Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Snapshot: John Monaghan

Eighteen-year old John Monaghan started coming out six years ago in his native town of New Hartford, NY. He has quickly become a key figure in organizing support in his area for the Dignity for All Students Act, which would give schools the necessary tools to stop biased-based bullying and harassment (including based on sexual orientation and gender expression). John first became involved with the Pride Agenda when he attended Equality & Justice Day in 2006. John, who just graduated from New Hartford High School, will begin his freshman year at Hobart College in Geneva, New York this fall, where he plans on majoring in political science and history.

When I came out as bisexual at the end of sixth grade I didn’t realize that there would be long-lasting ramifications. I never thought that my friends would stop talking to me, that I would be outcast or that other kids would refer to me as “the gay kid.” Though I was coming out and growing up quickly, I was still a naive twelve-year old.

The summer quickly came and it seemed that even though the kids in my neighborhood knew that I said I was bisexual, no one really knew what it meant. Somehow that made it still acceptable to build forts, go swimming and ride bikes with them. At least until it was time to go back to school and begin seventh grade, the first year of junior high.

I had decided not to tell my parents that I was attracted to boys and that I thought I was bisexual, because I didn’t want them to react like many of my so-called friends had. I also decided that since all three elementary schools would be coming together at the junior high, I could make plenty of new friends who didn’t know that I was different.

Yet word travels fast when you’re twelve going on thirteen and soon everyone knew that I was “that gay kid.” I was outcast. I was trying to fit into various groups and cliques, unable to find my place because no one wanted to be friends with “that gay kid.” I also came to accept that I wasn’t bisexual, I was gay. Eventually I was able to find my place with a group of friends that would be inseparable throughout junior high, including the girl who is still my best friend almost six years later.

But nothing seemed to be getting easier as I grew up. Everyday followed the same pattern: I would take the bus to school where other kids would harass me, calling me faggot, fudgepacker and queer. Then I would go to my locker where people would shout more gay slurs at me, followed by classes where some of my peers would tease and taunt me when the teacher wasn’t paying attention (or in some classes they would get away with doing it right in front of the teacher). Then there was lunch where I would be with my small group of friends and people would throw food or spit on me, then more classes and lastly the bus ride home where various items were thrown at me, like unopened cans of tuna fish, pens, empty soda cans, spitballs, trash and occasionally a few punches mixed with death threats.

That was my daily routine at school. Then there were the days where I was “blessed” to have gym class. I hated gym because the gym class heroes and other assorted jocks were usually the ones who harassed me the most. Junior high physical education turned into “pummel the fag.”

It only took a few months of this daily harassment before I became very depressed and withdrawn. I vividly remember a day late that fall when the harassment was worse than what I had become accustomed to. It was on the bus ride home that I had been surrounded and the onslaught began. First it was the usual insults, then they threw things at me, but it went further that day when one of them said “just wait till we get off the bus you faggot.” When we did they surrounded me and followed me home yelling and throwing rocks and sticks. Eventually they split up to go home except for two of them. One of them tried to throw a punch at me; I grabbed him by the shirt pulled him in and said I would beat him up if he didn’t leave me alone. He backed down because he was never tough when he wasn’t with his friends.

When I finally got home I knew that I was exhausted from trying to make it through each day only to come home and pretend everything was ok. My older sister was supposed to be staying after school that day for a club meeting. I decided that it was time to end the abuse I faced. Knowing that she wouldn’t be home for at least an hour I headed to the medicine cabinet. I took some sleep aids to make sure that I would go to sleep quickly, and then I opened up a few of the pill bottles. I decided I was going to start with the ibuprofen and work my way through the prescription and over-the-counter pills until the drowsiness hit. I hoped I would have combined enough pills that I could go upstairs and sleep and never wake up. It was the first of five suicide attempts within two terrible years of depression.

Luckily my sister’s meeting had been canceled. I heard her come home when I was in the bathroom and I was afraid that she might hear me emptying the bottles, so I flushed the pills and put everything back. I would just have to wait until a better time and method came along. And they did: I later tried hanging myself, poisoning myself, and the last two times I took a pocketknife to my wrists. But each method was painful, and I always asked myself “why is it that it even hurts when I try to escape the pain I feel every day?” I never finished what I started, but I was always looking for a quicker painless way. I’m thankful everyday that I never found one.

I still had not told my parents that I was gay, let alone that I was suicidal, and so my only support came from my friends. While there were not many of them at the time, they helped me make it through the first year-and-a-half of junior high. It was my friends who I called after every attempt and it was my friends who convinced me to get help and to try to sort out the mess that was my life.

About halfway through eighth grade, I continued the painful process of coming out by talking to my school social worker who was an invaluable help. She convinced me to come out to my family, to report the harassment I was facing and to see a therapist for my depression. She told me that she was sure my parents would rather have a gay son than a dead son and she was right. I was so depressed that I couldn’t fathom acceptance from my family if I couldn’t be accepted at school. But my depression blinded me from seeing how supportive my family had been all along. When I did come out to my parents they told me that it didn’t matter if I was gay, what mattered was that I was happy.

