When I was in high school, my friend stopped an incident of bullying with one quiet question.
“Pam” (not her real name) and I were at the beach, standing at the water’s edge, 16 years old. A group of three guys stood to our right. Another adolescent, male, swam alone in the surf. At the same moment, Pam and I realized the group next to us was angling for our approval.
“Look at him!”
Pam and I exchanged a confused glance.
“Can’t even swim.”
They pointed to the water, where the swimmer navigated the ocean like a dolphin.
“He looks like a total jerk.”
The boy — maybe 17 — caught a wave and rode it to shore. He rose to his feet and headed back out, diving through the breakers. His timing was perfect, a strong swimmer, at home in the crashing surf of the California coast. His skill was clearly a threat to the three fine gentlemen to our right.
“He’s a f – -!”
“Total f – -!”
“Definitely a f – -!” They gave each other high fives.
I said quietly, “Let’s go,” but Pam shook her head. Instead, she faced the three boys and spoke softly.
“What if he is?”
They stared at her. Then one pointed to the water. “F – -!”
She shrugged disarmingly and repeated, “What if he is?”
They looked at each other, then back at her. “Well, nothing, I guess.”
She held her ground for a long moment, then turned to me. “Let’s swim.”
For the next hour, we bodysurfed with the swimmer. We left the ocean together, streaming water, warm in the salty sun. He invited us to join his friends, and we feasted on iced tea, veggies, hummus, chips, guacamole. The pack of three glanced at us periodically, but didn’t approach. We never asked if the swimmer and his two friends were gay for the same reason they didn’t ask us: it didn’t matter.
What. If. He. Is.
Four simple words. Mightier than the sword.