A Coach's Word: What happens when a faculty member
hurls anti-gay slurs at a student?
James Slusser tells his tale.
by James Slusser
When I was a sophomore in high school, I, like a lot of teens, struggled with my sexuality. Being somewhat "feminine" growing up, I was used to the taunting of my peers. I was used to the snickering and name-calling.
Over time, I had learned to turn the tables, unleashing a razor tongue on anyone who dared to put me under the microscope. I had become a campus legend as "the gay boy who is too funny to hate."
But, any security that I felt, any safety that I had managed to create for myself, was shattered by someone I never even suspected.
One afternoon, as I broke away from PE class
role call, my friend Jenny approached me. She looked distressed.
"Did you hear what he said?" she asked.
"Coach." Jenny paused. "Coach. He called you a 'faggot' when you passed by."
A group of students gathered around, confirming what Jenny said. I laughed, sure that it was a misunderstanding. They followed me as I approached Coach, his back to me, laughing with some jocks in the class. He turned and looked at me with a smirk on his face.
"Coach, did you ... " I stammered. "Did you
call me a 'faggot?'"
"Yep," he chirped, without pause.
My heart began to beat like a drum. I couldn't believe -- or comprehend -- that he would confess to such a horrible thing without remorse. The jock boys began to chuckle and whisper. All eyes were on us.
"Why would you say such a thing?" I asked.
He rolled his eyes, and scoffed. Then he stepped closer, until I could feel his breath upon my skin.
"You know," he began loudly, so everyone could hear. "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and STEVE."
The crowd erupted after he delivered his oh-so clever punch line, and his words and the laughter tore into me with a combination of sadness and furious anger. I looked back at my friends. They looked like I felt -- stunned, scared and upset. I wanted to run, but I knew I would never forgive myself. I peered deep into Coach's eyes, as he laughed at me.
"How can you say such a thing? You're a
teacher -- you're supposed to protect me, not attack me," I said.
He leered at me and announced loudly: "Hey it's not my fault that you're sick!"
The laughter began again. My heart felt like it was going to be ripped from my chest. My forehead throbbed. Coach smiled, like he was some kind of hero. I had had enough. This time, I stepped closer to him. I looked him deep in the eyes.
"You know what? F--- YOU!" I roared. My voice
echoed through the gym, and the once roaring crowd grew silent.
I stormed out, throwing the locker room doors open without glancing back. I knew I looked so brave, but inside I was falling apart. I felt so ugly, so filthy. I began to tell myself what I used to always say, "Don't be gay. C'mon you're not gay." I snatched my backpack from the locker, not even bothering to change. I thought Coach was going to come beat me up.
I sprinted to the principal's office. I had to hurry, because I knew my courage would give out, I knew that fear would find me soon. The principal invited me in, and I took a seat across from her desk. I blurted out the whole ordeal, pouring my heart out to her. She simply sighed, went to the file cabinet and tossed me an "Incident Report" form. I scribbled away, writing so much that I had to continue onto the backside. "SOMEONE is going to care," I thought.
Handing the form back to her, I expected an apology or some words of encouragement. Instead, she simply handed me a hall pass and told me to go to my next class. I went to my next period, and immediately asked for the bathroom pass. I entered a stall, locked the door and, for the first time in a long, long time, cried so hard that I couldn't breathe.
I hated myself. I hated myself for allowing this man to wound me. I hated myself for being gay. For the rest of my life, I thought, people are going to treat me this way. If a teacher, someone paid to instill tolerance into my life, was going to call me a 'faggot' then what chance did I have? For the rest of my life I will be coated in shame. I just wanted to curl up and disappear. I didn't want to be me anymore.
When I got home, my Grandmother asked me why my eyes were red. Out of pure exhaustion, I was honest. She was silent for a long time, and then, without words, picked up the phone and called our family attorney. I would realize years later that this was her way of supporting me -- and the person I was going to become. Our attorney -- a gay man himself -- faxed a letter to my school advising them that they should take action.
Two days later, I was called to the guidance office and led into a small room. Three school officials awaited me. Over the next half-hour, I was told in several different versions how "wise" it would be for me to let this "small incident" go.
The saddest part? I did.
I was so jaded by the whole incident, by my whole dim experience as a gay teen, that I truly believed I had no right being a "faggot" to begin with. I started to think Coach was right. Maybe it was supposed to be Adam and Eve -- not me and Steve.
I left high school at the end of that year, and began college prematurely. I couldn't bear another day of seeing Coach in the halls. I couldn't bear the thought of that day. I didn't want to hear the laughter anymore.
For a long time, when I looked back at the choice I made to "just let it go," I was plagued with a sense of anger and frustration for not doing the right thing -- for not fighting for the right to be WHO I AM.
After years of being ashamed of my sexuality, my heart finally awoke. I stopped being the little boy crying in the bathroom stall -- and became a man who happened to be gay. Coach's hateful words set off a domino effect leading to my coming out. I had to look deep down inside and make a decision whether to face a world full of people who would hate me -- just like Coach -- or to hate myself the rest of my life for living as a fake.
I decided I couldn't be responsible for other
people's unjust ignorance, but I could love myself.
After my friends and family embraced my coming out, the self-hate and doubt fled me. Instead of pitying myself, I began to pity people like Coach, who'd never get to know the wonderful gay men and women I've met along the way. I began to pity people who would only be surrounded by copies of themselves.
I did see Coach again, in a grocery store near my high school. He still wore the same old uniform. My first instinct was to confront him, to dare him to call me "faggot" again. But as he passed me, our eyes locked, and all I could see was this sadness inside him. I realized that I didn't need to say anything. I simply shook my head and kept walking. I've never stopped.
A graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, James Slusser lives in Orange County, Calif., and is currently working on a project with writing partner Cindy Mac.
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