It’s funny, I promise. So let’s just go on this journey with me, shall we?
An Open Letter to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth of America:
Hold tight for a little while longer, kid. It gets better.
There. That’s what I’ve got so far.
“The Huffington Post would like you to write an ‘it gets better’ piece,” said the email I got a few weeks ago from Katie, the publicist for the new Sundance Channel series Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, in which I appear (as a boy who likes boys) along with my best friend Sarah (as a girl who likes, etc.).
(To bring you up to speed, just in case: In response to the recent publicized rash of suicides by gay middle school, high school, and college students—at least eight kids dead in less than two weeks—author Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller filmed a terrific YouTube message to American kids who are bullied or abused or rejected or beaten up or made to feel like outsiders because of their sexuality. Savage and Miller hated their lives in high school, they explain, but the day they finished, their lives changed, immensely, for the better. They were making this video, they said, to tell you, Hold tight for a little while longer, kid. It gets better. The video obviously sparked something in the national consciousness, because, within days, thousands of people across the country were sending similar—and similarly beautiful—messages to http://www.itgetsbetter.org; they’re sending them still.)
“Great!” I typed enthusiastically back to Katie, sat down, and started to write.
Many of the it-gets-better videos, I’d noticed, began with a recounting of the difficulties the speaker(s) faced when he or she was or they were the age Billy Lucas was when he killed himself on September 9, the age Cody J. Barker was when he killed himself on September 13 (fifteen), the age Seth Walsh was on September 19 (thirteen), the age Tyler Clementi was on September 22 (eighteen), Asher Brown on September 23 (thirteen), Harrison Chase Brown on September 25 (fifteen), Felix Sacco and Raymond Chase on September 29 (seventeen and nineteen). I knew this would not be hard. Thirteen? Fifteen? I had known I was doing something wrong from the age of six, when the Jewish Community Center summer camp counselors said I wasn’t allowed to sign up for needlepoint and flower arranging and stuck me in gymnastics instead, though to be fair my front handspring is even today a thing to be proud of.
So I started the piece.
Growing up, I felt like an alien from outer space, stranded on this planet with the half-finished first draft of a guidebook in a language I didn’t speak.
So far, so good, I thought. I am a brilliant writer!
I was more or less okay until seventh grade, at which point things began to come apart. I didn’t understand why Winslow Barnett snickered when I walked into the boys’ locker room for PE wearing my purple bow tie and my fabulous bright green pants with the white piping down the side, but I knew that it was not his intention to convey approbation of my fashion sense. I didn’t see why it should be cause for concern to anybody when I started writing all my in-class history exams on pink paper in green ink, with circles over the “i”s, but I didn’t need to see that to interpret the look Mr. Somerville gave me when I handed them in. It was a mystery to me why my mother’s face fell when I used my birthday money to buy a pair of floppy bunny ears, but I knew enough to wait until I went away to summer camp to start wearing them.
Hmm. Something seems off, I thought as I sat back and reread what I’d written. I probably need chocolate. I went to the bodega on the corner, bought some M&Ms, ate them on the way back home, and sat down at my computer again.
Now, actually, this paragraph you have to pay attention to, because it comes back.
By the time I was fifteen I’d figured out what was really going on, so I went to the library, checked out all the books I could find on being gay, (remember, we didn’t have the Internet back then) and left them on the kitchen table, which in retrospect might not have been the best way to come out to my parents but it got the job done. They nixed the green ink and the bow ties and forbad me to see the one other openly gay person I knew, a man who ran a chocolate store not far from my house and who had been playing a very effective fairy godmother to my Cinderella; when I defied them and saw him anyway, they grounded me for a year, not that I had any friends with whom I would have spent my time anyway. In the meantime school got trickier to navigate (this is the part to remember); I can’t remember the name of the kid who intercepted the note I passed to Kathy Weld during first-period French about George Lindenmayer, but my face flushes still when I remember having my own lovestruck mooning quoted sneeringly back to me as I passed his friends in the hall for the rest of the week. They’d translated the French badly but that was cold comfort. But it got better. It got much, much, much better.
It’s not the chocolate, I realized.
The problem was that I had had it easy.
