I met Katie in elementary school. I was in fourth grade, she was in fifth, and we both attended the same after-school program. We invented a role-playing game together based on the tabletop games that our male friends played. We liked Magic: The Gathering and Dungeon & Dragons for the pictures and the aesthetic, but we both wanted more freedom. So Katie and I made up our own game, which I now realize was a live-action role-playing game.
It was no whimsical game of Calvinball, either; we were aged 9 and 10, so we were old enough to impose structure and canon and continuing story-lines.
We were married, in the game. Of course, Katie was role-playing as a man, and I was role-playing as a woman, so later in life, I ret-conned this experience in my head as "straight." But deep down I know that the person I had feelings for was Katie, not her character.
I remember telling one of the other girls at school that I wanted to marry Katie when the two of us grew up. I had never heard of two girls marrying one another before, so I guess I wanted to check around. I'll never forget the abject disgust that crossed over this girl's face when I told her my life plan. No, it wasn't normal for me to want this, she told me. It was gross. That girl never spoke to me again.
One time, Katie and I were watching the movie version of the musical Annie. There's a scene in which Annie consoles one of the other orphan girls. Katie laughed at the two actresses embracing on screen and said, "lezzies!" I remember asking her what that word meant. Her clumsy explanation washed over me like a thunderstorm. I felt uncomfortable and confused and nauseated and I wasn't sure why. As an adult, I know what I was feeling. Heartbreak.
Our guy friends decided to join our role-playing game. Once they joined, Katie quietly wrote a new female character for herself and stopped role-playing as my husband. She had already learned a lesson that I wouldn’t learn until middle school. I was just glad that more people wanted to play our game.
Not everyone liked the game, though. Not everyone thought it was cool that we were pretending to be orcs and knights. In fact, a lot of people thought we were creepy weirdos. Or nerds. Or losers. Or whatever word you want to use.
There was a specific group of kids who bullied us for liking this game -- two guys, one girl. We got harmed, physically, for playing the game. I got pushed and smacked around, by both the guys and the girl. I went home with bruises. Some kids went home bleeding.
The type of nerd-bullying that we hear about most often is all about male-on-male violence, and it's usually about a specific performance of masculinity. The jock pushes the nerd into the lockers because the nerd reads comics or plays games, stories about escaping into the identity of a specific type of hero. A jock-y hero. A warrior. A knight. A powerful man who embodies masculinity in a way that this male nerd cannot in meatspace. Masculinity is centered in these narratives.
But sometimes bullying is compounded by other factors. I think a lot of bullying is fundamentally about the idea of "normal." The public school system, at least in my experience, was all about ensuring that kids would end up "acting normal" once they graduated -- or at least that they'd all understand what "normal" looked like, and that if they weren't able to perform it, an uncaring society would destroy them. Teachers enforce this rule, and students self-police it.
Some kids have traits that they can bury and hide for the sake of not sticking out anymore. Others can’t do this. Everyone is pressured to match “normal” regardless -- even when it is impossible and causes irreparable lifelong pain. Square pegs, round holes. Rhombus pegs. Octagonal pegs. Still, round holes.
Our bullies didn't look or act the way you might expect. They weren't jocks, although the jocks did hate us and would lob dodgeballs at our heads. The three kids who stalked our playground LARPs, beat us up, and refused to let us play in peace were not popular or "cool." They were three loners with unhappy lives; none of the three of them were officially signed up for the after-school program, they just hung around the playground because no one cared where they went or what they did. They would all grow up to be "goth" eventually, and one of the three of them would go on to die young of a drug overdose. Even way back in elementary school, they were also seen as "not normal" by our peers, and they took it out on us. They weren't cool, but we were even less cool, so they huddled together and punched down.
My bullies were afforded some social privileges for throwing me and my friends under the proverbial bus. By focusing their attentions on my LARP group, my bullies were able to evade notice -- and also establish themselves as "scary." If you can't be "normal," be "scary." This was a lesson that I learned from my bullies and incorporated into my life later on by dressing in goth clothes and scowling and listening to loud industrial music through my headphones between classes. If everybody thinks you might snap and kill them, then they'll leave you alone. It's a lonely existence, to be sure, but anything's better than being physically assaulted or emotionally abused or both.
