Ben Wood was bullied so much in middle school, his mother said, he refused to drink anything at breakfast for fear of of being beaten up in the bathroom.
“He was a little bit on the effeminate side,” Julie Wood said about her son. “He couldn’t catch a ball if he had to. He was a target for teasing and bullying because he did not fit into the stereotypical rough-and-tough boy image.”
Ben enjoyed books, music and nature, and was passionate about social justice.
Wood and her husband are both social workers. She said they did everything they could to protect and care for Ben. “But nothing we could do could protect him from the cruel judgment and rejection from others.”
On a Wednesday evening in the summer of 2008, when Ben was 16, she said he went to church to help plan a mission trip. He returned home unexpectedly, his cheeks flushed, his breathing rapid. He looked as if he was about to cry.
He told her the new youth leader had singled him out as gay in front of the others. He said the leader asked who felt comfortable being around him, and then said:
Do you understand that Ben is going to hell?
Julie and Bill Wood rushed to the church. She said the congregation had always been welcoming to Ben despite a United Methodist Church guideline that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
But when they confronted the youth leader, Wood said, he screamed:
Homosexuality is an abomination.
They quit the church. They sent Ben for counseling. But Wood believes her son never recovered.
“If you already have been ridiculed, and then your very being is deemed unworthy by your church and your God, it does change your soul, your psyche, your feeling of safety and belonging in the world,” she said. “That’s a huge mountain to climb.”
In May 2012, after voters approved Amendment 1 outlawing same-sex marriage in North Carolina, she said Ben came home from college for a visit. They went to a spring festival in Kernersville. As traditional families strolled by them – husbands and wives with little children – she said Ben turned to her and said:
Mom, I’ll never be accepted here.
The following year, when Ben was 21, he quit going to class. His grades plummeted. He would have to leave UNC Asheville and move back home to Forsyth County. He told friends he was horrified at the prospect.
On the last day of the semester, Ben killed himself.
It was May 8, 2013, the first anniversary of Amendment 1. Wood believes his timing was no coincidence.
The message he heard from the state, she said, mirrored the message from childhood bullies and his church youth leader: “You are not worthy. You do not belong. You do not matter to us.’”
A year after he died, Wood shared a video with the United Methodist Church about Ben’s experience, prompting one bishop to say he favored eliminating the language on homosexuality because of suicides such as Ben’s. Two years later, church leaders are still debating.
Wood said that as a family, they could not say enough, pray enough and love enough to undo the insidious harm of what Ben heard over and over and over.
It’s time, she said, to change the message.
Slurs taken for granted
Shortly after Rachel Irby came out as a lesbian 13 years ago, she said she and two friends sat in a Waffle House for five hours, afraid to leave, because a crowd of six or more was waiting for them outside.
She said she feared for her life.
Irby, 28, a crane operator, told the Observer she hasn’t experienced anything similar since then – or any other type of harrassment. To which, her partner, Christi Vanhoy, 22, a nurse, said:
“Remember what happened a couple of weeks ago?”
“Oh, yeah,” Irby responded.
The women said they left a restaurant and were walking outside a bar in Winston-Salem, holding hands, when someone nearby shouted: Dykes!
“If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called a dyke, I would be rich,” Irby said. It happens so often that she takes such incidents for granted.
“We don’t go in certain places and act in certain ways when we’re out in public,” Irby said. “We don’t go to country bars in our town. It’s not safe.”