My bullied son’s story

Tolerance means you just have to be flexible — that’s it

My son was recently hospitalized for his third suicide attempt.

Contrary to the knee-jerk reaction of armchair parental authorities online, we are a tight-knit, supportive family with active aunts, uncles, and grandparents as well as an extended network of family friends.

My kids do well in school, don't eat junk, and are required to show me their web browser history on surprise inspections. When asked, they say they're sure that their parents love them. (We do.)

So what would drive my son to such a horrific end?

It's simple: bullying.

* * *

I've heard that I'm a terrible mother for leaving my child in a situation where he's being brutalized. That he needs to pull himself up by his bootstraps and beat the hell out of his attackers. That he needs more Jesus in his life. That if he only smiles back at the bullies. Why, their hearts will grow three sizes that day, and they'll all be BFFs.

There are a few problems with all of that. One, I haven't left my child anywhere. Every single administrator, counselor, and teacher from his third grade in elementary school to this year in high school knows my face and my name.

I'm always assured that they're looking into things. They're getting to the bottom of it. If they can only catch these punks in the act, life will be better. (And if my son could only remember their names. Or not be terrified about turning them in, because that hasn't worked out well, either. Retaliation is the name of that game.)

Two, my son is on the autism spectrum. To think that he would be capable of beating up on someone is ridiculous. (Not to mention that he weighs a buck o'five at almost 17 years old.)

He approaches things from logic. It's illogical for him to hit a person in order to make them stop hitting. Frankly, it tells me a lot about a person think that stupid mindset works, like biting to make a toddler stop biting.

Third, my son is an atheist (see: logic) and happens to be gay.

Getting good with Jesus, prayer circles... none of that works, since he's The Enemy.

He is gay and you can't pray that away (not to mention that he doesn't believe in prayer anyway), so he fails on both counts for them, reinforcing his enemy status.

Plus, his attackers are all active, vocal Christians - mostly of the Southern evangelical sort - so that goes back to that logic loop of his.

Pick one of those three traits, and in his attackers' minds it's the reason for the other things he is.

He's gay because he's an atheist.

He's an atheist because he's gay.

He's a gay atheist because he's “retarded.”

These are all things that have actually been said to him.

* * *

Since it's my job as his mother to step in, I'll try to do so here, as I have at his school, and drop some knowledge on you.

Because I'm an atheist, it doesn't mean that I want to go into your house and stop your prayers, remove your Bible, and walk out with the cross hanging over your mantelpiece. It means that I don't want you telling me I have to have your prayers, cross, or Bible in my house.

Because I'm an ally of the LGBTQ community, it doesn't mean that I will come into your living room and force you to watch The L Word, Ciao, or Queer as Folk.

I don't want to force you into watching a queer couple make love in front of you on your matrimonial sheets.

I don't want to drag you to a gay pride parade and wrap you in gold hot pants and a rainbow flag, although I bet it would look fabulous on you. (Seriously, are you working out?)

Being an ally just means that I wouldn't mind if you did.

It means that I want to be able to let my gay teen son turn on the TV, switch to Logo, and watch the high school episode of 1 Girl 5 Gays and see himself represented on television like your straight kids see every single day on every single channel.

I want him to watch Glee and see Kurt and Blaine navigate the waters of dating with supportive friends and parents, just as other teen couples enjoy.

I want the opportunity for him to see how kids his age deal with the challenges he faces every day as a gay young man.

My son having Asperger's doesn't mean that I want him to have special treatment. I don't expect people to understand automatically that my son doesn't get body language. (He expects people to say what they actually mean and not hint at what they mean by how they stand, by inflections in their speech, etc.)

I just expect people not to call him an R-word and diminish him as a human because he communicates differently, not for them to develop a whole new language instantly or method of talking to my son.

* * *

Tolerance doesn't mean that you have to change your fundamental self, thoughts, or beliefs.

It means that you have to be flexible - that's it. Be less reactionary.

It means that you really should go through life expecting that everyone isn't just exactly like you. After all, there are eight billion people on the planet. Every Christian doesn't think exactly the same way. Every Muslim. Every atheist. Every Jew. (In fact, I think it's a requirement of the Jewish faith to have your own thoughts and opinions. Mazel tov!)

You don't have to love and welcome every difference in the world into your heart. That would be amazing if you did, but that's not what tolerance means.

Tolerance means that you intellectually accept that people are different and you won't actively seek to change them by force of your beliefs to become something else.

That's it.

That's all it means.

If you're smart, you'll realize that it means a hell of a lot less work on your part.

