A Tale of Two Bullies: ‘Bully of the Bullies’ and ‘I Was a Teenage Homophobe’
by Cathy Speck
Where do I begin? Such enticing titles —- how can I possibly make the stories worthy of the curiosity already garnered? One thing I know for sure is, I’m not starting at the beginning.
For those of you who don’t know my story, here is a “brief history of time,*” or as a like to call it — the present. I am a married 52 year-old lesbian LGBT activist, ALS advocate dying of ALS, columnist, singer/songwriter, former athlete and Safety Director of the Davis Food Co-op living in my native town of Davis, California.
I’ve had ALS for over three years, so I’m right on target for the average prognosis of living 2 to 5 years after diagnosis. Over the last couple years, I have humbly accepted many honors and awards for my advocacy and activism, and I do mean humbly. Do I feel unworthy? Well, it’s more like I’m kind of embarrassed.
Okay, okay, where is the bully in this story? Get to it, Speck! Here I am. I am the bully, rather, I was the bully. I was a big, strong kid, and Robin Terra and I were the tallest students all the way through sixth grade at North Davis Elementary. Robin was a delightfully creative pacifist, but her younger sister Jennifer was my tomboy sidekick. I had to “knock off” pretend bad guys, so I could save Robin from their clutches, and give her the Victory Kiss. All of this pretend fighting was priming me for the real stuff (kissing girls included.)
We grownups know that bullying wears different costumes, and is expressed in myriad ways: fists pounding in the back or belly, or face, choking, kicking, tripping, throwing rocks, name calling, threatening, and even spreading rumors, either out loud or written. And when I was a 9-year-old tomboy on Oak Avenue in Davis, we didn’t even use the word bully. In fact, sometimes we used very few words at all: “If you step over this line, I’m gonna slug you.” Or “If you step over this line, Cathy Speck is gonna slug you.”
We’re talking about the mid-1960s here, and some of our behavior was reflecting what we were hearing and seeing on the TV, cover of TIME magazine, and in headlines of the newspaper — the Vietnam War.
I wanted to be the hero (that hasn’t really changed) and I didn’t use my physical power without good reason. I was the one on our block and on the playground who beat up the bad guys, and once or twice it was a bratty girl. I really don’t remember calling anyone a bully specifically; we just used their names: “John Davis is coming over here.” If the scared kids said that to me, I would puff up my big, but still flat, chest and stand in front of my minions.
“Whaddya want, ” I’d say with my “early dyke-y” deep voice, not using the question mark sound.
“Shelly stinks like dog doo, so I’m gonna rub her face in it.” (I don’t think he got that from the Vietnam War headlines.)
“Don’t even think about it,” as I marked a line in the dirt with the heel of my Keds.
“You can’t tell me what to do!”
“You better leave her alone, and if you cross the line I’m gonna beat you up.” I wasn’t really a girl in their eyes. I was The Protector.
I think from third grade through seventh grade I actually only “beat up” (in reality punched, tackled, tripped or wrestled) five times, but my reputation was huge. The scrawny kids might even taunt a “bully” then say, “Cathy Speck is my friend so you can’t touch me, nah nah neener neener neeeeener!” That lasted through seventh grade, until the boys grew, and I could no longer scare them just by looking down at them.
But something else happened during that period. My mom was diagnosed with ALS, and my world, my focus, my energy, my… how can I describe that to you? I was 11 years old. I found temporary comfort in eating, then overeating, trying to fill the void, as my mom grew weaker and more handicapped. By the time I was 12, I weighed 200 pounds and was almost 5′ 8″. Once again, “bullies” at school or in our neighborhood knew not to mess with the scrawny, vulnerable kids, ’cause they’d have to deal with me first. I was in 8th grade, and had many terrific fun-loving, supportive, loyal friends, who unwittingly kept me from committing suicide. (We are still dear friends, how wonderful!) Less than a month after I turned 13, my mom died in the hospital of ALS.
“Now what do I do? Now what.””
Outside of school, my neighborhood, and my “territory in Davis, I became a big target to taunt, especially in other towns. What compels people to roll down the car window and yell to a stranger, “Hey fatso, oink oink, hey, Fatty Fatty!” And only got yelled at when I was alone. Hmm, sad. Harshness piled on top of utter devastation.
I decided I needed to survive “on my own,” and I wanted to make my Mom proud because “I knew” she was sitting on a cloud watching me. So I started exercising more, eating way less, and lost 30 pounds during the summer between 8th and 9th grades. I also grew an inch, but I can’t take credit for that. (A few years late I lost another 30 pounds the “wrong” way — but that’s for different column.)
While my mom was dying, I let my grades slip and my report card showed a few B’s and one or two C’s. But with my new inspiration, I earned straight A’s. And I was on the student council, was president of some clubs, and played on every sports team. And the big (not fat) change for me was that I found my passion in writing. I was editor of the yearbook.
Oh wait, I so smoothly modulated into the “I Was a Teenage Homophobe Bully” story, that I forgot to clue you and me in. So here you go: you have just finished reading the “Bully of The Bullies” part of this column. You have the back story, and I bet you’re ready to read about my transformation into a “homophobe.”
