Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you’re listening to…
Both: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast.
Alex: A few years back I’m From Driftwood sat down with Joseph, a gay man whose actions as a bully led to some very important self realizations. Let’s listen to this story.
Joseph: I was a freshman in high school and I was very happy because I was lucky enough to be sitting with a bunch of upperclassmen girls. And there were three of us there. Me, a friend of mine named Janetta and a friend of mine and Bridget.
And a friend of theirs passed by us and his name was David, and David was, like, the out gay guy from our high school. David was… was very flamboyant to put it mildly. David was the kind of guy who would wear Daisy Dukes to school and, you know, like, ultra tight shirts. And, you know, he’s one of those kinds of people we used to say back in the day, was in the “crystal closet,” you know, you didn’t have to ask, you could just see right in. And that was David.
And David had come by to talk to Janetta and Bridget and then he left. And as he left, I came up or it might’ve already been there, but I said, “Oh my God, he’s just so disgusting.”
And my friend Jeanetta looked at me and she said, “What did you say?”
And I said, “You know, he’s so disgusting. he way he act, the way he just prances, it’s just… it’s just uncalled for.”
And she looked at me and she said, “Wow, Joseph, I thought you were better than that.”
To have somebody who… who I respected, who, you know, I’d only known for a short period of time but had become a good friend of mine, to… the look of, like, hurt and disappointment in her face really showed me that this like casual homophobia that… that I had been cultivating… just… it’s not cool and it doesn’t need to be done, and you don’t need to do that to… to have friends or maintain friends.
And, you know, that’s… that’s really powerful. You know, and, and you recognize that having gone through that, it just makes you realize that, you know, oftentimes like some people who are, who are the most virulently homophobic are just trying to hide something about themselves.
You know, even though I was a freshman in high school, I knew I was gay at the time. I had known for quite a bit of time that I was gay. I knew earlier on, you know, when I was in middle school and kind of starting to figure out what might be my story that it was always far easier to make fun of like gay kids or gay adults, would always get a good laugh, and, you know, I guess maybe subconsciously I also thought that people wouldn’t think, you know, that maybe I was one of those people too.
You know, later on, after I reflected on, you know, what Janetta said to me, I kind of figured out that I don’t need to do that. And I promised myself from that day on, I wouldn’t make fun of anybody for being gay as a way of trying to hide who I am and cover who I really am.
You know, if, you know, you’re… you’re dealing with those feelings and, and you just have to, you know, accept them and… and deal with them. And making other people miserable because you feel that you might become more miserable if people knew is really… is really cowardly. And you spread… you end up spreading hurt in a way that people don’t deserve and that you have no right to impose.
So I would hope people would… would kind of, I don’t know, maybe use me as a cautionary tale because I think eventually, you know, you, no matter who you are, you’ll get it and, and you’ll be ashamed. And so the earlier you can kind of change that the better.
Phil: When I heard the story, I was really taken by… first of all, I was really happy to hear a story of someone who actually bullied, not the person that was being bullied, but the story of someone who was bullying, because we often hear about the person being bullied. Right? We hear about that often. Very important.
But I think it’s also important to speak to and hear from people who have done bullying and have who’ve actually sat with themselves, reflected and understood why they would take part in that sort of behavior.
Alex: I think one of the most important aspects of this story for me was hearing about how Joseph was working through his own sexual orientation and working through the homophobia he’d been exposed to by doing the same exact thing himself. And to your point, I really appreciate that we got to hear about the evolution of how he learned and changed and grew to realize that what he said was really wrong. And that it was coming from this place of fear and alienation as a gay person himself. And I love that idea that as a young person, you have the opportunity to learn, you have the opportunity to change, and you can also repair any harm that you caused as a young person.
In that way, I feel like that idea is really important and also just speaks to that point that, so often as LGBTQ people, we really internalize those messages of hatred ourselves. And it can just come out in such ugly ways like that. So I just liked it because I think it’s really amazing when someone can admit the ways that their behavior was troubling in the past and how they learned and did better. And then also for him, how it was really part and parcel with the kind of homophobia that he experienced too.
Up next, we have Olivia, a trans woman whose story we filmed in partnership with the gay Alliance of Genesee Valley. She told us about a cyber bullying experience in high school and how much of a difference just one supportive faculty member made in her life.
Olivia: I did the very unique thing of transitioning from male to female in high school. I really came out around my senior year and things actually went pretty well. I mean, it was… it was turbulent at first, but eventually towards the end of my high school career, I was out of Olivia. Changed my name, pronouns, the whole shebang.
