At around Midnight a few days ago on Tuesday, April 14th, 2009, I happened to notice a news story on CNN about an 11 year old boy named Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover from Massachusetts, who had been taunted, bullied and harassed daily for almost one year straight because he was perceived as gay. Days before he would have turned 12 on April 17, unable to take it any longer, Carl committed suicide by hanging himself with an electrical cord in his home.
At the time, his mother was cooking dinner, and when Carl didn’t come downstairs from his third floor bedroom to eat, his mother went upstairs to find out why. To her indescribable shock and horror, she lived every parent’s worst nightmare when she found her son. Immediately, she cut the electrical cord with a knife given to her by her daughter, Carl’s sister, to try and free her son, but it was too late. He was dead.
All of the torture, abuse, threats, names and relentless bullying got the best of him, and as no one at the school or any authorities came to his defense in any meaningful way, Carl couldn’t take it anymore. He was an African American boy who dreamed of growing up, becoming President one day and changing the world – but those dreams are forever gone.
According to the story, his mother, a woman who had survived breast cancer and homelessness, called the school every week, pleading for them to intervene and do something to stop this and protect her son; and of course, as usual, the school didn’t do enough to protect Carl. Predictably, the school tried to defend itself with some prepared official media statement designed to exonerate themselves of any wrongdoing which was probably drafted by a lawyer. Why? Because now they really do care; not about the safety and life of Carl Hoover, but about getting sued.
I felt such a rush of sadness, emotional grief, and tears, not only for him, but for so many people who have been so relentlessly tortured, bullied, harassed and abused. Some have committed suicide as they felt there was no way out, while so many others have even been murdered – all because of perceived sexual orientation, and gender identity.
When I heard Carl’s story, it was painfully easy for me to relate to, as I’ve been through it myself as well: from the kids on the playground constantly making fun of me, alienating and abusing me, to junior gang bangers chasing me home threatening me with knives in grade school.
In high school, I was harassed daily by students and teachers alike. I remember the high school band teacher choking me on an out of town choral band trip while everyone just stood there casually and watched.
When I was playing piano accompanying talent show singers at a high school talent show, the football jocks kept slamming the lid that covered the piano keys on my fingers to try and break my fingers while I was playing. Here’s how it went: they’d slam the lid down, I pulled my fingers back just in a knick of time, then they did it again, and so on, till I eventually slipped and fell off the riser I was on. The fall gave me a serious bleeding gash on my leg – enough to get stitches, but as you would probably expect, I kept playing. Even back then, the show must go on was my motto and creed. Later I found out the wound did indeed need stitches, but it was too late for that, so the scar remains, as do so many from that time period.
Emotionally, psychologically, physically and systematically, I lived through this abuse virtually every day I was in school — and I never threatened, harassed or physically hurt anyone else — ever. So no, I didn’t deserve it as some people have cynically said, merely just because people didn’t like me for being different, a “faggot,” or because I was considered annoying or strange. One moronic local even had the audacity to recently post a blog that it was my strangeness that actually killed my father, who transitioned into spirit when I was just 15 years old.
Upon graduating high school, I thought I could live my life as I wanted, and be forever free of this abuse, but I quickly learned how that wasn’t true when someone pulled a gun on me in a Hammond, Indiana White Castle hamburger joint parking lot because my friends and I looked so strange. This person didn’t pull the trigger thankfully, but just stood there pointing the gun and laughing at me for a while, then he smugly walked away.
I had the same shocking disappointment again when I entered the world of rock ‘n’ roll, as I naively thought that rock ‘n’ roll housed the disenfranchised. Again, I thought the abuse would finally end – but it didn’t at all. It was just now done by narrow-minded vicious audiences and critics, as rock ‘n’ roll is a tremendously conformist art form and not a place for real misfits, but only for “acceptable” ones. Being just a smidgen different is hailed as brilliant, but if you’re really out there like I’ve been, you’re in trouble.
Where do you think the ideas came from to write such songs as Knuckle Sandwich, Joan Fan Club, and No Liberation Here? They were written from a lifetime of horrible personal experiences and a sense of the never ending pain and terror that one only knows if they’ve lived through it or seen someone they love experience it like Carl Hoover’s mother and sister did. I frequently receive emails from people as young as early teenagers who have been touched by the message of my work, sharing their stories of alienation, social ostacization and abuse wilth me.
In Knuckle Sandwich, I say the words that people use to taunt me with:
Hey little boy you want a sandwich to eat
It can make your mouth flow
and it tastes pretty neat
I can feel good when I feed you some food
You’re gonna eat my knuckle sandiwich on white
Can’t throw a football you don’t know how to fight
Your legs are thin and your arms of flab
And your stomach is mush
and you walk like a fag
Don’t come around I’m gonna give it to you
You’re gonna eat my knuckle sandwich on white
Can’t throw a football you don’t know how to fight
With Joan Fan Club, I put myself in the role of the tormentor in the song. Journalists knew that the piece was autobiographic by proxy, but there were some “fans,” who actually thought that I was just some asshole rock star getting off on making fun of someone for being fat. Remember, I was the one who was abused — never the abuser. This was just my very singular artistic way of writing protest songs.
I knew the composition was a social statement that needed to be said, and that it would be relevant decades later, as proven today where the cultural obsession with females being thin is probably at it’s all time highest.
However, I had no idea who painfully prophetic and close to home the song would one day hit. In recent years, a young boy committed suicide with his father’s gun because of being tormented at school for being different and fat. His father is a friend of mine I grew up with who used to listen to the very early Skafish band rehearse, and is now a local police officer. I remember going to the wake in support of him and his son.
