Shawn Vestal: Out of brutal bullying emerges project to empower young gays, lesbians
As a boy heading into high school in 1980s Spokane, Terry Miller was ready for a change.
He’d been attending Northwest Christian school but was interested in something bigger, more diverse, less religious. He enrolled at Shadle Park High – the school where his mother had been among the first graduating class – and braced for a change.
“I kind of exploded. I was like, ‘Oh, I can be free. I can be myself here,’ ” Miller said.
Being himself meant being gay, though Miller came out slowly and by degrees. In his early high school days, he established his difference with dress and fashion – being a goth kid, a punk kid, someone whose outrageous hair color might change from one day to the next.
“It was almost like coming out of the closet,” he said. “That was a huge mistake.”
Miller said he was relentlessly bullied at Shadle during those years. When his mom approached school administrators, he said one told her, “There’s really nothing we can do. He looks that way. He acts that way. He walks that way. He talks that way. He’s painted a target on himself.”
These days, Miller – along with his famous partner, the writer Dan Savage – is trying to give gay and lesbian kids a more reassuring message: It gets better. You’ve probably heard of the It Gets Better project, which started in September with a video that Miller and Savage made and exploded into a project with 10,000 videos, including one from President Barack Obama, and now a book. The idea is to show kids who may have no support or positive vision of a future that there can be a joyful light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a powerful and moving vision, a landmark in the effort to move beyond our inability to move beyond this.
In an interview at Kirkus Reviews, Savage – a well-known sex columnist and activist – said that Miller’s story was key to making the first video. Since then, he has reviewed and edited videos and helped edit the book.
“It wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t said yes,” Savage said. “He was so brutally bullied in his schools that he immediately said yes when he heard the idea.”
Miller and Savage have been telling their stories around the country in recent weeks to promote the book, “It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating Life Worth Living.” They spoke on the radio program “Fresh Air” last week, and Savage used one of their punch lines about Spokane: It’s a great place to be from – far from.
On Tuesday, Miller (his professional name) said he doesn’t hate the town, and that his mother still lives here and loves it. Growing up, his family was Episcopalian, a relatively liberal religion and background. He said his parents suspected he was gay before he came out.
At school, he caught flak daily for his differences, he said. One day in 10th grade, as he was walking from school to a piano lesson, a group of kids knocked him down and scraped his face against some hardened, rocky snow. That was the time his mom went to the school for help – and got none, he said.
A year later, an administrator broke up a group of kids who were pushing him around. He was called into a vice principal’s office – expecting to be told that they were taking steps to protect him, and instead finding his “main bully” sitting there. The vice principal told them to shake hands and be friends.
He came out to his mom shortly after high school; he never did tell his dad, who was dying of liver cancer at that time. He regrets it now, but thinks that his father knew and acknowledged it in sly, indirect ways.
These days, there is a lot more talk and action about bullying than there used to be. Still, in a lot of anti-bullying efforts there is a tendency not to address gay and lesbian issues specifically – whether it’s because of influence from religious conservatives or the failure to understand that it’s different from other kinds of bullying, Miller said. That’s a problem, because those kids are targets to a disproportionate degree.
Miller, a DJ and event planner in Seattle who just turned 40, has been with Savage for 16 years. They’re married in Canada, and should be here. They have a teenage son they adopted at birth. They come to Spokane for family visits – and for other reasons, such as researching a hilarious piece Savage wrote for The Stranger, recreating the 2007 visit of former Rep. Richard Curtis, a “family values” Republican caught up in a scandal with a male prostitute. (Savage wrote of the Davenport Tower: “It looks like all the furniture has been upholstered with Siegfried and Roy’s old thongs.”)
So, it gets better. But do we get any better? Have we? Spokane, I mean?
Maybe, bit by little bit. Miller noted that there is now a Gay-Straight Alliance at Shadle Park.
“That never would have happened when I was growing up and going to Shadle,” he said. “I was really blown away by that.”
There are preliminary discussions – nothing close to final – about him paying that group a visit.
“I think it would be really fascinating to go back to my high school and speak from a totally different point of view,” he said.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.