This is an open letter to my sixth-grade gym teacher, which I mailed on Sept. 3. I believe as gays and lesbians we should confront — when we can and when it is safe — those who harmed us for being different in our childhood. This letter is one way to do it. If we don’t do this, we carry the shame of others as our own, and we sometimes take our trauma or anger out on others. I have not heard back from the gym teacher, and I may never receive a response. However, writing the letter and sending it has empowered me and removed the shame I had been carrying from that incident. I offer an adapted version of that letter here, for others who might share similar moments.
Dear Mr. ________
I read an article about you in today’s newspaper. I have never forgotten you, because you were my gym teacher in sixth grade, from 1975 to 1976, when I was 12 years old.
The memory of you that stands out is of my walking into gym class late with my best friend. The other students burst out laughing from something you’d said to them just before we walked in. Later, a number of my classmates told me that you anticipated that my friend and I would walk in together and that we were probably “fags.” It became a running joke toward me for the rest of my junior high school years. It was so traumatic that I remember it like yesterday. My body numbs as I recall the event as it did then when I felt scared and embarrassed.
Among my peers, you could not have humiliated me more. In my judgment, what you did was cruel, insensitive and immature. You were an adult, an authority figure who should have been encouraging and coaching me, not hurting me publicly — or privately for that matter.
In fact, Mr. _____, I was and am a gay male. Back then, I was probably in love with my best friend but didn’t realize it. I didn’t yet know what being in love was, and I certainly wouldn’t have known or understood what it meant to be gay.
In the newspaper article, I noted that you are now retired. I’m relieved to know that young boys are no longer under your care and won’t have to suffer at your hands the same pain that I did, during such an important and difficult time of my life.
Either you’re the same man today that you were then and will just laugh off this letter. Or else, you’ll feel some remorse for something you did to two of your students who didn’t deserve to be ridiculed by a guy like you. You didn’t even pick on someone your own size.
The shame I felt from what you did to me really belongs to you, the perpetrator — and I gladly give it back to you with this letter.
Joe Kort, MSW