I was pretty fey, to be sure, but I never flouted gender norms in any significant way for any significant length of time, so I was never the target of constant bullying; furthermore, I went to a fancy-schmancy private school where the shoving match Kinsey Huggins got into with Chad Rawe during the break before Latin II one Tuesday was the talk of our ninth-grade class for weeks, so what bullying I was subjected to was relatively de bon ton. While Winslow Barnett’s snickering and that of the kid whose name I can’t remember may therefore have stabbed me to the heart, they were small potatoes compared with the bullying some of you go through every day. Nobody ever filmed me having sex without my permission and live-streamed it online. Nobody ever pulled my chair out from under me and told me to go hang myself, and I never seriously considered doing so. Nobody ever kicked me down a flight of stairs. And sure, my parents’ reaction when I came out to them was ridiculous, but they were still civil rights workers; I’m sure the idea of throwing me out of the house never occurred to them, unlike the parents of many of the 40% of homeless kids who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. And they could no more have beaten me senseless than they could have campaigned for public office as segregationists. I had no reason to run away.
I mean, really. A few of my classmates laughed at me? A teacher thought I was weird? That was the best I could come up with? My parents overreacted to something and grounded me for an unreasonably long time?
Cry me a fucking river.
Okay, I thought, unnerved. Remember, I am a brilliant writer. I’ll just leave this alone for a few days and see what my fecund brain comes up with.
“Sarah’s piece was posted yesterday,” Katie’s next email said. “Do you know when we can expect yours?”
“I’ll get it to you any day now!” I wrote back. “:),” I added, in hopes of keeping her from getting angry at me.
Why don’t I just keep writing, I asked myself rhetorically, see where I end up, and then go back and fix the beginning later? “But it got better,” I deleted and retyped three times. “It got much, much, much better.”
I went away to college, where I felt free for the first time in my life. I did well and had a great time and made friends for whom I would even today drop whatever I was doing and fly halfway around the world if they asked and if my debit card permitted. [It doesn’t, by the way.] I moved to New York and went to grad school, made some more of the same kind of friend, joined a cheerleading squad, learned to knit, taught step aerobics, danced as a go-go boy, taught math to elementary-school kids, went to gay summer camp, wrote some musicals, saw a few of them produced, wrote some books, saw a couple of them published, dated some boys, had sex with a lot more, got a dog, moved in with one of the boys, got another dog, married the boy, and somewhere along the way became myself and watched as the world made room for me. And today, the day before Thanksgiving, as I write this on the downtown 3 train, trying to figure out what kind of pie to bake to bring to my mother-in-law’s tomorrow for dinner, I look back at my 13-year-old self and am filled with gratitude that he held tight. So hold tight for a little while longer, kid. It gets better. I promise.
And I read what I had written and I was like, oh, fuck me. I might as well have ended it, “and they all lived happily ever after.”
I mean, every word of what I’d written was true, I promise you that. But there was so much I’d left out, like the couple years during my early thirties when I did want to kill myself, desperately—my fantasies went back and forth weekly between jumping in front of a subway train and overdosing on prescription medication, of which I would obtain massive doses by lying to my doctor—for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with my sexuality or anybody’s response to it. Or like the heartbreak that having musicals produced and books published tends to bring one instead of making one happy, and like the fact that these enterprises have earned me less money than I would have made temping—enough less, actually, that I lie awake at night figuring out which companies and utilities are least likely to descend upon my credit rating like avenging Furies if I don’t pay them this month.
And like the fact that, unlike some gay people, I’ve never walked into a sex club full of men fucking each other—I mean, I’ve walked into a sex club full of men fucking each other; Mary, please—but I’ve never walked into a sex club full of men fucking each other, been approached by none of them, and had to assume it was because they were white and I wasn’t. And that, since both I and my body are male, I’ve never dated somebody who seemed like the perfect man, revealed to him that I was biologically female, and had to grab hold of a credenza so as not to be sucked into the vacuum created by his instant departure. And that, as somebody attracted only to one sex rather than to both, I’ve never been mocked both by straight people for liking boys and by gay people for liking girls too, and left in the end with no community at all willing to accept me. And that one night a couple months ago in New York three gay men were beaten, slashed, burned with cigarettes, and sodomized with a baseball bat and a toilet plunger; I don’t know what their adolescent years were like so I can’t say for sure that this wasn’t a step up, but I have a hard time believing that at this moment they feel it’s gotten better.
Or like the fact that much of the time I still feel like an alien from outer space, stranded on this planet with the first draft of a half-finished guidebook in a language I don’t speak.
Which struck me as a lot to leave out, so I deleted the whole thing and wrote a new piece about all this and the cry-me-a-river stuff and I showed it to my friend Sarah and she was like, “You’re kidding, right? This might as well be called, ‘I Wish I’d Had it as Bad Off as You When I Was Your Age So I Could Have Just Killed Myself Then.’ “
This seemed unwieldy as a title, so I scrapped that version too.
