Can Being Bullied Actually Make You Stronger?

Defending my MBA Thesis at The Berlin School of Creative Leadership -Germany, Aug 2012.

I know exactly how old I was when the bullying started. I was 9 years old. I wasn’t interested in playing sports and I would mostly hang out with the girls in my class rather than the boys. I guess the boys found that odd, or just didn’t like it so they started calling me names and teasing me. I was always a very happy kid, so I could not understand why they were being mean.

In time, I started feeling something was off. And that feeling only grew stronger as I got older. As I reached puberty, I started to understand what was happening to me.

You see, growing up in Latin America in the 80’s wasn’t a great place to be gay. It was a different time. I had no role models. There were no Will and Grace, or Ellen, or Pride parades. No reason for feeling proud for that matter, but rather all the reason for being ashamed.

My only reference of sexual diversity was the transvestite I would occasionally run into on my street corner on late weekend evenings, with her red miniskirt, and hard expression on her face, as worn as the high heel shoes she never really mastered. Sometimes cars passing by would throw beer bottles at her and yell things like: “Freak!” And yet, she would come back the next day.

I got picked on, a lot. I remember skipping the bus home after school many times to avoid the harassment, or another time when two kids chased me down and beat me up because they didn’t like the sweater I was wearing. Sometimes I would hit back, most of the times I would keep it to myself. I never told my parents for fear of being discovered, or to hear that “I had brought this on to myself”. I could feel they were concerned, but they never talked to me.

I remember one time, after an incident at school, my parents sent me to a child psychologist hoping he would “correct me”. I guess this was easier than to just talk to me. They knew what was going on, they just wanted it to go away. I can understand now how some kids decide that suicide can be the only way out.

Why is it you are left all alone to deal with something so transformative at such an early age? How do you overcome? How do you rise?

Can being a victim of bullying help you build resilience?

So here I was, 15 years old and trying not only to figure out how to survive high school, but also how to survive in a world that did not approve of my sexual orientation.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I was never going to get married or have kids, and I would likely be ostracized from my family, so I was going to have to make the best of it on my own. Therefore, I would have to be better than anyone else, because if I was the best, maybe I would be able to hide my true self.

I found my passion in advertising. Ever since I was young I was fascinated by TV commercials. I would sometimes change the ending of them in my head, just to make them a bit funnier. I went to college and studied graphic design. I was still in college when I got my first job at the largest agency in Costa Rica and the oldest agency ever founded in Latin America, in 1921. A family owned business that today is run by the family’s third generation. My first job there was as an art director then an account executive. I showed up, I worked hard and quickly moved up the ranks. Years later I would become the first General Manager the company had in over 80 years who was not a direct family member. Even though the owners always made me feel as part of the family, it was the fear of being discovered that drove me to be the best I could be.

I loved that company. During my junior years there I was having the time of my life. I was in my 20’s, very ambitious and had great relationships with my colleagues and clients. But, I was always also aware that the bullying did not necessarily end in high school, but that it would transform in a different kind of harassment, subtler, but just as destructive.

Something happened in the late 90's that changed everything for me, business was down and the agency had lost a big client. Staffing cuts would need to be made, something that happens often in the industry. I was a director at the time and managed my own team. Senior management called a meeting to figure out who would be cut. One of the company’s most senior directors suggested letting go of a couple of my colleagues for the only reason of being ‘too gay’. “I can’t stand to look at them” he said.

I was angry. I could not believe this was happening. They were good people - smart, creative, and just as hard working as any other employee in the company. This was flat-out unapologetic discrimination. I realized that if I wasn’t sitting in that room, staring at him in the face, I could have also been on the chopping board. For once in a very long time I decided to speak up. This was so unfair, and it took all the courage I had to object, because I knew that this would mean I’d be outing myself. The director didn’t like it. I could see the fire in his eyes, he wasn’t used to being challenged. Unfortunately, my voice was not loud enough and the decision was carried out. My colleagues never knew they were fired simply because of who they were.

This was a pivotal moment for me and one that defined my life’s journey. I needed to find my place in the world, a place where I could be myself and be happy. I sold my apartment and moved aboard. I lived in multiple countries and finally earned my MBA in Berlin, Germany.

My career in marketing has taken me all over the world. I’ve run companies and led global accounts. I’ve helped create some of the most memorable global campaigns, dined with powerful CEOs in the South of France, helped launch startups in Silicon Valley, and got to work with some of the most talented people in the industry.

Contrary to what I thought as a kid, I did get married, to a man. It was 2007 and Canada was one of the first countries to approve same-sex marriage. Neither of us were Canadian, but that didn’t matter, just as it doesn’t matter if you are a straight couple and want to get married abroad. I was one of the first people in my country to ever get married to his same-sex partner.

My family didn’t come to my wedding. Not my ‘biological’ family at least, but my ‘chosen’ family did attend. Even though I could today, I never wanted kids, I guess I never developed the parenting gene or maybe it was my survival mechanism that blocked it in my mind back when I was 15. Marriage was good while it lasted. I learned a lot about myself, about loyalty and sacrifice, and even thought that relationship ended I remain grateful I got to experience it and that I gave it my all. I have no regrets. I hold no grudges. After some other bumps here and there, I eventually found my place in the world in San Francisco.

I’m now in a new relationship, a wonderful man from the Mid-West, who has gone through a similar journey as I have and whom I admire as much as I love. Oh, and our two dogs, two rescued dachshunds named Horacio and Leopoldo.

You will be bullied in life, in some way or another, at school and in the boardroom, and you have two choices: You let it get you down or you use it to push you forward.

In the wake of Pride Month, most of the attention focuses on self-acceptance in the LGBTQ community and I think that is good. I love to see many big brands supporting the cause now, some by changing their logos to rainbow colors, and joining in the celebrations. Others have gone much further like Salesforce, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, who have recognized the power that comes from diversity and are taking a stronger stance defending equality for their LGBTQ employees and customers. Certainly, a lot has happened since the firing of my colleagues 20 years ago.

However, I don’t think there is enough intent around building character and resilience in the community. Pride is about standing up against bullying, oppression and injustice as much as visibility and celebrating who you are.

If I could go back in time and talk to my 9-year-old self I would tell him a couple of things, some I’ve learned through my own experience, some through others’:

First, don’t go up that roof to fetch your Frisbee. Bad idea.

Now seriously,

Be true to yourself and be proud. Love yourself, believe in yourself, be authentic and don’t apologize for who you are. Be visible and stand up for what’s right and especially for those who don’t have a voice.

Live the life you want, not the one others expect you to live. People on their deathbed regret this more than anything else. To quote the great Auntie Mame, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death”

Work hard and always do your best. Talent is not enough when the less talented work harder than you. Be patient and trust your journey.

Get out of your bubble. Travel. Move cross-country or better yet to other countries. Expose yourself to as many cultures and ways of life as you can. Celebrate the differences that make us all unique and share them with others.

Be grateful for what you have and be kind to others. Never wish you had somebody else’s life. As glamorous as it may seem, everyone is struggling with something you don’t know about.

Life is wonderful, and it’s also hard. Some people have it harder than others. It is in that hardship that you build resilience to get back up, dust yourself off, learn to appreciate what you have, fight for what you believe in, and be the happiest version of yourself.

Because in the end, you only live once, but if you live it right, once is enough.