"There’s a photograph of me, somewhere, where I am standing on stage at the San Diego Zoo as a volunteer selected from the audience to participate in some kind of animal show. I’m probably about 9 years old. I have a bowl-cut hairstyle (which was inexplicably popular at the time), a hideous orange and purple striped polo shirt, purple buttoned shorts that are far too short and way too tight, and beaten up sneakers. My mother, may she rest in peace, for all of her talents was pretty terrible at dressing her children. Oh, and did I mention that I was very fat? My obesity was most obvious in my posterior, where to this day I continue to gain most of my weight.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen that photo, but that’s the image of Drew Levine as a child that is indelibly etched into my memory, and to this day, irrationally, it still inspires my contempt. That contempt was not created in a vacuum – it was created day after day of constant bullying at school, where as the new kid I had virtually no friends but numerous tormenters who, of all the pejoratives they used, most often called me ‘butterball.’ Things weren’t much better at home, where my well-intentioned father would chastise me if he thought I was eating too much, would lock the pantry, and would look at me with disappointment if I took seconds from the dinner table. One of the most frightening moments from my childhood was during a family vacation when I was eating a cinnamon roll in the kitchen at a San Francisco apartment where we were staying. My father was out running some errand. When I noticed the door opening and he was returning home, I ran in terror to the bathroom over the prospect of being discovered to have failed once again in my eating, and I nearly choked to death as I tried to quickly swallow the food.
When you have these kinds of experiences as your identity is developing, and if you perceive the world as hostile to *who you are*, sometimes what happens is that you seek different ways to escape your existence. Sometimes it results in suicidal ideation – my closest friends and relatives know about my suicide attempt when I was 14. Sometimes, you indulge fantasies of running away and creating an entirely new identity – I still find myself tempted to do this from time to time. Sometimes, your pain and the powerlessness you feel drives you to desire to punish all of the people whom you hold responsible for your suffering – I often fantasized about growing to gigantic proportions on the school yard and crushing all of my bullies to death. Sometimes, you attempt to reinvent yourself inside existing institutions – strict religions are *very* useful for this purpose, and I believe that religious leaders know that. This is how I mostly explain my own conversion to Mormonism – I was attempting to build a newer, purer, acceptable identity inside a religion that values purity. The symbolism of baptism washing away my sins was also something that deeply resonated and frequently brought me to tears. Not all Mormons are zealots – but given my reasons for joining the church, I became a zealot.
In my mind, this process of self-loathing -> personal reinvention -> indulgence of the desire to punish likely explains the journey that virtually every young man who commits the kind of atrocity like the one we saw in Orlando takes. When I say that the Orlando shooter’s motivations probably had very little to do with Jihadism, I do not mean to diminish the reality that Jihadism presents a real and legitimate threat to the lives and livelihoods of those trying to exist peacefully in society – what I mean to suggest is that these opportunistic radical ideologies do not usually create the desire to kill and punish. Those are created when young men grow in a world wherein they feel that they are told that what they are, who they are, is something unacceptable, and they respond by telling the world that *it* is unacceptable. And whether the radicalism in which they cloak themselves is Neonaziism (Harris and Klebold), fundamentalist Christianity (John Salvi), radical misogyny (Elliot Rodger), radical Islamism (Omar Mateen), or any other type of radicalism, it behooves us to understand how these men become killers. And blaming the ideology, in my view, mostly misses the mark.
In Omar Mateen’s case, if indeed he was gay, he was never able to find reprieve or growth away from the circumstances which created his self-loathing. He continued to exist in a conservative environment that would frequently remind him that one of the most fundamental aspects of his identity, his sexuality, rendered him completely unacceptable (and worthy of death, according to his father).
I do know something about how torturous living with that kind of isolation can be (and my torment was only because I was the fat, goofy looking kid – gay men and women certainly endure far worse). For my part, I am grateful that I was able to find a way to escape an existence where I felt that people rejected me for who I was – but it is clear that there are people who have no way out. Not in our society as it exists. So as we continue to have these important conversations about guns, about terror, about security, about mental illness – let’s not avoid these conversations centered on ensuring that young people feel safe and accepted. If we are ever to feel safe and secure, we must also ensure that the most vulnerable among us feel that way too."
Drew Levine is an Orange County native and practicing employment attorney. He currently serves as the Financial Director for Orange County Young Democrats.
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