But one of the worst periods in that time was actually after I transitioned. I had gotten out of class, started walking home and got to the door, my bag on the counter, a little bite to eat. Went up to my room Got on my computer. I wanted to write a quick paper that I had been procrastinating and ended up doing more of that procrastinating on Facebook.
I’d made a status about my boyfriend at the time. It was mellow. It was nothing obscene. Just, you know, I was really thankful for him. Well, this kid was a grade below me. I never really had a real conversation with, but knew his name. He decided to get on his computer. Must have come across this post that I made and decided to start writing this awful, like, tirade on me, everything from.
Calling me “it” and “a thing” to talking about my parents and, and how no father could ever be proud of a “thing” like me. I didn’t want it to bring it to anybody. I didn’t want to seem like I was weak or hurt. And his friend started doing the same thing, everything from weird personal messages to like the occasional text or a prank phone call.
I had friends who were furious, but I felt so for, the first time, like, passive. That had really taken the wind out of my sails.
I tried to confront him in the library once. I felt this obligation to have a conversation with this kid. I wanted to tell him that, you know, what he did was completely unnecessary. And that if I did anything to ever upset him, like, I just want to know. He ended up just walking away and brushing me aside. I followed him for a little while, tried to flag him down like, Hey, seriously, I just want to talk.
Honestly, I think that scared them because I mean, he… he got out of there quickly, his buddies and all. And I’m sure if behind closed doors, they were happy to make more mean remarks and insults, but they weren’t going to do it to my face, which is what I would have appreciated. At least have the courtesy to do that.
I think the kid ended up getting suspended but by that point in time, it didn’t matter Whatever punishment and to give a kid like that at that point, I’ve found that, you know, it wasn’t going to change his worldview.
So there was, there was this teacher and in high school, when I first got there, I found that the high school had a GSA, a Gay Straight Alliance. And this was the first time I really had an opportunity to meet people who were like out of the closet and my age.
You know, I got there the first meeting and I met the advisor for the club. Mr. Ackroyd. Mr. Ackroyd was the first person I talked to after the cyber bullying incident. And he seemed really upset by the situation because he cares about his students, obviously.
Mr. Ackroyd and I just talked. We just talked and we tried to figure out plan of action. Like, what are we going to do next? What am I going to do next? And he, I don’t know, he took care of me through high school. He had my back. He was one of the only adults that I could trust with, you know, my identity and where I was going to be going in the future and… and who I was.
If you’re going through anything like this, do you feel like you’re alone, you’re not. No matter where you are, there’s always going to be a resource. And that even though there might be a lot of negativity that catches your attention, there will always be people who are good and are kind and can empathize with your situation. All you need to do is have the courage to reach out to them.
Phil: She basically was navigating a lot of this bullying on her own, and this teacher was the reason why she was able to finally, you know, make sense of it and also not take it on in such a way. And I think that that just kind of leads me to one of the takeaways that I wanted to mention, which is, I feel like this is a kind of metaphor for some other things in life, but you should – people should look for the helpers, look for ways to be supported and find community to help you when you’re in a situation like this. Because I think that part of bullying that is really, really tough for people is the isolation. It’s the feeling alone. It’s feeling ostracized. Feeling outside of a community. That’s the part of it that can be really, really damaging, I think
Alex: I also just don’t know how gung people deal with the internet today. I know just like when I was a teen and having to deal with in-person reactions and people talking behind your back and picking up the phone and calling people, and that bullying was so intense. So also just hearing her story, it just…, it sounds so terrifying and harrowing when now people can take a lot of this really harassing, horrible behavior online. So definitely finding that helper, finding those adults that you can trust, I feel like that’s so important.
Were there any other ways that these stories resonated with you personally?
Phil: I think that we don’t think about what happens sometimes to a person. So if I come out as trans and my family is just shutting that down, that’s a form of bullying to me as well. You know, I feel like that’s not really seen as bullying, but I feel like that’s also bullying. And I feel like that’s not something that gets associated with bullying so much.
Alex: That’s such a great point.
Well, I’m really excited to continue to dig into this topic even more so to help us expand on this and the many layers of it all, we have a pleasure of welcoming to I’m From Driftwood radio producer extraordinaire, Nico Wisler.
Nico: Yeah! Such a thrill. I’m never on camera, so it’s so fun.
Alex: I know the tables… the tables have turned, you know?
Nico: What do I do in this one?
