Not to tell them that they’re far too young to take their lives at 11. Evidently both felt otherwise. I wouldn’t have bothered repeating the trite adage “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Because words can sometimes be more painful than any physical blow you can throw at a person. I wouldn’t act as if the slurs, insults and taunts that haunted them at school would end anytime soon … if ever.
What I would have told them is that they’re not alone. That they are not the first to be targeted by bullies for possibly being different. Or that they are not the only ones who have been called a faggot in the hallway.
I wish I could’ve told them that I know exactly how they feel.
Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old Massachusetts student, hanged himself after enduring bullying at school. Although Walker-Hoover himself never identified as such, he was the victim of daily taunts of being called gay.
Not long after his suicide, another 11-year-old, Jaheem Herrera, was discovered by his younger sister, hanging by an extension cord in their DeKalb County apartment in Georgia.
He, too, was bullied by his classmates and was routinely called gay and a snitch.
I know all too well about kids going after anyone they suspect as gay or “soft.” Whether I was stepping onto a school bus, into a classroom or inside the cafeteria, I felt like a target. I was that kid who went through school listening as other students—and in some cases teachers—made jokes about the way I walked and talked.
I worried constantly about whether or not I was going to have to get into a fight on any given day because someone mistakenly made me out to be an easy target. Everyone around me wanted to be considered “hard,” and since I never felt compelled to put on airs that way, some thought they could test me.
And I lived with the fear that it would never end.
I understand the sadness each boy probably endured, and though I did often fight back, I still contemplated killing myself just so I wouldn’t have to fight ever again. I wasn’t sure if I could take it, constantly being attacked for something I had no control over. I thought I was strong, but dealing with people’s hatred started to drain me. After a while, I felt like giving up.
It took me a long time to come to grips with who I was, and even now, at 25, at my most secure, I still have to contend with the fact that more times than not, people hate anything and anyone that is different.
As a gay black man, I find myself at the top of the list of people to hate. That’s a hard fact to contend with at 25, let alone at 11. The accepted notions of how a black man should look and act are confining and dangerous, whether you are gay or not. As a grown man, I still hear other black men say things like all gay men should be sent to a women’s prison to be raped and killed. I had to endure this most recently while sitting in the chair at the barbershop. None of the people so casually spewing hate knew I was gay, so all of their smiles and gestures toward me did nothing but make me feel more unwelcomed.
So I understand the pressure young Carl Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera felt from their peers, whether they were actually gay or not. I also understand the precarious position they may have found themselves in with their families. And I now carry with me the realization that some family members may no longer want anything to do with me if I were to share who I really am.
It doesn’t help that other people who look like me—black people—are helping lead the charge to have me remain a second-class citizen by opposing gay marriage or openly regurgitating ridiculous stereotypes like being gay is somehow contagious.
If I could only have talked to them, I would have told Carl and Jaheem something that every 11-year-old needs to hear frequently and understand: That no matter what anyone tells you, God loves you just the way you are. He loves you all too much for this type of abuse to continue.
I’d tell them that they were both stronger than any bully and to not be surprised if the very people going after them had their own deep-seated insecurities.
And I would tell them that they were special—whether gay or straight—and that being called either is not an insult, and it only matters if they let it. I would tell them that despite how bad things might feel for them now, tolerance is on their side, and that in their lifetime, for their generation, things will be much better than mine.
Michael E. Ross tells why black folks are leaving San Francisco.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.