For the past month I have listened to my parents talk about the decline of a former member of their church, the church I grew up in. I have grown used to this as my parents are in their seventies and their friends from the church are even older. Once or twice a month, my mom will share the passing of a person from the congregation, a church I left almost 30 years ago. The man they had a great deal of concern with was my first bully. He wasn’t in the halls of my school or on the playground, but he was at their church. Several decades later, his bullying still rings in my ears. When we visited my parents with the kids for the holidays, they brought up the fact that he was now in hospice and not expected to live much longer. I shared with both of them his bullying actions to me and my friends growing up, but they didn’t seem to care. My dad shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something about him being an old friend and my mom commented on how rough this all was for his family during the holidays. I addressed this man and his bullying in my book. The following is an excerpt adapted from that book.
There is much talk about bullying these days, and rightly so. With the boom of social media over the past decade, it has become very easy to taunt and harass not only in person but also online. Much of the bullying prevention is aimed at younger kids: schools everywhere have “Bully-Free Zone” signs adorning their halls. Sadly, bullying happens at all levels. For me, I took my fair share of ribbing when I was a kid. Most of it was not aimed at my sexuality. But going to my parents’ church was a different story. Toledo, Ohio in the mid-80s was still holding on to its automotive factory roots and many of the parents of the kids I grew up with were factory workers for Jeep or Champion Spark Plugs. The parents of one of my friends had a collection of awards and clocks for their decades of service on the assembly line proudly displayed on their television. I chose education as my career, as I had great respect for many of my teachers and I wanted to continue that tradition with my own career.
During this time, I was still living with my parents and attending church with them each week. I dreaded the weekly service, as a rather loud and obnoxious member of the church (who is probably a member of the Tea Party now) would verbally harass us young adults for being in college and not “doing anything” in his stunted vision of life as an adult. Due to his family’s status in the church, we usually blew him off and nervously laughed while he called us worthless one hundred different ways each week. The Sunday dread set in when I saw his pickup truck in the church’s parking lot, adorned with American flags, veteran stickers and countless right-wing causes.
Was this bullying? Probably, but we were young, and no one in the church seemed to care that this guy verbally abused us every Sunday. Everyone, including my parents, seemed to think it was okay. They would laugh and say that he was just being himself, and in so many words, that we should buck up and take it. I think my parents actually sent me to ex-gay camp at his house when I was a kid to knock out some wood working projects and tinker on cars (which I hated) since I didn’t embrace any of that as a kid. I would have been happier playing with my "Planet of the Apes" treehouse set or reading, but they had other plans. So I diligently trudged up the street to his house each week and pretended to care about what he was trying to teach me.
This man was physically large and intimidating and he always wore a flag pin before you had to wear one post 9/11. He would pony up to us youngsters in the narthex of the church before the service and smack our shoulders and ask us what we learned in college as he wiggled his hips and made funny faces. He took particular joy in making fun of my choice to teach art. His voice would slip into a lisp and he would ask how my classes ("classsssssssssses….he would hiss) were going at the museum. Never mind that I was going to a world class institution and had some of the best art education professors in the state, to him it was all a joke. If he didn’t do that, he’d ask us what we had done for our country lately, insinuating that since none of us were in the military, the answer would be nothing. (He was a veteran, natch.) He never once called me gay or questioned my sexuality; he didn’t have to, his actions spoke for him.
One of my college jobs was as an activities director at a nursing home. The facility had a Veterans Affairs contract, so we had a rather large population of veterans from all branches of the military. Aside from hosting countless bingo games and craft projects, I was also mandated by Veterans Affairs to give the veterans a well-deserved block of my attention each week. With this aspect of my job, I could finally respond to his annoying question of “What have you done for your country this week?” My work at the nursing home provided a tangible answer to his taunt. The veterans and I would do puzzles, smoke cigars – yes, they could smoke in the facility, and drink too! – or we would watch old war movies that I rented from the library. I'd sit with those who couldn’t get out of bed, or were too far gone, and read them a story from a Reader’s Digest, or I would just sit with them and hold their hand.
So one Sunday, I had finally had enough. When the man came up for his weekly harassing, the question came up, as it had so many Sundays before: “What have you done for your country this week?” I turned to him and started listing all the things I had done with the various veterans in the facility, calling each of them by name and mentioning what I did with them and how much time I spent with them. I then looked him straight in the eye and said, “How about you?” He didn’t have an answer and walked away. My heart was in my throat after calling him out on his bullsh*t, but it felt good to finally put this lug in his place.
Post script: I learned that he died on New Year’s Day. My dad posted on Facebook that he held on until January 1st as he wanted to live to see 2015. He told his family that he had already bought a calendar for the year and didn’t want to waste it. The comments after the post expressed sympathy for the family and praised this man. For me, I am just glad that the bullying stopped, but the memory of those actions remain.
You can find Tom McMillen-Oakley's book “Jesus Has Two Daddies” here.