OutUK Archive Item
       This is an OutUK Archive Item and so some of the links and information may be out of date.

Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

The Word Beneath My Name

The first time I ever saw the word "faggot," it was attached to my name.

I was in the seventh grade at Grandview Heights Junior High School, located in a beautiful, upscale suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My mother and sister both worked at the Grandview Heights Public Library and after school, I would walk a couple of blocks to the library and wait for them to give me a ride home.

One day, in the year JFK was killed, as I approached the front of the library, I noticed someone had taken time to write in chalk on the steps and the sidewalk:


Now, I will admit to being dumber than a tree stump back then about most things sexual. I was a tall, skinny kid, wore thick eyeglasses and was more interested in books and music and theater than sports. The kids who grew up with me --- the ones who were there since kindergarten, were used to me, but there were plenty of older kids --- and some new kids who joined the class along the way --- who regarded my existence as an affront to the quality of their education and our school. I was used to being punched in the arm when someone walked past me in study hall, used to having some of the more popular girls whisper behind my back and was trying to get used to the latest nickname given me, "Strawberry Patch," which had something to do with the lousy eruption of acne that decided to become a part of my life that year.

But the writing on the steps of the library --- why would someone do something like this to another kid, specifically me?

Well, there's three answers. One is very simple. The second and third are tied together and involve more complicated explanations.

The simple answer is that they did it because they could. Because it was fun. Because they didn't think about whether it would hurt me or any of my loved ones who might have seen it. Because I was set up, for a number of reasons, throughout my childhood up to that point, as an object for scorn and therefore was little more than a fly for them to swat or an ant to be stepped on.

The other, more complicated reasons are both mine and everyone else's.

I was the kind of kid who grew up not really knowing how to play with others my own age. During my early childhood, we lived on a street in Grandview where there were not a lot of other kids my own age and certainly not a lot of boys. Consequently, I learned to entertain myself or enjoy the things that my older sister did. I read a lot, took piano lessons, watched television and played with my sister's doll collection. Because I was crazy about music and theater, I used the dolls to recreate my own versions of "Your Hit Parade" or the Mary Martin version of "Peter Pan." I would line them up in front of an old 45 rpm record player, put on a tune and pretend the dolls were contestants on "Ted Mack's Amateur Hour."

When I got into school, I went in expecting to like other people and be liked. Up until about the middle of second grade, that worked out, but when we moved into a new neighborhood and I started interacting with other kids, they took one look at the doll talent shows and labeled me a sissy. Like a lot of kids who are teased, I withdrew into myself and decided it was more fun to be alone.

By fifth grade, my pattern of behaviour was pretty well set and I can see now that it wasn't only the kids who were bothered by it. While I enjoyed being in the Cub Scouts, it was pretty clear that I didn't have an affinity for the more outdoor aspect of it. I preferred to play with the girls on the playground because I wasn't much good at the things boys did. My parents even sent me to the hospital to have the family doctor "observe" me, to see if there was something "wrong" with me that made me "different." I saw the medical report years later --- the doctor's diagnosis was that I was just a healthy, maybe overly sensitive kid who liked music and books.

But my teacher that year, a rather bitter middle-aged woman whom I'll call Mrs. T, didn't like anything about me and made it clear. Because there was a girl (I'll call her "Ruthann") in our class who was a star athlete in boys' sports, Mrs. T just couldn't tell me to play with my own gender because that's what proper children did. She decided to exercise a lesson in democracy instead.

She put it to a vote of the class.

"All those who think that it's OK for 'Ruthann' to play with the boys, raise your hands."

Since "Ruthann" was one of the top batters on the baseball diamond, no one said no.

Then Mrs. T said, "All those who think that it's OK for Clifton to play with the girls, raise your hands."

I don't know what Mrs. T expected the answer would be. All I know is, that's how I learned the meaning of the phrase, "double standard." Only two kids --- both girls, neither of whom were ever very popular --- voted "yes." The rest of the vote was a resounding, "No, Clifton shouldn't be allowed to jump rope or play hopscotch or four-square or associate with the girls on the playground."

For the rest of the year, my options were to play with the boys or play by myself. I gave group activity my best shot --- even joined Little League one summer --- but every time I went to bat, I heard someone yell to the pitcher, "Take the sissy out." Sometimes it was another kid, but once in a while it was a teacher or a coach.

By junior high, my parents and my sister knew I was headed for trouble. My dad would take me aside and try to teach me how to box and encouraged me to carry a bicycle chain in my coat pocket "just in case you're ever jumped by a gang." My mother told me to hold my head up and keep my back straight and remember that all my older cousins went through an awkward stage and look how handsome they turned out. I tried to take her advice but ended up walking like some kind of gangly-legged peacock and made myself more ridiculous than I already was.

My sister, who graduated from the same school in 1960, simply said to ignore them. When she graduated --- with the older siblings of some of the same kids who had targeted me --- she focused her eyes on the rest of her life and never looked back at the school, except when she had to pass it on her way to work at the library.