Of course, establishing oneself as "scary" is a hop skip and a jump away from becoming a bully.
In elementary school, it was pretty common for social rivalries to devolve into violence no matter the genders of the people involved. By middle school, we had all experienced enough socialization to know that physical violence is supposed to be the purview of boys and emotional manipulation is supposed to be the purview of girls. I was not pushed into lockers after I left fifth grade, but the bullying I experienced was far more harmful to me in the long term.
I have two different stories about middle school bullying. One of them is about me bullying the one girl who I perceived as "below" me on the social hierarchy. The other is about the intense bullying that I experienced from a group of girls who were "above" me. I could just tell the second story and make myself seem very sympathetic. But I think it's important for me to acknowledge that both of them happened concurrently.
Research suggests my experience isn’t unusual. UC Davis sociologists Robert Faris and Diane Femlee have studied bullying extensively; in a CNN interview, Faris summarized their findings:
"Kids are caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status ... It’s really not the kids that are psychologically troubled, who are on the margins or the fringes of the school’s social life. It’s the kids right in the middle, at the heart of things … often, typically highly, well-liked popular kids who are engaging in these behaviors. When kids increase in their status, on average, they tend to have a higher risk of victimization as well as a higher risk of becoming aggressive."
I would argue that even the kids who are “on the fringes” can’t help but get caught up in status-jockeying from time to time. Avoiding that hierarchy entirely is a very lonely path -- one that I did have to navigate, on and off, throughout my school days.
During fifth grade, Katie moved away. My guy friends stopped talking to me because of "cooties." I realized that no one else liked me, although I wasn't sure why. I decided that middle school would be a new beginning for me -- an opportunity to start over.
In sixth grade, I managed to get in the good graces of some of the "popular" girls from other schools for the first month or so. It didn't last. How is it that popular people from every elementary school manage to find one another and become some sort of high-powered Borg as soon as middle school starts? How do they figure out which people are "losers" and which people are their own kind? I assume the answer is "social skills," which I didn't have, although at the time I didn't understand the problem. Was it my budding acne, or the fact that I didn't understand how to apply makeup or fix my hair, or my clothes, or my attitude, or my interests? All of the above -- and then some.
Other nerdy girls recognized me as one of their own, just as the popular girls seemed able to recognize one another. There was one girl in particular who wanted to be my friend, but I could hardly stand her. I was relentlessly cruel to her, hoping that she would leave me alone so that no one would associate me with her. It didn't work. I can only assume that she had already borne unkindness from everyone she had ever met, because she forgave me, over and over, no matter what I said or did. We had nothing in common other than the fact that other people perceived us both as "weird," which made it difficult for me to imagine a friendship with her. That doesn't excuse my cruelty, which I enacted because I wanted to be friends with "better" people, "normal" people.
I couldn’t find anyone at my new school who understood me like Katie had, and although I could visit Katie from time to time, my parents kept pressuring me to find friends at my own school. But I didn't know how. Somehow, I got hung up on the idea of “being popular” as opposed to finding true friendship, because I thought that popularity would insulate me from ever feeling lonely or being bullied. I also understood that gaining popularity meant I had to become a bully myself. I was willing to do it if it meant that I could escape harm. But I couldn't seem to shake my own "weirdness."
I ended up with no friends at all, in the end. The popular girls to whom I had once ingratiated myself stole my private diary from my backpack and passed it all around the school, filling it with insults. I'd included paragraphs about how badly I wanted to be liked, paragraphs which reams of anonymous responses mocked in return.
This was around when I started wearing black and acting "scary."
I fell in love with a popular girl. I had crushes on boys at school, boys who didn't even notice me. But when I stared at girls, people noticed. We learned about homosexuality and bisexuality in sex education that year, and I began to worry. This was another part of myself that I’d have to learn how to hide, another part of my life that I’d do my best to ret-con after the fact.
I had begun to wear a lot of monochromatic gray and black clothes, and my concerned mother bought me a shirt with a rainbow on it in response. The '90s had seen a return to "disco" fashions in contrast to the rising grunge fad. I don't know why I wore the rainbow shirt -- probably to appease my mother's anxiety about my lack of friends, and her insistence that I needed to "wear more colors" -- but I only ever wore it once. The hateful reaction from the other girls at school came down on me like an avalanche.
