I need to tell you this story. It’s all true. And nearly 45 years after it happened, it still hurts inside.
As many blog readers know, I had a very difficult childhood. The home life was tough, and classmates in the South Colonie School District (otherwise known as Schools 7, 9 and 10 of The Twelve) was painful.
And one day in 1978 made everything fall completely into the toilet.
It was a February day. Very cold. Had to get to Lisha Kill Junior High School (School 10 of the Twelve) for my 9th grade classes. I dressed for school, but my mother felt that it was too cold for me to wear my regular clothing to school.
“Here,” she said, “put this on.”
She handed me one of her sweaters. Why she did this, I don’t know. Maybe she thought she was being supportive, or maybe it was a case of “Sorry I didn’t do laundry in time for you to have a choice of clean clothing,” one of those.
She handed me a big, wide, purple sweater with what seemed like a horsecollar for a neckhole.
This, I understand, is known as a cowl-necked sweater.
This, I did NOT understand, was a sweater that was not to be worn by boys.
And I found that out fast and quick. The minute I got to school, I already heard kids teasing and taunting me about wearing a woman’s sweater.
I did what I could. I rolled up the collar and tried to tuck it inside. If nothing else, it just meant I had an oversized sweater and what felt like football shoulder pads rolled up around my neck.
Tried to go to my classes. But as I attended each class, word spread throughout the building. That I was wearing a woman’s sweater. That in fact, by wearing a woman’s sweater, that made me a cross-dresser, and by extension, it made me the vulgarities used by 9th graders at the time – queer, fag, homo, pansy, sissy, all of that.
If I can just get through the rest of the day… Maybe three more classes to go…
Okay. I’m sitting in one class, trying to take a test. And then, from behind me…
I continued to write my answers to the test. What’s the rule? Ignore bullies and they’ll go away?
“Hey, faggot in the sweater. I’m talking to you, you homo.”
Keep focused. Don’t show emotion. Even though every nerve inside me is screaming like a twelve-alarm fire.
I glance up at the front desk. Teacher’s reading what looks like a paperback book of some sort. Probably passing the time while us students take the test.
And, in an instant, I felt hands on my shoulder. Hands reaching for my collar. Hands pulling out all the fabric that I rolled up – just in time for it to unfurl out.
Cowl-necked sweater for everyone to see.
“See? This faggot likes women’s clothes. Fucking faggot.”
And in an instant, those hands went from grabbing my collar to punching my temple. Punching my cheek and my nose.
And inbetween the punches, I heard a chorus of cheers and laughter from other classmates. Not one person stood up to stop the punches. Not one person stepped in to protect me.
Then the teacher looked up from his paperback. “Stop that.”
The bully got in another quick punch, this time in my mouth. “Faggot. Queer.”
And the result of the altercation?
I was sent to the principal’s office. Not the student who assaulted me. He was allowed to stay and finish his test.
I told the principal my story. I told him what happened. But he seemed more focused on what I was wearing, rather than what I was saying.
“Well, if you didn’t want to provoke him,” he said to me, “you should really make better choices in your wardrobe.”
But I … but … but …
And then came the coup de merde.
“You know, if you didn’t antagonize everybody by wearing inappropriate clothing to school, this wouldn’t have happened. You really brought this on yourself.”
Yep. I got physically assaulted by another student, only to be emotionally assaulted by a school administrator. And a series of taunts and jeers on the bus ride home from everybody who heard about what happened in class that day.
The main takeaway from this story has to be that people will hate what they want to hate, and they will find whatever reason to hate a person for it. And the unjustified hatred for anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary – that hatred has no place in good society. And shame on people who still feel that they can justify their homophobia or transphobia with crapola like that.
It’s one of the reasons why I make charitable donations to organizations like the Albany Damien Center, the Trevor Project, and the like. You don’t have to be gay to experience homophobia and hatred.
In some instances, you just have to be PERCEIVED as gay, and that’s all someone needs to justify their bigotry.
As for the purple cowl-necked sweater, the second I got home, I tore that off my body, and hid it for two weeks. Then, the morning of a trash pickup, I tossed it into one of the trash bags, and I never saw it again.
Not physically, anyway. But it was stuck in a horrible memory for 45 years.
A memory that took nearly a lifetime to get past.