Which is how I find myself here, terrified that Katie will hate me because I have no idea what to write. “Maybe It Gets Better”? “It Sort of Gets Better, Unless it Doesn’t”? “Congratulations! It May Already Have Gotten Better!”?
And yet I think there is something true, deeply true, in what these “it gets better” messages communicate; I think it does get better. It’s just that “better” doesn’t necessarily mean that the day you graduate from high school and leave your podunk town somebody is going to be waiting there to hand you a gorgeous boyfriend, a great job, and a puppy. Certainly this may happen, and if it does then please don’t tell me because it will make me hate you and cry. But things are probably going to unfold a little differently. The boyfriend may prove elusive. You may get stuck in a frustrating job. You may live in a no-pets building.
But here are some things that are definitely going to happen:
First, the world is going to get bigger. Right now, the only territories you can inhabit without anybody’s permission are your house and your school. If you’re anywhere else—at the mall or the movie theater or the beach, whatever, I have no idea where you kids spend your time these days—you’re there on the sufferance of your parents and any adults who happen to be around. Fuck up and display your real self for a moment, and the next thing you know you’re sitting in front of somebody in a tie who expects you to be ashamed of yourself.
When you finish high school, you get to leave this dynamic behind. (Oh, there’ll be no shortage of people in ties expecting you to be ashamed of yourself, but you can tell them to go fuck themselves, and there’s no such thing as detention in real life. There’s prison, of course, but usually you have to do more than tell somebody to go fuck himself to end up there.)
Usually. Except in Falcon videos. Sorry, I just said that, that wasn’t part of the Huffington Post piece.
If you go every day to a place where idiot cretins bully you, then when you finally get sick of it you have the choice to go somewhere else instead. Somewhere else might be another job, it might be your own place in New York or some other metropolis, it might be a shelter in whatever town you can get a bus ticket to or walk to, but the point is that if life sucks where you are, you’re allowed to leave.
The second thing that’s going to happen is that, because the world is going to bigger, other people will stop mattering so much. Right now your entire life has forty people in it, or two hundred, or however many are in your class, plus your parents and a handful of other people. If one person is mean to you, that’s a pretty large percentage of your world; if that person is popular, then probably a bunch of others follow suit, and before you know it half the people in your life hate you. If half the world is bullying you, mistreating you, ignoring you, insulting you, and abusing you, what other conclusion can you reach but that you deserve to be bullied, mistreated, ignored, insulted, and abused?
Well, when you leave high school, the population of your world increases by several billion, and, if people you spend time with are bullying you, you can recognize them as assholes and find other people to spend time with. Depending on your circumstances, you might find more or fewer of them, and they might be easier or harder to find—but no matter what they’ll be the people you choose to allow into your life. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some wonderful close friends, as I have, but if you’re not as lucky, and find yourself in a group of people who hinder you from becoming the person you want to be, you can dump them and get some new close friends, because as it turns out the planet is covered in stranded aliens, and chances are good that if you meet the right ones and put your guidebooks together with theirs you’ll find some of the answers you’re looking for.
But in the end, no matter where you go or who you encounter there, here’s what it comes down to: when you reach eighteen, you become the only person allowed to decide anything about what you do with your life (unless, again, you are in prison, where issues of sexuality become very different).
I just got a new computer. With a very large hard drive. Oh, my God. I guess I’m feeling particularly revelatory today.
Nobody else has the right to decide where you live, who you live it with, what you do with your time. There are practical limitations to these questions, and you will face obstacles in life after high school—Tyler Clementi was a freshman in college, Raymond Chase a sophomore—but you won’t need to get anybody else’s permission to try to overcome them.
There’s one last thing to say, which is that you don’t have to wait for it to get better. Leaving, though it’s what many if not most of us have done, isn’t your only option. If the nearest town with any LGBT services is a four-hour drive away and your family has no car, or if you’re caring for an ailing parent, or any of a thousand other reasons, or you just feel like staying put, the world can still get bigger—if you make it bigger. And if you’re going to finish that guidebook on your own, you might as well start now.