I don't remember everything, not all of the insults hurled in hallways. I do remember the popular girl that I liked sneaking up behind me while I was eating lunch in the cafeteria to whisper in my ear that she thought I looked sexy in the rainbow shirt. She then ran away to peals of laughter from the other popular girls. I kept thinking the insults and laughter would die down the next day, once I was back in my normal clothes. They didn't. It got worse.
The following Friday night, some popular girls got together and prank-called my house dozens and dozens of times. I was sleeping over at Katie's house that night, so my mother had to field all of the calls. Eventually, she had to let them go to voicemail, and the girls left message after message calling me and my sister and my mother "fucking dykes." I could recognize some of their voices on the machine, and we had Caller ID, which was a relatively recent invention, so I could identify the perpetrators.
My mother intervened and called my school's guidance counselor. The only girls who got sent to the counselor were the girls whose voices I recognized, and the girl whose number was listed on the Caller ID.
One of the three denied it, refusing to apologize. The counselor couldn't force her to admit anything, so eventually he let her go; it was only my word against hers, even though I had a recording of her voice.
The second girl, the girl who I’d fallen for, shrugged and apologized without making eye contact. She never spoke to me or looked at me again, nor I her.
The third girl refused to back down. It had been her house, her number on the Caller ID, and probably her idea, since she would continue to prank call me for years after the fact. She told the counselor that she would only apologize to me if I apologized first. She said I was "creepy," and that I "stared at people" just to make them uncomfortable. In other words, I deserved it. She didn't say outright that she thought I was gay, but she implied it. The counselor told me that I had to apologize to her.
I have mixed feelings about this forced apology, to this day. I know I didn't mean to stare at anyone for too long, but I did nonetheless act "creepy" -- a behavior that I condemn in others all the time. Was I "creepy" because I seemed gay, or because I dressed in dark colors, or both? I had genuinely frightened these girls, no matter my intent, but no one deserves slurs or harassment or abject terror. Regardless, I was made to apologize to a girl who would continue to terrorize me for years afterward. I meant my apology; I stopped looking at anyone else at school, ever. But the bullying didn't stop.
These three girls, and many of their friends, led miserable lives. Perhaps even more miserable than my own. Through the grapevine of middle school, I learned various pieces of information about their personal lives: their unhappy childhoods, their neglectful parents, their struggles with eating disorders. They were overcompensating, too. They hoped that no one would notice what was “wrong” about them, so long as they kept the spotlight on me.
I erased a lot of these experiences as I got older. I dated some guys, and I dated one girl back in college, and these days I don’t talk about her or anything else that ever happened to me.
"I don't like labels." That's a sentence I used to say a lot in college, when people asked about my sexuality, because by then I'd learned that "bisexual" was considered a lie. It doesn’t help that even other gay people treat bi and pan women in this way.
Enough people have called me straight over the years that eventually I realized it was easier to agree, because I'm straight enough. Having to pipe up and say, "Well, I'm not sure that word entirely applies to me" feels pedantic and shitty.
I’ve dated only men for almost a decade running, now. My past feels like another life -- a worse life, a life I’d prefer to forget.
No one ever asks, anymore. I always thought that if anybody ever did, I’d tell them, but eventually it was too late. It feels too late to bother bringing up, even now. I can pass for a round peg, and so I do. It feels both easier and harder, depending on the moment.
I can’t help but embrace the privilege of being a “token straight friend” who offers goofy perspectives on heteronormativity. Why would I ever want to be reduced to one of those obnoxious attention-seeking straight women who had a “phase” (or two, or three), those gross pretenders who think they're so special? Even in my own brain, I’ve written off my experiences as flukes, phases, one-offs that somehow happened more than once.
I have become such a seeming expert on “normal,” these days, that when I tell people that I used to have no friends at all growing up, they don’t even believe me. I used to have acne, I laugh. I used to be really creepy. Ha ha ha! Maybe I don’t believe me, either. If only none of that ever really happened.
It’s easier to pretend that it didn’t. Except it’s also harder. It’s both.