Why wasn't I more assertive about defending myself? I don't know. I can see that my passivity, like that of every kid who has been the goat of other children, just antagonized them, like predatory beasts maddened by the smell of blood. Also, there were so many more of them than me. If I fought one, I'd have to take all of them on. So I kept my eyes focused ahead, and just kept walking, through the halls, at the playground, on the way home, pretending my cheeks weren't burning and my ears weren't hearing.

The day I read "CLIFTON SPIRES IS A FAGGOT" on the front steps of the Grandview Heights Public Library, I didn't know what a "faggot" was. But, coming from a family of library workers, I knew where I could find out. I walked up the front steps and right into the reference room. I grabbed the biggest dictionary there and looked up the word. Then I was really confused.

Why would anyone call me "a bundle of sticks or twigs, used as fuel for or as a means of burning heretics alive?" Was this some kind of wisecrack about how skinny I had become? I looked up "heretic," but that didn't help, either. Granted, my family was one of two, maybe three Mormon families in an otherwise half-Catholic, half-Protestant school district, but I doubted if many people knew what faith we practiced or even gave a damn.

Then I saw the additional "faggot" reference. "Slang: See HOMOSEXUAL."

So I looked up "homosexual" and my confusion expanded like a helium balloon. Having a very primitive knowledge of sex, I could barely imagine how two people of opposite genders, let alone what the dictionary was suggesting occurred between two homosexual men. I closed the book very quickly and decided it was better not to know what people were saying about me. I prayed for rain, the kind that washes chalk writing away.

A couple of years later, I was a freshman in high school. The acne was starting to clear up, I had gained a pound or two and all that interest in music, theater and books was starting to pay off. There was a talent show at the school with a few speaking parts in it and amazingly, the teacher/director cast me as one of the leads --- a comic old man --- playing opposite a well-liked and very funny senior girl. I was the only one from my class to get a part and I was proud of it. I also felt like the other students in the show --- nearly all upperclassmen --- liked me and were treating me affectionately, like a kid brother.

One night, in the last week before the show, I was walking home after a late night rehearsal. It was a long walk to our house, which was on the outer edges of the school district, but I was higher than a kite because the show was good and I felt I was doing well.

About halfway home, a car pulled up beside me. I could see four guys inside and a couple of blue-and-white letterman jackets, with a big "G" for Grandview.

"Hey, Clif, you want a ride?" a friendly voice said. A rear car door opened, but I couldn't really see anyone's faces.

Long-standing advice from my parents about not accepting rides from strangers echoed in my head --- but is a fellow student ever a stranger? I stepped forward and started to say, "I can't see who you are ---" but didn't get the words out. I was grabbed and dragged forward into the car and shoved into the back seat. The car door slammed and the driver floored the gas pedal.

For what I realize now must have been about 90 minutes, I was driven around by these four guys, who were all upperclassmen --- seniors and juniors. I was punched, slapped and elbowed in the neck. My pants were opened and I was forcibly masturbated. Two of the guys forced me to perform oral sex. I was called a queer, a faggot, a homo. I was told that this was what I wanted. I was told that if I ever said anything, they would kill me. I was told they knew where I lived.

And when it was over, they dropped me off at the same place they picked me up. I walked the rest of the way home. I don't remember crying, but I could have.

My parents were in bed with their door shut when I got home. I stopped outside the door to let them know I was back and said there were problems with the rehearsal, which is why I was late. I then took a long shower and went to bed. I may have slept. I don't remember.

The next morning, my dad asked about a bruise on my face. I told him I slipped during a dance number and that's all that was ever said. When he came to the show, I don't know if he ever noticed that I wasn't in a dance number.

For the rest of that year, I went through the motions of school as if existing outside my body. I watched how I walked. I watched how I dressed and always made sure that if the occasion called for it that I had a date. I blamed myself, you see --- it was all my fault for not fitting in. Oddly enough, I wasn't afraid anymore --- the worst I could imagine had happened to me, so why be afraid anymore? What an unimaginative kid I was --- there are a few far worse things that could have occurred. What happened to Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 is one example. At least I was able to walk away.

I saw at least one of the four guys every day of that school year. From the day after and onward, I always looked them in the eye when we passed in the school hallways --- at first, I think it was to let them know, silently, that I hadn't and wouldn't say anything. Later, when I saw them look away, I realized it was because they were now just as scared as I had been.

Two of them graduated that spring. By the following year, they all were gone. I never saw them again although I've kept tabs of them, through occasional correspondence and conversations with former classmates. They went to college and the military, all married, some divorced, all had children. Some have had happier lives than others. In the high school yearbook from that year, they all are pictured on the same page. I've spent some time looking at that page, thinking about them and wondering if they sleep well.

There are times I've looked back on the night I was raped and wondered if the five of us --- and the experience links us together for life, like it or not --- had somehow crossed into the world of William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" for 90 minutes.

