Bullied By Society

Last night a new friend and I were talking over a beer (actually it was over a jug) and she told me that she had worked out a theory to explain why I am so interested in politics, and also for why my politics are so much about universal justice and human rights values.  Her theory was that perhaps I had been bullied as a kid (for being gay) and that this experience led me to my politics. She wanted to know if this was the case. I told her no, but I am now wondering, on more reflection, if perhaps there’s more to the story.


I told my friend that I hadn’t been bullied as a kid (for being gay or otherwise) and that my lifelong interest in politics preceded any awareness of being gay (I was interested in politics since I was seven, or for as long as I can remember). My interest in politics intersected with being gay only to the extent to which being gay conflicted with opportunities for being "mainstream," or for exercising this interest. At the time I came out I knew that I was too liberal for an easy path in American politics, but being gay compounded this reality to a level that I thought made any career in politics impossible.

The first words I said to myself after deciding to come out in 1991 were "there goes my political career".  At eighteen, I believed that I was done for as a politician.  This is one of few instances when I have so easily given up. At the time I felt a deep and tragic loss. Looking back, it was one of the best gifts I could have received, an unexpected blessing from being gay and by coming out.

What I lost was a sense of entitlement, which took years to recover.  What I gained is knowing that while we are all entitled to fully participate in community life, this entitlement usually requires a fight to secure, a fact of life that unfortunately applies to all but the most privileged.  In time I also learned the value of the fight itself, the value of demanding and then securing a place at the table.

Reflecting on this now makes me realize how clearly 2010 is not 1991. Little did I imagine that in just under twenty years many American communities would elect openly gay politicians to many levels of political office, with their personal life being just one of many factors in their public life. In 1991 there was no Will & Grace, no Ellen’s coming-out episode. Gays and lesbians were mostly invisible on television and in movies, and if seen were most often portrayed as sad and tragic, dangerous and debased, or in some other stereotypical form. Back then I could not even dream that neighbouring Canada would recognize same sex marriage without distinction.

When I came out in 1991, I took it for granted that mainstream politics was not an option for me, and that my (then planned) career path of going from law school, to law practice, to city elected office, to state office, to federal office was over. My interest in politics and my anger at the reality that I was unlikely to be a mainstream politician led me instead to the tail end of the the radical GLBT rights and AIDS movements, which profoundly influenced my development as a person.  My eyes were opened to injustices in the world. I witnessed the capacity of the powerful to inflict pain on others.

Now an "other" I wanted to view all the other "others" as being simply human, just like me.  And this required that I not turn a blind eye to human suffering anywhere, not to the children who died of disease and poverty in the embargo years after the first Gulf War, not to the children later burned alive with chemical weapons in the battle of Fallujah, not to farm workers in modern day slave-like conditions in Florida, not to public housing residents displaced to build sports stadiums, and not to homeless day labourers working for less than $4.00 an hour to clean trash after baseball games.

While times have changed in terms of respecting the rights of gay and lesbian Americans for the better, it was only a few years ago when George Bush included denial of same sex marriage rights in his State of the Union address to Congress.  These remarks followed Bill Clinton’s signing into law the "Defense" of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same sex marriage across the board.  Governor Gary Locke (now Barack Obama’s Secretary of Commerce) did the same for Washington state.  Gay and lesbian Americans were not considered as full participants of civil society by the entire mainstream of American politics (which is actually a very narrow band, given the weakened state of American democracy).

We are still used as political footballs in a high stakes cultural war played for partisan gain.  As with the human rights violations in Iraq, Cuba and Afghanistan, the U.S. government, political and media elite and legal system did not seem to share my values when it comes to treating everyone with dignity and respect, or in treating all life as sacred. So I moved to Canada in 2007, where (thankfully) I am no longer a political football in political cultural wars, and where human rights are still celebrated and advanced by the society at large.

This brings me back to my friend’s questions: Was I bullied? And did bullying contribute to my politics and to my current interest in and passion for community organizing?  Did bullies get me into a lifelong mode of fighting for universal justice?

My answers to these questions are actually related to some of the ideas and issues I have recently confronted in my transition to Canadian society, whose political systems I am learning to be part of in a much different way than I related to those of my home country.  Since moving to Canada I have become much more "pro-system" and am now interested in working within the system, accepting (and celebrating) that I live in a functioning democracy worth participating in, worth contributing to, and worth protecting.  I feel much more "engaged" in civic life, going back to how I viewed myself within society just before the day I dropped out of my childhood dreams on the day I decided to come out.

My friend asked if being bullied as a gay man contributed to my political work, and I said no.  But in truth I think that the answer is yes, as I was bullied by society.  This bullying led me to a different path in politics, as a community organizer instead of as a politician. It ultimately led me to a different country, where I remain a community organizer but can now be reoriented toward participating in a democracy, rather than protecting the community from a greatly weakened form of democratic government. In this sense bullies did help shape my politics and my passion for human rights – just not childhood bullies. It was grownup political operative bullies who did this for me – such as George Bush’s Karl Rove and Bill Clinton’s Dick Morris.

Now that I am in Canada, where I feel welcome to participate in civic life as a participating member of society, I want to share the opportunities to which I’ve been privy as an immigrant, or the opportunities of inclusion.  I know that not all immigrants and not all Canadians, especially First Nations people and Canadians in poverty, are so fully welcome to the table of community and civic life. This is why I want to work with others who believe the table should be open to everyone.

I am thankful to be in Canada, to be an immigrant to this country and to be welcomed as an equal member of our society. I am also thankful that I know what it is like to be excluded and pushed to the margins.  I hope that I will always remember what it means to be excluded, so that I will remain committed to sharing the lessons learned of the value of inclusion and human rights for all. What I learned by being taken out of the mainstream of American politics are lessons I hope to share and apply in my new country, as I work with others to ensure that everyone in Canada is respected and included in our society together.

Originally posted at Tom Kertes.com


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