Alex: Well, it will be fun. And on that note, I want to jump right in. So for our listeners who are new to you, would you mind telling them a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Nico: Sure. So I am Nico. I do many things. I do make radio, so I host and produce a podcast for the Heritage Radio etwork, that’s called Queer the Table. And that’s kind of my “by night” and by day I teach middle school. I teach sixth grade in Philadelphia. Lots of talking all the time.
Alex: It sounds like it. Yes.
Phil: You know, I’d love to talk to you a little bit about the work you do with podcasts. So you produce a lot of podcasts and do a lot of radio work. Is there one piece in particular that meaningful to you or that you’re most proud of?
Nico: Hmm, that’s a great question. There are… there are two that stand out. They’re are different. But this past year I produced an episode in partnership with a show called Bodies, which I would highly recommend. And I had known for a really long time that I am making a show about queerness and food, wanted to make an episode about eating disorders and about the trans community specifically.
And I knew that making it was going to be really hard because I had an eating disorder for a bunch of years in my early twenties. And so I, yeah, I just, like, felt really… I didn’t really know how to do that kind of storytelling. It’s kind of how I feel about being a guest. I’m like, I don’t know how to talk about myself. I know how to interview other people. But… so I reached out to the host of Bodies, Allison Behringer, because she had done some really just, like, vulnerable, powerful person, personal storytelling on her show.
And so we ended up collaborating to produce this episode called “Changing Shape,” and I learned so much and I got to kind of… Alison joked that it was like free therapy for me. I got to really, yeah, unpack so much. So that I’m really proud of.
And then the first episode of Queer the Table that I ever did was it’s called “A Footnote Not to Be Forgotten.” It’s the first episode of the show. And it’s looking at three riots really or actions that happened before Stonewall. So in the kind of late fifties to late sixties, all led by queer people, mostly by trans women of color. And all in, like, late-night restaurants or diners that were open in gay neighborhoods kind of after the bars closed or were spaces for younger queer people who couldn’t get into the bars to be.
And it just felt really special to kind of think about, and to start the show from a framing around, like, what does it mean to share space and share meals, and just really think about, like, the power of that. Especially I think for queer people who are so often, like, we’re building our own families and food traditions. So those are the two that stick out.
Phil: I love that. It’s about food. One of my favorite things.
Nico: Yeah. It’s so much of my love language.
Alex: On today’s show, Phil and I listened to two stories surrounding the topic of bullying. And I’d love to get your take on this subject and the different layers that we explored, especially since you’re an educator. Is bullying something you find yourself talking about a lot?
Nico: Yeah, I do. I find myself talking about it a lot. I find myself… it’s different every year. Sixth grade is a funny… a funny year to teach where sometimes they come in and they feel a lot older. They feel a lot like middle schoolers. And in other ways, they still feel really little and really, like, impressionable and sweet.
That’s the kind of year that I’m having this year, where I have a lot of conversations with my kids around bullying. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s that they’ve been isolated from each other for so long that they, like, really appreciate each other, but it’s not happening. They’re so sweet with one another.
And at the same time, really, like, love to dive into topics of, yeah, both day-to-day bullying and just like big social justice topics. This week, we are doing the Black Lives Matter at school week of action. And so every day, I’m doing a lesson plan about different guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement. And today we were looking at the principles of queer-affirming, trans-affirming and collective value, and they just, like… hearing them talk about just the ways in which they want to be allies and accomplices and talking about their own kind of intersecting identities, I right now feel a lot of hope around teaching middle school.
And I think some years, it does come up and it’s really hard. And it’s a lot of what I think was in those stories of just like kids trying to process the trauma that they’ve received. And so I think we can start talking about how to deal with that and kind of interrupt it, the better is what I feel like.
But it definitely feels like way less than when I was in middle school. Like, I don’t really hear kids tossing around, like, “That’s so gay” or… but at the same time, some of it is… I hear like coded language and coded homophobia or really trying to get at like, well, where did… what is that coming from with kids?
Phil: In one of her stories earlier, we heard about a queer person bullying another queer person as way to cover his own queerness. Have you ever had that firsthand? Have you ever experienced that?
Nico: That’s a great question. I’m trying to, like, really dig back. If I do, it’s repressed, you know?
Alex: Yeah. Yeah. Understandable.
Nico: I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I… I can relate to the like… I can relate to the piece in Joseph’s story around being out with my own queerness. I don’t know if I ever bullied anyone or said anything to her about someone, but like really seeing my own internalized homophobia and transphobia come up when I would see someone who was like farther along and being comfortable with themselves, or was just like able to take up more space than I was in a moment.