Get in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT Project (http://aclu.org/safeschools) and sue your goddamn school; there are a lot of things wrong with this country but at this moment one thing that’s very right about it is that when kids like you are in trouble and nobody does anything about it and the ACLU and other LGBT rights organizations find out about it, a lot of people around the country get very upset, and often things change for the better. Or talk to somebody at Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays (http://pflag.org) about how to get your parents to support you. Or file a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights (http://community.pflag.org/claimyourrights). Or contact the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/student/index.html) and start an anti-bullying program so your pathetic Neanderthal classmates can learn that there are other ways to assuage their existential confusion and terror [and internalized, self-hating homophobia—self-hating homophobia?—you know, I added that and—whatever, they’re gay too] than by beating you up. Or all of the above, or something else that nobody has thought of yet. You have the power to make it get better, and there are a lot of people out here who are on your side, and all you need to do to get their help is ask them for it. And the great thing about asking them for it is that, with their involvement, you can help it get better not just for you but also for other kids like you.
Taking action may or may not be the right choice for you. But either way—and I think this may be what I need to give Katie—there’s one thing that you can and should do, no matter who you are, no matter where, no matter what your circumstances:
Hold tight for a little while longer, kid.
It gets better.
And then there’s a P.S. about the Trevor Project and also a message to homeless kids who unfortunately and tragically have learned a lot of what I’ve just said very early, and possible resources for them. And I’m only not reading the postscript because it also contains a plug for my book, which I’m going to plug later, so I don’t want to seem opportunistic, even though I am.
Whatever, I’ll read it now and be opportunistic twice.
P.S.: If you’re thinking about killing yourself or you just feel alone or want somebody to talk to, please, please, please call the Trevor Project, a 24-hour hotline just for LGBT youth, at 800.488.7386 (800-4-U-TREVOR). If you’re homeless, then you’ve already learned much of the above, tragically early, but it can get better for you, too; there are people out here who want to help you, and you can find a list of supportive, welcoming resources for LGBT homeless youth all over the country at http://aliforneycenter.org/resources.html. And if anything I’ve written here speaks to you, you should go to your local public library and check out my book Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead, which some LGBT kids have told me has helped them see how it can get better. If your library doesn’t have it, email me at email@example.com and I’ll try to send you a copy, or, if you don’t want to risk being seen holding a book with such a title, email you the manuscript.
So that was what I wrote for the Huffington Post in preparation for the airing of GWLBWLB. And where the marriage equality piece got two thousand Facebook likes, this one got literally none. And I was deeply hurt, of course, but also not entirely surprised. I mean, it’s not the most successful piece of writing I’ve ever done. I was trying to write an “It Gets Better” piece while also critiquing the “It Gets Better” meme, and those two things turned out to be mutually exclusive.
Anyway. This is all backstory. Remember the part about passing Kathy Weld the note about George Lindenmayer in first-period French? And somehow somebody else got hold of it and I was walking by George’s friends and heard my lovesick mooning sneeringly quoted back to me?
Well, I posted this long HuffPo piece on Facebook as a note, because I had doubts about it, and there were things that I just didn’t know whether they worked, and I wanted people’s thoughts, so I posted it as a note. And the next day I got a Facebook message from George Lindenmayer, the guy about whom I had written the note, who had friended me on Facebook a year or two earlier and whose friend request I had accepted. And I promise I’m not going to spend the whole time reading, but I am going to read you his message.
I’ve been nursing this apology for 20 years—since the moment of the wrong, in fact, though I was too chicken even to admit to myself that I knew it was wrong then. And I’ve had opportunities to deliver it—it was the reason I friended you on Facebook in the first place, and it was the reason I walked a dozen paces behind you down North 6th street one evening a few years ago with my heart in my throat wondering if I’d screw up the courage to say anything. (I live there, too, so I wasn’t *just* stalking you.)
I never said anything for a few reasons, though most of them boiled down to the shame of thinking that my desire to apologize was probably more selfish than helpful— that since you, now eminent and worldly [I love that anybody thinks I’m eminent and worldly], couldn’t possibly care less about my mocking you or allowing you to be mocked in high school, the only reason for me to bring it up was to get if off my chest and possibly feel a little better about myself.
And maybe that’s what it all boils down to in fact. But now that I’ve read your “It Gets Better” essay, I see that at least you haven’t forgotten it, and that I might apologize without your having to search your memory for what I did wrong in the first place.
In any case, all this is beside the point which is just to say that I’m sorry I was a dick to you in high school, and more importantly that I didn’t have the courage then to admit how much I admired you or to stick up for you. It’s bothered me ever since, and I’ve done weird little versions of private penance as a result but I hope you’ll accept the apology and not think it and all this blather surrounding it totally absurd.