I don't really want to have to define "nerd" here, but I keep using the word, so I guess I have to. These days, I equate nerdiness with obsession and, usually, escapism. Obsession with anything and escapism to anywhere -- not just science fiction or fantasy worlds. Nerdiness doesn't just have to do with being different or being bullied or rejected by society, although one seems to always hold hands with the other.
Did I become entrenched in escapist fantasy because I had no friends? Or did I have no friends because I was obsessed with escapist fantasy? I remember it as being both, but there was a more to it than that. I read books all the time and avoided people, because I was afraid of other people, because they would hurt me, because I read books all the time ... and so on. I would guess the cycle began when I was too young to remember, and it continued until it became an experience that I could only define as "being a loser." (People used the word "loser" a lot back then. It was the 90s.)
I could also label my experience as "depression" and "social anxiety" and "acne" and "flat chest" and "greasy hair" and "braces" and "kinda gay" and "kinda scary" and "why doesn't anybody like me?" … and "I hate myself." It was all of those things, compounded again and again by everyone I ever met.
So, what's the difference between "I was bullied for being a nerd" and "I have had to combat structural oppression"? For me, it all ran together, so it’s hard to pick apart the distinction properly. But I do believe that bullying has to do with enforcing the myth of "normal," and that myth is rooted in entrenched cultural biases. This is why I think most definitions of the word "nerd" end up falling short, because "nerd" never seems like the whole story to me.
A lot of the anger about "fake nerds" has to do with who gets to claim to be one, and the definition of "nerd" varies depending on who you ask. I've noticed it sometimes includes people who've experienced oppression due to ableism and body-shaming, but also it sometimes also includes the more nebulous idea of “being too smart”. Nerds bullied for getting good grades is the kind of story that we hear most often, even though that describes a minority of experiences, and often doesn’t feel like the whole story to me. Everyone can think of an example of a popular kid at their school got good grades and didn't get shit for it because they were, well, popular. So, how does that work?
Even though the totality of the “nerd” experience seems more complicated to me, the type of nerd-bullying that I hear about most often tends to focus on white male straight cisgender jocks bullying white male straight cisgender nerds. Usually, it ends with a male redemption arc about the nerd learning to not only "pass for normal," but how to hack the idea of "normal" and use it to become powerful and/or rich. We have plenty of fictional examples (the heroes of Revenge of the Nerds, the Geek in Sixteen Candles, Sandy Frink in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion) compounded by a slew of real-life stories (the entirety of Silicon Valley). These narratives often ignore the fact that many outcasts have obstacles in life that they will not be able to overcome.
Many nerd men do experience systemic oppression growing up for not meeting the standards of hegemonic masculinity. Unfortunately, they seem to be more interested in centering their own experiences rather than comparing notes and identifying patterns. Rather than recognizing that their peers experienced these same forms of exclusion alongside other forms (racism, homophobia, and so on), these men get angry that their own experiences are not prioritized -- even though their experiences always have been centered as the "nerd" experience.
Most people who were bullied growing up did not meet a specific standard of “normalcy,” a standard that hurts almost everyone -- including our own bullies. We allow the bullying to continue long after school ends, and we even enact it ourselves by refusing to acknowledge a greater plurality of experiences. The nerd fantasy now is about becoming the "real" popular kid at last -- as opposed to stepping back and questioning the central concept of the hierarchy itself.
I'd like to see a more intersectional approach to how we discuss our experiences with bullying. We should consider what our bullies looked and acted like. What roles did they perform? What inner identities were they tamping down and hoping to hide? Were my bullies pointing out how "weird" I was in the hope that no one else would notice how "weird" they were?
I still don't like labels, and it's because I've been burned by them before. Labels can provide a sense of validation, but not necessarily safety or comfort. There was a time when identifying as bisexual felt right. I say it felt right, but it did not feel good -- because I was made to feel terrified and ostracized for it. Even when I finally met other people within the gay community during college, I was made to feel as though I did not belong with them, either. Too gay, not gay enough. Either way, I couldn’t fit anywhere.