I don’t know if… I mean, it is, I guess, a form of bullying to like really distance myself from someone or kind of try to isolate from someone or not want to associate with them. That’s definitely something that I engaged in of just to like, “Oh, I’m not comfortable enough to be like that queer yet” or whatever that was. So when I heard that, that resonated with me of, like, that protection piece of wanting some space from that.
Alex: Yeah. I mean, I can definitely relate to the distance piece. I feel like when I was a teenager, I would make pains to be like to be very vocal about liking boys all the time, you know, just so that I could be like, “No! Me? Like someone of a gender other than male? you know, like, no, not me! Who? What?”
You know, like, I feel like in that way then kind of feeding into these like troubling attitudes, almost indirectly in that way. So just what you’re saying resonates with me a lot. I feel like I also just experienced, like, garden variety bullying growing up, and I feel like almost everyone experiences – I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt bullied or targeted at some point in their life. I mean, especially among LGBTQ+folks.
And then the other story we heard was from a trans teenager who was really viciously cyberbullied. And she talked about that harassment from a particular boy, and even attempted to confront that bully to no avail. I mean, did you ever have any experiences like that where you had to deal with a bully who you then tried to confront? Or, I mean, can you even remember those kinds of experiences?
Nico: I don’t know if I ever tried to confront a bully. Like, I feel like I remember being really… the time that sticks out of being really bullied or, like, kind of isolated was… was middle school, was, like, sixth grade. And I just didn’t… there was so much that I didn’t understand, a lot of it around my own gender identity. And it wasn’t something that was like really articulated to me other than, like, I could really tell that people were distancing themselves from me and I didn’t know why. Like, I felt really on the outs and really left out and just really weird all the time. And I – but I didn’t ever try to confront anyone about it. Like I can just remember, like people give you – it was a lot of, like, dirty looks or eye rolls when I would make a comment more than anybody calling me names or saying anything to me.
And I don’t think that I ever tried to confront people about it. And then when I was older and when I was, like, out, I wasn’t really bullied, but I just had friendships. And I kind of was like, Well, if you don’t want to be my friend anymore, because I have a girlfriend, then fine.
And I, yeah, I sometimes see that – that was like, maybe, I came out as queer, like my freshman year of college. So that was a couple of years after high school that that happened, like 2009. And I sometimes now, like, those people are grown up and I see them like posting things in solidarity with queer and trans people. And I, and sometimes it’s enough to see that. And other times, I wonder, like, what do you like to have a conversation. But, yeah, I, like, didn’t have the emotional energy for it then and I probably don’t know, I guess.
Alex: For real.
Phil: As an educator, I would just want to know how involved and aware of cyberbullying are schools, would you say?
Nico: Hm, I would say schools are aware, but I think not involved. Like it feels – and it feels wild, because cyber bullying was happening, you know, 10, 15 years ago when I was in high school. Probably even like when I was in middle school and we were on AIM for sure it was happening. And it feels like schools really still haven’t figured out how to regulate that space. I don’t know if “regulate” is the right word and I certainly don’t want to feel like I’m Big Brother to my kids. But beyond – I don’t, I don’t think we have great solutions beyond talking about it and trying to make kids aware.
There have certainly, I think, been like conversations with kids when, you know, if I’ve had a student come in and say, this happened on the group chat, and they know, like, to screenshot it and to talk about it, and then we can have conversations about it, but it does still feel like a space that… that teachers and administrators are really far removed from and where kids are really, really vulnerable.
And it’s changing all of the time. Like, there are new platforms all the time. And I don’t know, in some ways I think, yeah, like, kids find ways to be mean to each other and it’s not all that different. And another ways, kids will acknowledge, like, “I’ll say things online that I wouldn’t say in person,” which again is nothing new, but, yeah, I don’t think that we’ve figured out as schools, how to really manage that.
Alex: And I feel like even with adults and online platforms, I mean, adults are equally as terrible to each other. Adults who know better are… are awful to each other. And I feel like this is both such an interesting and fraught time with social media, just because right now, I think of young people having access to so much amazing information. Where you’re talking about your podcast and talking about the uprisings that happened before Stonewall, I think like, wow, how incredible would it have been to have access to that as a young person.
And I think just even to tumbler and to different kinds of identities and be able to have these conversations and find community online. And then the other hand, it also does feel like social media, this… this behavior can really go off the rails on social media in terms of bullying. And it is really hard to even track and navigate. And it just… it sounds so challenging, you know, as an educator to have to navigate all this.
So, I guess one thing I was wondering is, I mean, do you think that bullies grow up and change or do we bully differently as adults?
Nico: I think some bullies go up and change and I think, yeah, culturally adults do it all the time.