The lyrics to Joan Fan Club mirrored this exact kind of bullying:
Hey fat pig we’re gonna push you down the stairs
That’s right, we’re gonna touch your little pizza face
Fat! Hey fatty, you’re a real fox
You know the whole school wants to go out with you
Can I have your autograph?
No Liberation Here was written for people like Carl Hoover and those who have been murdered, or were tormented to the point of feeling that they needed to commit suicide, for being perceived as gay, “acting gay,” being gay, or not manly by our archaic cowboy culture standards:
We don’t have a right
No liberation here
We can’t walk the streets now
Our faces get beat now
We will not pretend
that we have real rights
Here prison does not need bars
Bloodshed today and we know it will not change
We live in shame
Back in the 1970’s, many in the world of rock music accused me of whining about my fucked up shitty little life, and furthermore, who the fuck cares anyway, they mocked. Of course they’d say that – they didn’t suffer in the same way I did, so they have no empathy. But I wasn’t just writing about me – it also represented the overwhelming social issues that I clearly saw that hardly anyone else noticed, and I wrote those pieces as modern protest songs. Back then, I saw the present for what it really was, and I psychically saw how it would evolve in the future. I knew over thirty years ago that the brief and seemingly real freedom that was enjoyed if the 1970’s was not going to change anything in the long run or last. In fact, I knew it would get much worse – and it did.
I have the battle scars to prove it, but thankfully, I’m alive and well, so I’m not complaining. But unfortunately, what happened to Carl Hoover happens all too often, and the list of those who have lost their lives to suicide and murder for these reasons is too long to mention here.
And it speaks to something much bigger than just one child who unnecessarily and tragically lost his life. It reflects on the tremendous hypocrisy of America. If Carl Hoover was bullied for being black, and called the “N” word, there would have been tremendous outcry and swift action taken against anyone would have even uttered such a word.
But of course in this culture, it’s still ok to attack, harass, discriminate, taunt, physically assault and even murder someone for being perceived as gay. Keep in mind, he wasn’t a young man who ever identified himself as being gay – it was merely the perception that he “acted gay” that did him in – meaning, he didn’t talk like a junior thug and had a more feminine demeanor, which in our cowboy culture, is the ultimate sin.
And one might ask how a country that prides itself on freedom and equality for all is so terribly hypocritical, where gender orientation and sexuality is still such a hot button? Fortunately, at least there seems to be some awareness and sensitivity regarding racial discrimination and people with disabilities, but even in those areas, there is still a very long way to go.
If the school officials and proper authorities would have acted to protect Carl Hoover in the way they should have and could have done, he would still be alive today. According to one report, right before his suicide, a girl threatened to beat him up and kill him, and the school’s solution was to make Carl and the girl eat lunch together for several days to “work it out.”
There are several factors that spell out America’s hypocrisy quite clearly: First, religion plays a huge part in all of this. With the Christian right morphing Jesus Christ into the ultimate homophobic hit-man, anyone who is perceived as gay (therefore labeled as gay), is ok to attack. We all hear religious zealots citing the “Word of God” as explaining why it’s ok to discriminate, hate, and even murder. Have you ever seen the posters that say, “God hates fags?” Well supposedly, if God said it, then it is a fact, just like the sun rises in the morning.
But there is no way of really proving that God ever said any of this. People assume that their religious beliefs are irrefutable facts. And even within the different groups of those who do believe, there are so many variations on such ideologies, that it is ludicrous to simply use the “Word of God” as the justification for such attitudes and actions. But religion is a terribly powerful and damaging force in this instance as it incites hysteria and mindless action in the masses who don’t think for themselves.
Secondly, we live in a culture that embraces and celebrates the worst and darkest sides of masculinity: men who are violent, ruthlessly powerful, greedy and rich, recreationally cheating on their wife or girlfriend as a validation of their manhood, sexually promiscuous with lots of “hot babes” who are used and dismissed, and asserting controlling, domineering behavior.
To be perceived as gay is to be viewed as weak, effeminate, someone not manly, and ultimately less than a real man. So just as dogs attack the weaker of the pack to assert primitive dominance, the same thing happens to those who are perceived as gay. They are attacked verbally, physically and on all levels.
Third, many people are consciously or unconsciously afraid of what might be lurking within their own sexuality. They might fear that they have gay tendencies and that it’s like a cancer growing within them. So by hating, it means that they’re normal, manly and a regular guy. Since many are not as comfortable with their own sexuality as they pretend to be, their internal insecurities become hot buttons and are turned around on others who don’t represent male stereotypes as it holds up a mirror.
Boys who are young are especially sensitive about these issues, because they’re understandably insecure in their own sexuality and manhood, only beginning to come into their own male identity, and filled with fear. So it gets projected outward and onto someone who can be perceived as gay.
Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover paid the ultimate price for other’s insecurities and hatred thrust upon him, and he took his own life because of it. How many more times will someone die before our primitive society grows up and simply allows people to live in freedom and peace?
Most of us have all heard of the Matthew Shepard story, who was a 21 year old student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and subsequently murdered in October 1998, near Laramie, Wyoming. This was all done for only one reason – because he was gay.
Another example of this heinous type of torture was the murder of 15 year old Lawrence King, an eighth grader in California who came out as being gay and wore makeup and nail polish. He was shot in his school classroom by a 14 year old fellow student and died in February 2008.
Forget the illusion that the entertainment field and pop culture presents: that everyone is happily living in harmony together: gay, bisexual, straight, transgender, the weird folks side by side laughing with the normal folks, tra la la.
If you’re perceived as gay, “act gay,” or are gay, the reality, as it stands now, is that your job, reputation, social standing, property, legal rights, physical safety and actual life are still all at risk in America.
For more information on how to stop the bullying, here are some valuable websites:
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network:
Resources for stopping bullying:
In the uk:
© 2009 Jim Skafish