These true stories occurred at the “old” Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School” on B Street in “Central Davis.” (BTW, Emerson is my great-great-great-great uncle on my Grandma Speck’s side.) The name of the yearbook was “The Flame, ” and those of you who have gaydar and/or are LGBT savvy, know what flaming means. Our school colors were purple and white — purple is another color/icon owned by the gay agenda in addition to the rainbow flag. And the “white”? Well… the name of the school newspaper was “The WASP, ” and our mascot was The Trojans. I didn’t find out until 2008 that all of these decisions were made by the student council of the first class at the junior high. My late brother Larry was in that group of rascals. (I am not intimating that Uncle Ralph was gay, but…)
I was Features Editor of The WASP, and also wrote two purportedly anonymous columns; one was called “The Sting.” a gossip column, and the other was called something like “Dear Gabby,” a rip-off of Ann Landers/Dear Abby. What I created, wrote and published in 1973 would be considered “bullying, inappropriate, or literary hate-mongering” by today’s standards. And it was all because I was homophobic/confused and ignorant about my own thoughts and feelings. What did I write that was embarrassing and hurtful? I suppose I was testing the waters in a backward way, like wondering how cold the water is, then touching a piece of dry driftwood to determine the water temperature.
Not that it matters but… everyone I “pegged as gay” ended up coming out of the closet a decade or so after getting “stung.” And, no I don’t think my writing was the origin of their sexual orientation. In retrospect, I see that I only wrote about gay boys; the girls were spared. Maybe I didn’t want to make any of the girls mad at me because I had latent crushes on them. Now there’s a word I haven’t used in years — latent, as in “latent” homosexual.”
In The Sting, I made up the majority of gossip, and I never actually call anyone a fag, or faggot, or gay. Instead, I would write something like:” The Stinger has heard that it might be true the Bob Mattiff and Fred Gilbert were seen walking down the hall holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes…” Another example: “We all know that Mike Striffon wears girlie clothes at home, and calls himself Susie Homemaker.”
And in Dear Gabby, I totally made up the questions, and of course the answers: Dear Gabby, I hope you can help me. The boy who sits in front of me in Social Studies is so cute and smart. Sometimes I dream about him, and then the next day when I see him at school I blush because I think he can tell I was dreaming about him. I don’t know what to do, because… I’m a guy too!
Well, the truth is, at that age I had been having dreams about one specific cheerleader, and when I’d see her at school, my stomach would get all fluttery, and I’d walk away from her. And I also preferred to wear boys’ clothes, and liked making the girls laugh. Those days “gay” wasn’t the term. It was “homosexual” or “pervert,” and the two were often used interchangeably. I didn’t know what the heck was going on with me, since I knew I wasn’t a pervert, and being a homosexual just sounded gross.
You might be wondering why the school administration allowed such damaging literary bullying. Well, I was clever. I turned my columns in to the journalism advisor, he approved them, then gave the papers to the student assistant working the “ditto machine.” Of course, that student was a friend of mine, and she gave the “approved copies” back to me, and I gave her my unedited original columns.. Since the advisor had previously read the columns, he didn’t bother to read them after they hit the newsstands. I really didn’t mean to hurt anyone, I just thought it was funny, and I was exploring my budding sexuality using an unfair and harmful venue. But that is not an excuse — it is the reason, but not an excuse.
At the beginning of the third quarter, a parent who had read the harmful gossip called our Vice Principal Mr. Loveall (what an appropriate name). I was called into his office for the first time. We discussed the “fruity” comments, and he counseled me appropriately. Mr. Loveall’s words and perspective truly helped me see things differently — he duct-taped my eyes closed for two weeks.
Ha ha! He actually said the perfect thing to me, even if he had no idea about my “latent homosexuality”: “How would you feel if someone wrote something like this about you?” he asked. Me: “You mean, holding hands with a guy? Wear girlie clothes? Eeeww.” He chuckled. I faked a laugh, knowing the joke was over. I never even tried to pull that stunt again.
I have since apologized to all the guys (I hope) who had been the subject/object of my features. One of them, Mark, saw at me in a gay bar in Sacramento in the early ’80s. He was a bit tipsy and was waving me over, slurring and trying to yell louder than the disco music: “Cathy Speck I will never forgive you for writing about me in The Sting!” I put my arm around him and told him how very sorry I was…. Truly, I felt horrible that I could have caused real pain to those guys. He said some other words that I couldn’t hear, but he was smiling when he left, so I felt okay. Here’s the clincher: I saw him again about three years ago, and he told me what I didn’t hear that night at the bar. He said being “outted” back then actually helped him. Way back then there were closeted gay guys at the school who didn’t know what to do with their feelings. Let’s just say that I inadvertently helped Mark get more dates than even the most popular straight guys.
I reiterate — nothing excuses my poor behavior as a teenager regarding the pretend gossip and other “literary bullying.” But I did learn how to be an advocate and an activist, and to fight for equal rights — without violence or verbal abuse.
I guess I’ll end on a tragic note since I get bored being so predictably positive: The boy on our block who would be the bully in today’s terminology ended up being murdered, presumably in a drug deal gone wrong. He wasn’t gay.
* See Stephen Hawking
(Columnist’s note: Many of the names is this column are pseudonyms.)