I Was a 10-Year-Old Bully

Now that I'm a dad and an LGBTQ ally, I want to apologize.

by Robert Dean
Originally Published: 
A 10-year-old wearing a winter coat leaning on a brick wall with his head on his hand

Dear kid,

I’m sorry I don’t remember your name. You might remember mine. I want you to know I think about you. All the time.

Where we grew up on the South Side of Chicago, you had to be bulletproof. Black people didn’t walk on that side of the viaduct. Gay people were relegated to the dens of iniquity on the North Side. Where we grew up, dudes named Sullivan drank Miller Lite longnecks and listened to Led Zeppelin, catcalled the girls from down the block, and smoked cheap reefer. Even on the quiet streets.

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We did typical stupid kid stuff. We played “games” like Smear the Queer: If you had the football, everyone else had to beat the crap out of you before you made it to the goal line. There was a dude in my grade whom everyone called “Pat the Fag” when he wasn’t around. Whether he was gay or not didn’t matter; we thought he was soft. If you didn’t have hard hands or an iron will, you weren’t going that far down, where the streets numbered in the 100s.

I remember meeting you on the corner near my mom’s house. My friend Brian from down the street knew your name.

I remember him picking on you. And I remember tormenting you right along with Brian because he was tough. His dad used to kick the snot out of him for not being hard enough every day, and I didn’t want to seem weak around a guy like that. I joined in as we chased you, screaming, “Get the homo!” No one in the neighborhood cared. It was business as usual.

I remember how we cornered you by a wooden fence. You pleaded for help, and no one came. Anybody listening probably tried to tell themselves we were “playing.” We weren’t.

When you slipped from our grip, you ran like hell. We didn’t chase. We felt like we saved the world from one more sissy. I was a popular kid, no arrest record, and I found joy listening to Megadeth tapes and eating cheese pizza. This was a moment of peer pressure, ignorance, and weakness, engineered by two blond fifth-graders in baggy Metallica shirts, thinking they were the coolest jerks on skateboard wheels.

Decades have passed, and even now, I’ll lie in bed, remembering how I felt like someone else after we attacked you. I felt gross, and empty. All this from a guy who takes it personally when someone doesn’t like me. Chances are, you could have used a friend in our world.

I was 9 or 10. I grew up. I found different friends. I discovered punk rock, and eventually hardcore, which taught me about people, life, politics, and community. I listened when Kurt Cobain preached tolerance.

That experience, though, lives in my bone marrow, and I have to own the shame. I have so many beautiful gay and trans friends now that it turns my stomach to know how ugly I was as a boy. The last time I brought it up — in San Francisco, on the last day of Pride — I drunk-cried on the way to a gay bar with my friend Will.

As a straight white guy, I need to be honest about my mistakes — and to stand taller as an ally during an ugly time. I’m a dad now, in charge of two little boys. I’ll never teach them anything but love, openness, and kindness. I’m proud of where I’m from; I love the South Side. But I want my boys to experience life alongside all their friends, no matter their color, religion, or who they want to kiss. They’re growing faster every day. They might be gay, bi, or trans. I just hope their hearts will be free.

Kid, I hope whatever life you slid into is a good one. I wish I could make up for the past. All I can do is work on the future, beginning with my own sons. And I can say to straight white men like me — with the privilege those things bring us — that we’re all capable of doing ugly things. In the post-Brett Kavanaugh world, we can’t bury the past. We need to meet it head-on. I can’t call myself an ally without admitting I’ve been ugly, too. For you, and for everyone who’s ever been mistreated, screamed at, or felt small in a big room, I’m sorry.

Kid, I wish I knew your name. This is the best way I have to tell you I’m eternally sorry. I’m sorry for the disrespect, and I’m sorry I didn’t stand up for you. I hope you can hear my apology.

Robert Dean is a father of two and writer living in Austin, TX. He’s currently shopping his newest novel, A Hard Roll. He likes ice cream and koalas.

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