As I stood in the middle of the parking lot, I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. Pulsing. Throbbing. I’d never heard anything like it. I was twitching and rubbing my hands together and there was a fear in me that shook me to my core. The sun was white hot, and even though I was bare foot, my feet were sweating and itchy. I was 14 years old, and I was waiting patiently for Paul Baruka, the bulky, be-freckled sworn enemy of mine throughout the sixth grade. In a matter of minutes, more and more people began to gather around me and form a large circle, as if we were getting ready for some sort of ritual. A kind of offering. A sacrifice.
That day, I’d been in the lunch room, along with the 75 other screeching adolescents, sitting at a table with my one pal Carmen, and his sports buddies, eating and laughing and trying my best to do what I thought boys were supposed to do. I could never quite figure out what it was I was actually supposed to be doing. How I was supposed to act. My voice, my walk, my thoughts, my dreams, my love for Judy Garland: nothing I did ever seemed to go very well. I was wrong all the way around, and I could never really figure out how to fix it. How to be right. And admittedly, there was a small corner of me that wept for the kids who’d never been privy to Garland’s “Carnegie Hall” album. They always seemed a bit empty in the eyes for me.
By the age of thirteen, I’d already been slapped, pushed, slammed into walls and lockers, chased, spat on, and called every name from “Fag” to “Freak”. The abuse was strangely normal by now, and when it didn’t happen, on those days when I was left alone, I caught myself constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting for something to happen. I’d hold my breath as I walked down the hall, I’d clench my books to my chest so hard, I’d lose my breath. Befriending Carmen, who was one of the athletes at Jane Addams Jr, High, was the best thing that could have happened to me. Although he couldn’t follow me around every minute of every day, the times when he stuck by me, I was ten feet tall. He was my pal, and the bullies knew it.
And so, as we sat in the small corner of our lunch table, a tall, lanky boy who was all neck and arms, slithered up to me and kneeled down to whisper in my left ear:
“Paul Baruka’s going to kill you today after school.”
And he left.
Paul Baruka was usually in charge of the nightmare that became my Jr. High years, and eventually followed me into High School. Paul was mean looking and had huge fists and a voice that cracked when he spoke. Paul Baruka hated me and he made sure I knew it.
“What did that guy say, Scott?” Carmen said leaning in to me.
“He said Paul Baruka was going to kill me today after school. He said, Kill Me.” I repeated it because I believed it. I believed he was actually going to kill me. “I mean, if he was going to actually kill me, don’t you think he’d do it right now instead of waiting until after school? It sounds so punctual.”
Making Carmen laugh was one of the great joys of my life. And laughter was really the only defense I had. I’d never learned to fight and because my parents divorced when I was five, my father lived in California and my step father was rarely around. My brother thought I should be put away in a Gay camp, and my mother was busy teaching and drinking. Carmen was my only touch with the masculine world and the only guide I had.
He put his hand on my shoulder and said very softly:
“That aint gonna happen, pal.” And he flashed a smile. “I’ll go home with you today and make sure it doesn’t happen.”
But I knew this challenge. It was a gender war. This wasn’t something you avoided or postponed or ignored. This was a battle that I was ordered to show up at, and if I didn’t, it would merely be pushed back to another time. As much as I loved Carmen for his protection and as much as I wanted to run away or escape or make it disappear, or tell an adult, the more I knew none of that would make the slightest bit of difference. It was 1974 and Being a Boy meant Fighting a Boy. That was the rule.
The problem was: I Was Never Really A Boy.
So there I stood, as the crowd gathered, and as the sun got hotter, waiting for Paul Baruka and his freckles.
And finally, Paul emerged, red faced and thick, like a Gladiator who’d been out in the sun too long. I had no idea how this was supposed to go, nor did I know what to do, so I continued to stand and shake as the sun did the mambo on my face.
Paul threw his book in the dirt, and raised his clenched fists in front of his chest.
I wasn’t sure if that was an actual question or if it was one of those snappy Bully quips I was supposed to just take in, so I said nothing and repeated his gesture.
That was the last thing I remembered.
The next thing I knew I was spitting dirt and blood out of the corner of my mouth as I stared at 4 pairs of dirty Keds High Tops. I was lying on the left side of my face, and a tooth was dangling out of my mouth. I don’t know how it happened, but as I lay there, and the crowd dispersed with murmurs of “boring”, and “what a Homo” trailing off in the distance, I suddenly felt a familiar hand touch the small of my back. I turned my head, blinked a few times, and threw the rays of the hot sun, like some strange Hallmark movie, Carmen’s face loomed over my head. He reached behind me, and straightened me up. He then grabbed my books, my sad back pack, and the extra change that apparently flew out of my pocket, and hooked me onto his shoulders as I limped alongside him spitting blood and sand all the way home. We didn’t speak. We didn’t talk about what happened. We didn’t discuss it. Not ever. But from that day on, Carmen never let me walk home alone again.
The violence never stopped. In fact, it got bigger and larger and with heavier objects, and all of it happened in school, in front of teachers. Occasionally an adult would stop me and ask me what happened as I was covered in red paint or was trying to pull semi-cooked marshmallows out of my hair. But telling on Paul Baruka and his gang would only make things worse, and I knew that. At that time bullying was part of growing up.
I realize now, as I realized then, that the love affair I was having was one sided. I didn’t care. When I was with Carmen, I was free. I was protected. I was worthy and smart and pretty and I could do anything and I didn’t have to be afraid of the dragons on the way home. It was my first real love and I took my first real breath.
But there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of my people in the Transgender community who right now are standing in the middle of the parking lot waiting for a Paul Baruka to step in the middle of the circle with clenched fists and filled with rage, and there’s not a Carmen in sight. They’re alone. They’re abandoned and expected to participate in a ritual no one should be born into. They’re there and they’re real and they’re screaming to be heard. And there are people who hate them simply because they hate themselves, and some of them don’t make it and they’d rather die than have to face the center of that circle. It’s still happening, alive, awake and fierce.
And it needs to be stopped.
Friday April 20th is the National Day of Silence in honor of the LGBT kids who are still living in the middle of their own silence. You can get information here. Please pass the word.
And…to the ones still waiting in the center of the circle:
Keep your life intact. Nothing is worth leaving the planet for. You are worthy. You Are Enough. You are powerful. Know that. Feel that. Live in that. And the thing the bullies hate the most, the water that drowns them fastest, the bow and arrow that keeps them farthest away, is the honoring of your own voice. The acknowledgment of who you are. Tell someone. Find a teacher, a principal, a friend, a parent, a sibling, and tell someone. There are people who will hear you, receive you, come toward you, be with you. They’re there. I promise. But you have to speak. You have to breathe big and huge and let your voice out and say No and not give up and not give in and grab on to your hope and your magnificence. Please stay present. The Universe is waiting to hear you, and if you’re not here to proclaim who you are, there’s a tear in the plan, and other people suffer.
Don’t Be Silent. There’s a Carmen inside all of us.