I spent the rest of my school career keeping myself "in control." I watched myself a lot. I purposefully lost the rest of my virginity to an emotionally needy older girl whom I knew would talk about it. If I belonged to a club, I made sure I was part of its leadership. When I graduated, I kept on watching myself and found relationships very difficult because I never let my guard completely down.

I attended two colleges --- first studying music and theater, then journalism. I married twice, had relationships with other women and ended up with two sons out of all that. I got religion and then let go of it.

When I was 40, I had a breakdown of sorts and spent some time in counseling trying to recall why it was so important that I be in control of everything. It was then I first started to speak of being bullied in school and what happened in the ninth grade.

Taking my sister's advice and following her example, I stayed away from Grandview as often as I could. I never went to a class reunion until 1999, when I attended my 30th. Although there had been some bad experience with those classmates, none of them were responsible for what happened in the car that night in ninth grade. We all grew up, sadder, wiser, mellower, kinder. The visit helped heal some of the pain from the past.

So why would I go public about this nearly 35 years later? My parents died without ever hearing the story from my lips. The statute of limitations has run out and there would never have been much of a case --- my word against four others. If a peace can be made, I guess I've made it. I'm not naming names. The perpetrators know who they are and if they feel guilty about it, they can go confess to their priests. There's nothing any of us can say or do to each other that will change anything or make it better.

As I mentioned, I have two sons. One of those sons happens to be gay. One of them happens to be straight. In their lives, they both have met up with bullies of sorts and when I was aware of their problems, I tried to be in their corners every time.

It was a big deal for my oldest son when he came out about being gay to my wife and me. When he did, he had no idea how hard it was for me to hear it from him, although I let him know that my concern was not about him being gay as much as it was about how other people would treat him. There are many things about this son's life that I would change --- he's had his share of troubles through the years --- but his sexual identity is not one of them. It is a part of who he is and it would be like trying to make water dry or a blue sky yellow: he would not be the same person. His mother and I love him without condition.

What has changed in my life is that somewhere along the line I quit blaming myself for being "different." For many years, I have stopped reliving what happened to me in the ninth grade and saying, "If I had just been better at sports; if had spent less time at the library; if I had not been in that play; if I had not been me." I was simply the kind of person I was and it was wrong for other people not to accept me for who I was, whether I was like them or not. This goes on all the time in our schools and society --- we all see how it makes and breaks people.

There's a lot of talk nowadays, in the aftermath of the school shootings at Columbine High School and elsewhere, about "doing something about school bullies," who in nearly every case, harassed a kid who eventually pointed a gun and fired at other students. In all the reports I've read, one of the insults hurled at the student who went berserk was that he was "gay." Ask any high school student and they'll tell you the worst thing that anyone can be called is "gay." On the social order of insults, being attracted to one's won sex is the worst thing that can happen, even lower than being convicted of vehicular homicide due to drunk driving.

Parents and adults in society, including educators, bear some responsibility for this attitude. Some schools, when approached by groups like Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), will not even consider having a PFLAG brochure in a school guidance officer for a kid who is dealing with issues of sexual orientation. Some schools are so resistant to discussing the subject they will close down all extracurricular activities rather than have a student Gay-Straight Alliance formed in the school.

Yet if someone suggests that maybe the crackdown should be on behavior that singles out other people for not fitting into someone else's stereotype about what is "normal," people who normally would think the American Civil Liberties Union is for communists will threaten to file suit to defend their child's right to express hatred.

Being bullied and being made a pariah --- and there were teachers and coaches and parents along the way who directly or indirectly encouraged the student bullies to do it --- made me a stronger person. But it could just as easily have driven me over the edge. We've seen in recent years how bullying, combined with other factors, such as easy access to weaponry, violent video games and lack of parental involvement, can lead to tragedies such as the shootings at Columbine High School. We need to tackle all those problems.

Because of their contribution to my life, high school bullies always will my personal Public Enemy No. 1. I say without shame that as a parent, I have stepped in and stood up for my kids or other kids when a playground turned into many against one. I've been told off by parents whose kids I turned in for picking on others. And I've been called a bully myself on at least one occasion because I told a loud-mouthed young girl at a school awards ceremony to stop calling people "ho" and "gay" when they went forward to receive their honours.

What happened to me while at Grandview Heights High School was an example of long-unchecked bigotry --- against a kid who seemed "different" --- turning otherwise ordinary kids into bullies capable of crossing a line dividing civilization from savagery. It is a bizarre and extreme example of how such prejudice manifests itself. But even in its lesser forms, bullying and the bigotry that goes along with it has no place in our schools or elsewhere in society.

Published May 28th


search | site info | site map | new this week | outuk shop | home | outback | more



  UK gay lads | Gay news UK | Gay travel and holidays UK | UK & London gay scene

OutUK features the latest gay news, advice, entertainment and information together with gay guides to cities and holiday destinations around the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. There are hundreds of galleries of photos and videos of the sexiest gay guys plus intimate personal profiles of thousands of gay lads from all around the UK.