In time things improved for me: I no longer had to hide who I was to my family, the school cracked down on the students who were harassing me, and for once I didn’t feel so alone. Yet, even at the end of my eighth grade year, I was still the only out student in my school.

In ninth grade, I decided that no student should have to go through the experiences that I went through. It was then that I founded the Perry Junior High Peer Mentoring Program as my Eagle Scout Project. Despite the fact that the Boy Scouts have a very anti-gay policy, I remained a member (though a closeted one). I was determined to become an Eagle Scout to prove that no one could prevent me from doing something because I am gay.

The Mentoring Program had goals that were in some ways similar to the current goals of the Dignity for All Students Act. It aimed to work toward providing an environment where students of all different backgrounds could learn in an environment where they were accepted and valued. It worked to bring together other outcast students, like I had been, with older volunteer mentors. Ironically, my Eagle Scout Project also served to let other students know that it’s ok to be gay and that they weren’t alone.

Even though I was not harassed anywhere near the level I had been before, the harassment was still present every day. But I was lucky enough to have the Mentoring Program and Utica’s LGBT youth group to take my mind off of the intolerance that I faced--for the first time, I didn’t feel so alone.

I thought that if I could conquer depression and suicide and triumph over constant homophobia and harassment, that I had already beaten life’s toughest challenge. That notion didn’t last long as I realized that the root of the problem was still there. While things improved for me, there was still rampant homophobia in my school and I knew something had to be done about it.

After my first year in New Hartford High (my sophomore year) I fell right back into depression. It felt to me like I worked so hard to end the homophobia in my own life but it never really went away. I was discouraged that no matter how old I got, I would still face bullying and harassment in my school because of my sexual orientation.

It was in my junior year that I truly conquered my depression. It was also that year that I realized I couldn’t count only on the help of others ending the homophobia in my life. It was true that reporting harassment to the Dean did help to an extent in the junior high. But waiting for everyone else to give me a hand just wasn’t working anymore. I knew that I needed to work to end homophobia in my school with a more hands-on approach, something like the Mentoring Program had done.

I was lucky to have befriended many more people in high school and two of my especially liberal friends were trying to form a new social justice club called Students for Justice and Equality (SJE). I was particularly interested in the club because New Hartford’s other gay (as we sometimes jokingly called each other) was one of SJE’s co-founders. He was determined to include gay rights as an SJE campaign.

After a hard battle to incorporate such a progressive club into a conservative school district we tackled issues such as hunger, poverty, women’s rights, domestic violence, environmentalism, and of course gay rights. None of which could have been possible without the support of our advisor, especially our school’s first-ever Day of Silence.

I suppose that I had developed a sense of cynicism by that point, because it was easier to have low expectations than to be constantly let down. I was excited to participate in the Day of Silence but my expectations were definitely not high. I was sure that it wouldn’t have many participants, but at least it was a start.

I thought I knew what I was talking about; in fact I turned out to be dead wrong. Who would have thought that being wrong could make you feel so good? We had over two hundred people participating in the Day of Silence (slightly less than a third of the school). When a few students came and shouted gay slurs at me, about ten students came to my defense that day (granted they were silent so it was an amusing mimed defense). But for the first time we were making real progress and I was addicted to activism.

I went to my first LGBT Equality and Justice Day in 2006 with the head facilitator of Utica’s LGBT youth group. It was there that I spread my activism into the realm of politics and it was there that I first learned of the Dignity for All Students Act. I knew that I had to bring the fight in Albany back home with me and that’s exactly what I did.

Since E&J Day ’06, I had become co-president of Students for Justice and Equality; participated in making SJE’s video on our first-ever Day of Silence; helped organize our school’s second Day of Silence; brought eight SJErs with me to E&J Day ’07; organized our school’s first Local Climate Survey to measure homophobia, racism and sexism in our school; launched an email campaign to our state representatives for Dignity; organized in-district meetings to lobby for Dignity; won a Teen All-Star award for fighting against homophobia; met with the Pride Agenda in New York City and was recognized by GLSEN at its Respect Awards Gala along with two other members of SJE for our Day of Silence Video.

After listing some of these accomplishments at an in-district lobbying visit, I was asked by one of my state representative’s aides: “why, are you so motivated to see Dignity for All Students pass? The law won’t directly affect you because you’ll be graduating.” I said: “it’s simple; I don’t believe that any student should have to go through what I went through. No one should be treated like I was, just because they’re different.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this.

It never ceases to amaze me how active and progressive the generations behind me are becoming.

Being thirty-two means that I never had any openly gay peers in high school (much less was able to come out myself!) It means so much to me to see that a social conscience and urgency for advocacy is growing leaps and bounds while safely in the hands of our younger community members.

Bravo to Mr. Monaghan! He is a leader, an inspiration and an undeniable hero to many of us in the movement. I expect great things from this one!

Anonymous said...

This is an important and inspiring article for students, faculty, administration and parents alike. Thank you for sharing your painful past as well as your well deserved accomplishments. Most especially, thank you for your committment to 'justice for all', a maxim many say but fewer aspire to protect.

Anonymous said...

I'm proud of you John! Keep up the good work.
Aunt Nancy