It means no more needless rallies to stop gay marriage, no more anti-choice/pro-birth-and-no-services-past-birth sit-ins. It means more time for your family, your hobbies, yourself. (And yes, I believe tolerance is a two-way street.)

* * *

Someone being different from you doesn't actually affect your life, if that's what you've been worried about.

Goodness, there have been gay people for ages. (And atheists, red-haired stepchildren, hot dog enthusiasts, left-handed people the list goes on.)

And hey! You're still you.

You're still everything you believe yourself to be. You still breathe, ambulate, go to work or school, stay at home, love your spouse. (Or hate your spouse - hey, I don't want to judge!)

Whatever your daily routine is, it has stayed the same, even though these different people are in the world, too. Even though that nice black family moved a few blocks away. Even though a gay Latina woman was voted in as sheriff of Fort Worth, Texas.

You still got your paycheck. The game still came on last Sunday, and the Cowboys still lost (and seriously, Romo, get your head in the game and get that arm in condition).

You aren't affected by their lives in other homes, in other cities, in other states. Your children aren't affected by it. They really, really aren't.

Well, I'll amend that. They're now aware that differences exist.

Is that, has that been, the problem?

You didn't want them to know that black people are successful beyond sports and music?

That gay people don't want their parents and other married couples to stop being married because they can't get legally married in all 50 states?

That atheists don't care that you're in church on Sunday? (Because seriously, it is so blissfully quiet on Sunday morning when I go run. Please go to church!)

What does affect your children is your hate.

Your intolerance.

Your snide comments at the dinner table about how “that one isn't giving his parents grandchildren.”

Your limp-wristed, high-voiced impression of the teenage boy that loves fashion, not footballs.

The dirty face you make at the young woman who prefers overalls and short hair to tight dresses and ornate accessories.

Every time you use the phrase “short bus.”

Each instance of you grabbing your bag tighter as a black man walks towards you on the street or a person of Middle Eastern descent gets in line at the airport.

* * *

Your assumption that my son, because he's autistic, atheist, and gay is one or all of those things because he's “retarded” or “doesn't have Jesus” is a continuing lesson in hatred you're giving your children.

And you have got to stop using the R-word word as an insult. Wow, does it make you look stupid and mean.

My son isn't looking for “special” treatment or “special” attention. He gets it, because it's the result of nice little Christian boys who jam his head in the toilet at school to “clean him” of his sins, and that's just the stuff they do that I can print here. Trust me when I say he would really prefer to not get that kind of “special” attention ever again in his life.

He wants, as do I and millions of other people around the world, to get the same treatment.

No fingers pointed for being different. No one telling him he's wrong for liking what he likes, being who he is, and for loving whom he loves.

No one hissing slurs at him every damn day in the halls at school.

No one telling him that he can't have basic services that every straight white person in the U.S. enjoys. (Did you even realize that? How un-American it is to deprive a fellow American of these things?)

He would absolutely go bananas for a full day of nothing “special” happening to him at all.

He'd love to turn on the television and see himself, just as other kids do. He'd love to hold his boyfriend's hand in the hallway and make plans to go to the burger joint with their group of friends just like the other kids.

He'd love to be able to ask his teacher to clarify what she meant without people telling him angrily to shut up because they don't care about the lesson and he's being “irritating.”

His friend would love to wear her head scarf and not be called a terrorist, when all she's trying to do is be modest and honor her beliefs.

* * *

So if you're so damn sick and tired of all of these “special interest groups” getting special treatment, I actually have a very simple solution for you: stop isolating them. Stop denying them basic human dignity. They'll be just like you, because they are just like you. Well, minus a lot of the hate.

Those folks you don't like and go against everything you want for yourself and your family?

You don't have to kiss them on the mouth. You just have to stop punching them there.

See? Easy.

All of that “special treatment” that people continually bestow upon my sweet boy - a boy who cries over animals being harmed, a boy who works at an elder care facility every day and who loves hearing stories from our abandoned grandparents while caring for them, a boy who wants to reach out to anyone else hurting and offer comfort - all of this “special treatment” is what has driven him to a rope, a knife, and a bottle of pills, even though he has support from people who care deeply about him.

That's how “special” that attention is. It trumps all other.

How can a mother's kiss soothe when there's a gash on his cheek from someone's boot?

How can his father's “atta boy!” override a teacher at his school telling him to just shut up, already? (Or be heard over the ringing, derisive laughter of his classmates?)

He can't remember his sister laughing at a joke earlier when his head is underwater in a toilet and a group of four boys are pulling his clothes off to toss down the hallway.

So if you weren't aware that you could stop all of this “special attention” for someone that doesn't fit into your definition of “normal,” then you have it from me that you absolutely can.


Just stop.

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