You did something amazing a few weeks or months after the note incident: we were on the way to something in the auditorium (probably the play or the talent show—something in the evening), and you cut across the grass and I yelled, “Don’t walk on the grass or your children won’t have any air to breathe!” And you yelled back, exuberantly, “George! I’m gay! I’m not going to have any children!” [This was in the old days, when they weren’t exactly mutually exclusive, but it wasn’t easy.] It’s one of my favorite memories of school.
And then he says a few other things and closes.
That happened twenty years ago, the thing with the note in French class. And I wrote him back immediately and said, there’s no—I think high school is such a terrifying, terrifying place that if high school students ever do anything right it’s by accident. So if an apology was necessary, which I don’t think it was, it’s accepted, of course. And the great thing was that neither one of us could remember exactly how he was involved. And I was like, did Kathy give you the note and you gave it to somebody else? And he was like, I don’t really remember.
But the thing that kind of stuns me still—this happened just under a year ago—but the thing that struck me very, very powerfully then and stays with me is that, when he sent that message and I got it, something in me healed. Something very, very small and very, very inside. But something healed. And I have been thinking about that since then. And I guess that’s what I want to talk about, is that things that we did twenty years ago, things that we did wrong, ways that we hurt people twenty years ago, and ways that we excluded people, can still be opportunities for healing. So actually this morning—and I’ve been thinking about this and thinking about this and thinking about this, and thinking about doing this, and I figured I couldn’t very well come and talk to you about this not having done—and try to talk you into doing something that I hadn’t done yet, so this morning I actually wrote a Facebook message to my high school classmate Daniel, who I was an asshole to because he was the class loser, apologizing for being a dick to him. And I didn’t go into specifics, mostly I think because the one incident that I do remember I’m still so ashamed of that I couldn’t bring myself to discuss it explicitly.
But I wrote a note apologizing. And actually, while I’ve been talking, my iPhone has notified me a few times that I’ve gotten a Facebook message, and I’m like, is one of them from Daniel? And I’m kind of trembling a little bit.
We’re all here because we want to make it better. And I think Making It Better was such a brilliant, brilliant idea for this conference, because really, it gets better—yes, that’s true in the ways that I talked about, but it’s not the only thing that’s true; we can also make it better. And you’re all here because you want to make it better, and I’m here because I want to make it better. And I guess what I’ve been thinking about and what I want to encourage you to think about is that making it better doesn’t just mean preventing other people from excluding people like us. It also means preventing ourselves from excluding people.
So what I want to ask you to do now is—everybody shut your eyes, please. I’m not going to make any faces, so you won’t miss anything. Just shut your eyes, and remember something you did a long time ago that hurt somebody that you’ve been ashamed of since then. And I know there’s something. Even if it’s a tiny, tiny thing that you’re actually certain the person isn’t even thinking about, doesn’t remember, there’s no chance that person remembers.
Think of something that you did to somebody a long time ago. And now I would like you to imagine getting in touch with that person and apologizing. Maybe it’s somebody you’re still in touch with, maybe it’s somebody you might connect with on Facebook. And imagine what you might say if you were to apologize to that person.
And now I’m going to ask you to make a frightening choice, which is: I want you to decide to apologize to this person. And it doesn’t have to be today, it doesn’t have to be tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be this year. But understand that by making an apology for something small you did a really long time ago, you can participate in the healing of the world, you can participate in tikkun olam, and you can make it better.
And that’s really all I have to say, and I want you to go out now and heal the world. Thank you.
P.S.: I gave this address from noon to 1:00. At about 4:00 that afternoon, I got the following Facebook message from Daniel:
It's good to hear from you! Out of all the people that probably owe me an apology from that period, you're pretty far down the list.
Please don't think anything of it. I sincerely appreciate your apology, though, and I thank you for taking the time out of your day to say so. I think it's just part of growing up.
I was the new kid in school and was an easy target for a lot of people. I don't know if it was the case, but it felt difficult for people to get past that and get to know me, so I was never really given a chance. Even so, there are positives to take away from the experience: I was able to move on, to empathize with others more because of what I had gone through. It made me stronger and more self-reliant and gave me a resilience that serves me very well today.
Put your mind at ease, I never held a grudge against you. At the time, I could have only wished that you were the worst 'asshole' in my life. I'm a big fan of putting negativity in my life behind me. I learn what I can from each experience, take the good and put it on a shelf for later and take the bad examine it, and then toss it in the trash where it belongs.
Be well, good luck in your conference, and stay in touch!