As soon as the school bell rang for class break, my heart started to pound. I knew what was coming: my Calvary.
A group of schoolmates who used to bully me daily surrounded me in the classroom. They mocked my behavior and feminine gestures. They called me a gay slur. I couldn’t comprehend why they made fun of me tirelessly. I was unaware of my sexual orientation. I was only 14.
I have never forgotten that violent episode, among many others, because at that time one of my habitual bullies made a pronouncement: “Shoer, you’ll never grow up to be someone in life. With any luck you’ll be a hairdresser.”
Three years ago, I shared my experiences as a survivor of bullying on the Show de Cristina, then broadcast by Univision to millions of viewers in the United States and Latin America. I soon received a flood of e-mails from gay young adults in several countries, grateful for giving them a voice. Every time the program was rebroadcast, others wrote to me.
Leaving the show’s studios in Doral, I felt that the chains that bound my heart had broken. It was my first moment of personal redemption in a public setting.
The second one occurred in August 2010, on the occasion of a class reunion to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our graduation. At the time, I wrote a column describing my childhood’s sorrow and how it remained latent all these years despite my efforts to alleviate it.
Although I received a flood of anonymous hate messages — more than for any other column in my career — several former students from that very same school wrote to me. It turns out they had been victims of bullying too, although not for being gay. They also felt redeemed by the article.
The truth is that I would have preferred to live a less traumatic early adolescence, even though there were happy times and supportive friends. But today, at the age of 38, having faced the trauma, I have the feeling that school bullying was part of a divine plan so that I could more easily identify with anyone who suffers.
As a result, I am committed to wage battles on behalf of the oppressed, the people whose voices are not usually heard — abused women and children, the elderly, immigrants, the poor, the disadvantaged, minorities that endure discrimination or prejudice, the mentally ill, exploited workers, HIV carriers and, of course, targets of school bulling.
In each instance, in addition to defending the less fortunate ones, I feel that I am defending the Daniel who, in his school years, lacked a voice to counter his oppressors. I lived in constant fear and, as any other victim of child abuse, I suffered in silence. Neither the school administration nor the parent-teacher association rescued me — homosexuality was taboo in Venezuela in the 1980s — and, because of their inaction, they were the enablers of the bullying.
Many people consider me brave because I write openly about my sexual orientation, my vulnerabilities and the difficulties in my childhood and teenage years. I do so by conviction. I am a true believer in education as a bridge of understanding between people who don’t know each other and are alienated by fear.
Personal experience has taught me that even the most conservative heterosexuals empathize with me and support me. Obviously, there are always people who, to refute my ideology, attack the essence of who I am instead of using rational arguments.
Particularly in the Hispanic community, often plagued by machismo, there has been a lack of role models for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
I believe that if I transform the adversity of having been rejected, humiliated and tormented into an inner strength to help others, I can reconcile myself with my past without burying it and, while doing so, be useful to society, especially to the local community.
That is the secret of how my wound of school bullying has healed, although at times it opens anew and manifests itself in insecurity, isolation and fear of rejection. Every time I walk into a high school my heart pounds again. For an instant, I connect with the young, victimized Daniel. But when I leave, I no longer carry him on my shoulders.
Although as an adult I’ve gone through moments of instability, I’d like to consider that my life has been successful. I’m not talking about the professional aspect, but in the realm of emotions, values and spirit.
If that day, when I was hounded by bullies in the classroom, I had known the treasure that God had in store for me, instead of fearing them, I would have thanked them for motivating me to become “someone in life.”
Daniel Shoer Roth is El Nuevo Herald’s Metro columnist. He writes periodically about spirituality and values.