In light of the recent news of the student's suicide at Rutgers, I wanted to share a story.
When I was in high school, I made a new friend my sophomore year. We'll call her Mary, although that wasn't her name. She transferred in her junior year. We had Spanish together and got to be friends. We worked on projects together for class, and although I wasn't actually allowed to hang out with school friends outside of school-related activities (crazy cult upbringing), we still managed to hang out sometimes on the pretense of education, of course. She invited me out this one time to go ice skating. She played ice hockey, and said she could teach me a few skating tricks. I tried to tell her I was unbelievably clumsy, but she swore no one she'd ever instructed ever got injured, and convinced me to go. I caught the blade of one skate on the blade of my other skate while trying to do some maneuver (what it's called, I can't recall), and fell on my left knee, leaving me with a huge bruise and limping for a week. After that, she gave up on me and we simply just "hung out."
Our friendship continued through the next school year, and we had Spanish and Calculus together. Towards the end of the year, a few of my upperclassmen friends started to make some rude comments about our friendship. Mary was athletic with short hair and was tomboyish, often dressing in gender-neutral clothes and didn't wear make-up. People began to suspect she was a lesbian, even though she was dating guys (she also notoriously had a sexual encounter with the ex-boyfriend of another friend of mine). But the rumors stemmed from her friendship with one of the more "popular" girls in her class with whom she played on the school soccer team (we'll call her Sue). One of my friends who was also friends with Sue warned me that Mary would invite me over to get me in her hot tub and "make the moves on me," as she apparently had Sue, who was appalled and no longer friends with her. (Mary never invited me to hang out in the hot tub. In fact, I'm not even certain she had a hot tub, I'd only been to her house twice.) And I honestly don't remember whether that bothered me or not, or how I dealt with that rumor. I know about that time, I was dealing with my own life's very bad shit and we weren't hanging out after school, although we were still friendly at school, ate lunch together, etc.
Anyway, this was about the end of Mary's senior year, and she started up a new friendship with this girl who it was also rumored was a lesbian (we'll call her Jane). Somehow I ended up out of the loop of the gossip mill for awhile, and suddenly one day there was an explosion of rumors going around about sexual encounters between Mary and Jane, and the same day, Mary was crying in class. I approached her and asked what was wrong, and all she told me was "It isn't fair... why can't you be allowed to love who you love?" I never asked if she meant Jane, but I could certainly relate to that statement on some level thanks to my whacky cult upbringing. I merely shrugged and said, "I don't know." Not exactly words of wisdom coming from a 17-year-old, but honestly, I'm not sure at 31 I even know the answer to that question.
I should have been a better friend and been there for her to talk to. I should have bitch-slapped all the rude people who thought it was their business who Mary was with, instead of sitting by idle, listening to their gossip. But I was too involved in my own life's drama to be bothered, I guess, and maybe too insecure to take a stand for her. And I wasn't all that mature that I realized it's important to take a stand for your friends, or that as a young woman trying to figure out her sexuality, that she could have used my support.
After graduation, Mary joined the Navy and like most of my high school friends, disappeared. I saw her briefly a few years later, and then a few years ago found her on MySpace. She was married (although not legally) to an individual she described as "the woman of her dreams." I was glad she had figured out who she was and found someone who made her happy.
Being a teenager sucks. But it sucks a lot worse when you are different, and you feel alone and trapped by your circumstances. A million times worse when your peers are cruel and go out of their way to humiliate you and make you feel as though there's something wrong with you. If it's one thing I want to teach my daughter is that it isn't okay to sit by and let your friends be treated badly by other people, no matter how distracted you are by your own life. And I hope if my daughter likes girls, or just likes anything that is deemed "not cool" by her peers, and is picked on or bullied, that she will be strong enough to fight it and stick up for herself.