And I think also kids see that, you know, like, kids really… and so it’s hard when you’re getting messages of – and I think kids are really open to messages of like, “Be kind” and “Respect one another.” And, and then at the same time, like, to see, so being really shitty to each other, not setting a great example.
So I think, yeah, we certainly believe as adults and I would say, yeah, there are definitely ways in which I prefer hanging out with my sixth graders. Like, they’re just so refreshingly curious about people and want to do the right thing. And I think really see themselves as like, the grownup world looks messed up and we would like to build something better. And I think that’s true and real.
And I think as much as educators can do to not shy away from those conversations with them, because I think that’s where you get into it or where it feels really punitive, if you’re only having conversations with kids about bullying in terms of like you were going to get in trouble, if you do this, rather than, like, How do you want to feel in community with other people?
And, yeah, I think the ways that kids are really… one thing that I was really struck by was, I don’t remember what we were talking about yesterday, but we were having some sort of conversation around difference and they were all, like, I feel like the message that I got as a kid was like, “Don’t point out difference. Don’t talk about it. It’s rude.” And they were really able to go to a place of like, yeah, people are different and you should notice it. And tolerance is a bar that’s basically underground and like our job is to celebrate each other. And that just felt so different from what I got growing up.
Phil: I think your sixth graders have it right. Grownups can be messy. I can say that. They certainly can.
Alex: Oh yeah.
Phil: They should know better. And they… it can be messy, there’s no doubt about it. You know, what advice would you give to, like, say one of your kids came to you and they were being bullied? Like, what would you say to one of your sixth graders?
Nico: I think I would, if I had both of them, like if I had both the kiddo and the bully, or they were both in the school or whatever it was, I would really try to talk to them separately first. And then eventually to, like, I was wondering in Olivia’s story, like what it would have looked like to have someone help her have that conversation. Like, what a brave thing to try to confront someone.
And I think as a teacher, sometimes my job is to, like, be an advocate for a kid in that conversation. So I think more than what I would say for them, I would ask them, say to them, I would ask them, like, what they needed and wanted. And if they wanted to have that conversation, I would want to either help them prep for it or be there in that conversation as a supportive adult and then figure out from there.
But centering it around like, well, what do you need to feel safe in this community again? And I think just also affirming for them of like, it’s your right to feel safe. It’s your right to feel valued. And like, let’s do everything that we can to build that feeling back up. But yeah, I have that hanging – I have like in my classroom, I have a wall of, and I have bunch of just a list of like, here are things that are always true. And the first one is You deserve to feel safe and welcome here. And so that always feels like we have that and so we can always start there when stuff happens as it inevitably does.
Alex: As we begin to wind down, I would love to hear your what’s coming up next for you Nico. What else are you working on?
Nico: I guess I’m trying to figure out what I want to be working on. I’m, and you all are probably feeling this so much too, but I am feeling really tired by making a podcast on Zoom and I just want to be like up in people’s spaces, especially with something as intimate as food. And so I guess what I’m working on is rest. I’m resting.
Phil: That’s a worthy endeavor. I like that.
Nico: Yeah. So I’m thinking about, like, what will I want to do and what kind of stories will I want to tell when I’m able to kind of be back and share space with people again
Phil: Yeah. I love that. I want to be back in spaces with people, too. I’ve almost forgotten, what people are like. I have no idea. I’m like, I know what everyone looks like in a square, like outside of squares, like, you know, I don’t know what that is anymore. So I’m trying to figure that out. Can you tell people where we can find you online? Like, social media wise?
Nico: So you can find me on Instagram at Nico Wister, which is W-I-S-L-E-R. And there’s a link there to Queer the Table’s Instagram, which is at @queerthetable. And you can listen to that and anywhere that you listen to any podcasts, or on the Heritage Radio Network.
Alex: Well, Nico, it was so nice to get to chat with you both just with your perspective as an educator and also from all of the stories that you’ve done. So thank you so much for joining us to talk about such an important topic.
Nico: Yeah, thank you for having me. This was so fun.
Phil: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne
Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Andy Egan-Thorpe.
Phil: It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit LGBTQAI+ story archive.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s Founder and Executive Director is Nathan Manske. It’s Program Director is Damien Mittlefehldt.
Phil: I’m From Driftwood is a nonprofit organization, and this Podcast was funded in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
Alex: Additional funding is provided by TD Bank and Heritage of Pride New York.
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Alex: Help straight people learn more about their neighbors…
Phil: And help everyone learn more about themselves…
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Alex: Thanks for listening y’all.