People who simplify their "nerd" identity as being equivalent to any other marginalized identity (such as one’s sexuality) betray their own lack of understanding. Gatekeeping about who gets to call themselves a “nerd” is, in my experience, very different than gatekeeping about sexuality. For one thing, nerds do not have to fight for their civil rights to be nerds -- although they may have to fight for civil rights in other areas of their lives (homosexuality, race, ableism, etc). The concept of “nerd” is too complicated to be reduced in this way, because it may or may not refer to any number of other marginalized identities. It is these identities that may be oppressed as "abnormal" -- not the nebulous and vague concept of “nerd.”
I use "nerd" and its various synonyms as a descriptive modifier for a set of behaviors that people may take on in the name of self-preservation. "Nerd" and "loser" and even "gamer" are coping mechanisms, not inherent identities. We all ended up here, to be sure, but we did not take the same route, and not all of us can escape into the same prescriptive fantasies with equal ease.
Bullying is about enforcing "normal," but it's also about enforcing a specific hierarchy that favors people who look and act a certain way. This idealization and elevation of certain types of people exists even in the "nerdiest" of media forms; even if we are not "normal," we are meant to fantasize that we could be. The nerds who go on to succeed in life after high school and college are those who understand how becoming a bully and using a bully's tools can benefit them in the real world; they learn how to exclude and mock the people who are "lower" than they are in order to get ahead.
Some people use role-playing to enact a dream of conforming to society's prescribed standards; others use role-playing to envision a world that accepts them as they already are. I theorize that the types of nerds who get rich after high school are in the former category: they fantasize about being able to perform hegemonic masculinity as their ultimate deserved destiny. This form of masculinity, as embodied by the heroes of so much of science fiction and fantasy, is held up as ideal by these nerds -- even though it describes the exact form of “jock” masculinity that they supposedly despised growing up. This ultimate fantasy betrays their desire to achieve power at the expense of others, rather than to reject the hierarchy outright. Only certain people are able to take this path, however, since it requires many unhappy compromises.
We don't often hear about swanky start-up success stories from trans nerds or gay nerds or black nerds or disabled nerds, let alone a black gay trans disabled nerd. If we do, they are folks who have been forced to downplay these aspects of their identities as much as possible, hoping to fly under the radar and fit into a preconceived definition of "normal" (or maybe even "Model Minority," but even that identity is about not speaking up too much and not challenging the status quo). They remain closeted, or if they do come out, they downplay it as much as possible. They don't discuss their experiences with racism, or any history of sexual harassment or assault, not wanting to be "defined" by it, nor seen as a “threat” or a “loose cannon”. These labels can be a death sentence.
Who could blame anyone for doing this? I, too, have done this. In my youth, I dreamed of being powerful, but when I realized I couldn't achieve that, I dreamed of going unnoticed. Being noticed would always lead to being bullied. School taught me a lot about how society works, which qualities I would need to change or tamp down in order to succeed. And, clearly, I've done it. To my own detriment and to the detriment of other people around me.
If I could figure out this bully/bullied cycle, I could probably fix the universe. Too bad I have no idea how it works. I am still working through my own life, trying to understand my motivations and those of the people around me.
That said, I don't think it's particularly helpful to equate all people's experiences with "bullying" as the same, even though I've fallen into the unfortunate trap of doing it here. It's not particularly useful to compare different forms of oppression, either, because the comparison always leads to a useless discussion about who has it "worse" or "better." I believe that many people think in terms of hierarchies because we've somehow fooled ourselves into believing that if we can prove that we have it "worse," then we'll be able to prove that we "deserve" more. Or, that if people realize that we have it "better," they'll somehow be able to take away what we've fought so hard to get. It's always easier to fight the people who you perceive as "lower" than you, even if only subconsciously. We are all scrambling for crumbs.
The furthest I have come is to accept that I have both been bullied and a bully, both oppressed and oppressor, and that I have thoroughly soaked in a definition of "normal" that I am still trying to undo, day by day. Some of that "normalization" has been enforced by other marginalized people, too -- even my own friends -- which makes it much, much harder to unlearn.
That is why it's been tempting for me to just keep doing "normal." I couldn't when I was a kid. But I have since learned how.
I'm just not sure that's such a good thing.
This piece was written by Maddy Myers and edited by Gita Jackson, both of whom were paid by Metroidpolitan subscriptions. Thank you!