By Joe Mannetti
My name is Joe Mannetti. I am an anti-bullying blogger for the We Are 1 Voice group based in Florida. I became involved in this journey as a result of what I witnessed and experienced myself. I have not shared my personal bullying ordeal in this forum until now. This is my story.
I moved to Connecticut after the cost of living in Los Angeles became too much to handle any longer for me. I said goodbye to twenty-four sometimes challenging but mostly glorious years in July of 2010. I selected Connecticut because it was where my mother and father resided. I was broke, and I did not know where else to go. My family and I had been mostly estranged with minimal contact for over two decades while I resided in Southern California. I thought that re-connecting with them along with the relatives I had been separated from might offer some support during this transitional period of my life.
I was in a new environment. Things were different. I expected them to be that way. But, nothing could have prepared me for what happened within almost a year of moving to what I hoped would become my new home. My father had been complaining of trouble breathing. He was scheduled for a doctor’s check-up, and I was going to drive him there and discuss the results afterwards with him. We were both concerned. My father never made his appointment. I found him dead in his house on the floor clutching his heart and reaching for the phone. I was devastated. But, the nightmare had only just begun.
My father’s relatives had always displayed a propitiatory stance with my father. While my father’s body was being dragged out in a body bag, these same relatives entered his house, broke out beer that they took from the basement, and began giving directions about how my father’s funeral would be coordinated as an event to promote their restaurant – the restaurant he had left a month before dying. I was shocked. The police were shocked. They asked them to leave the premises. They refused. Later, the funeral director informed me that he had been screamed at over the phone by one of those same relatives to take orders from her based on her business schedule regarding the funeral. The bullying had begun. When I saw a public post on social media promoting an event after the funeral at the restaurant those relatives managed, I called it out along with their vicious behavior. That was the beginning of cyber harassment directed against me that went on for close to six years. Sixteen fake profiles popped up on social media, usually impersonating people of color or LGBT people. These profiles networked with all of the people in my social media network. The comments attacking me made insulting remarks about my physical appearance, denounced me as a liar or someone who was mentally ill and not to be listened to, and they even insisted that I was unfit to support in my outreach and fundraising efforts because I had appeared in adult Gay videos.
The cyber harassment was instigated and created mostly by my father’s relatives. But, it was supported by other people in the community, individuals who were connected to the Mayor’s campaign team, local business owners, as well as members of the LGBT communities in the area. I experienced an overwhelming sense of being ganged up on by people who I had done nothing but attempt to support with fundraising and outreach. I was blind-sided each time that I witnessed one of them give a thumbs up to these posts attacking me as well as my mother. The sense of betrayal also added to the feelings of isolation and loss I was experiencing after finding my father dead. One of the fake profiles, posting comments in mock Black speak, stated that my father had been buried cheaply by us in a welfare/ghetto style casket. A local business owner who I had never met gave this post a thumbs up with cheer-leading comments. I attempted to move away from the area several times. On one such occasion this was posted, again in a racist interpretation of Black speak through this fake profile introduced by my cousin on her page as someone she described as being as sick of Joe Mannetti as she was herself. This was one of countless fake profiles she created to post such attacks against me;
“oh no… who be running outta town? who be chased outta town? lol!!! hurry on up and get to dat next place you gonna have to leave. lol!!! we’s be watching and cheering da whole way!!! lol!!!”
When a shirtless pic of me was posted at an HIV/AIDS fundraising event, these comments attacking me were posted in response – again in fake Black speak;
“wanna now wats fun on a rainy day? watching an idiot running around without dey shirt on. yeah, we be watching you, but only cuz we feel bad for you. tired, old and … oh yeah. tired. go away. soon. lordy!”
I blocked each and every profile, along with profiles that gave such posts a thumbs up. I never responded or engaged with the relatives or supporters who created and cheer-leaded the harassment. When they could not get to me via social media, a note with my image and vicious comments in red ink written across it was left on the windshield of my car for me to find after coming home from a Gay Pride Parade. My mother also received threatening and bullying notes in the mail. Finally, the relative who had been the chief instigator of the bullying, confronted me in a parking lot. She followed me to my car, blocked my way, and hurled insults at me insulting my masculinity while daring me to put my hands on her the entire time.
I did go to the police. I did file reports. I did seek support. But, I was in an environment where no real effective support was offered or made available. At most, verbal warnings were delivered that resulted in little more than a proverbial light hand slap. One police officer did comment that he felt an arrest should have been made after all the evidence and harassment that had been documented. He believed that “something internal” had blocked the arrest. The small-town environment I was in at that time is built on a foundation of cronyism. The Captain of the police department in New London, Connecticut was a relative of the same relatives who were cyber bullying and attacking me. The Mayor of the town and many other public officials were all regulars at the business those same relatives managed as well as being close personal friends with them. I was also in a much more provincial environment with no comparable semblance of an LGBT community like the one I had enjoyed being connected to in Los Angeles. I had lost my support system.
In looking back, I have recognized a few truths.
1. I have learned that bullies consistently pick vulnerable targets. I sensed, from the beginning, that I was an outsider when I moved to Connecticut from Los Angeles. I perceived this even before the cyber attacks took place.
2. The ability to attack was made more readily available when I was more vulnerable after the death of my father. All of us, no matter how strong, have moments in our lives when we are in a more fragile state than others. Experiencing the death of a loved one is always a difficult time. It was immediately following my father’s death that the viciousness of the bullying and cyber bullying intensified. I was an easier target to those who were predisposed to bullying me from the beginning. They simply waited for the most opportune moment to launch in with their attacks.
3. There was nothing in Connecticut that matched the level of LGBT communities that were my support systems in places like Los Angeles or New York. This also allowed me to be an easier target. There was not much effective support offered to me while I was being cyber bullied in Connecticut, and nobody in any position of authority or leadership stepped up to confront the bullying. In fact, a great many influential people in those communities actually supported and encouraged it. This allowed it to continue and escalate.
4. Bullies rarely continue to be bullies without support. What allowed the cyber bullying that targeted me to go on for years was the support the bullying received from so many people, some of them in high ranking public official positions. The support that they offered, and continue to offer, came in the form of silence or refusing to call it out, pretending that they did not know about it, or actually joining in with attacks themselves. None of the bullying was ever effectively confronted, and none of the people involved with it have ever taken responsibility or apologized for it. Not one person from any local LGBT organizations that I had supported in the area stepped up or took a stand against the bullying that had attacked me as well as others in the LGBT communities along with the people of color who had been mocked all over social media with the fake profiles. This stood in stark contrast to LGBT individuals and allies from Los Angeles to New York who overwhelmingly called it out.
WHAT I LEARNED
LGBT people need safe spaces. This is especially so in environments where there is an overwhelming lack of diversity or LGBT communities. I was made a target for a variety of reasons. But, one of the chief variables was the overwhelming lack of a supportive and diverse LGBT environment that I experienced when I moved from one location to another.
Individuals, particularly LGBT individuals, need to have a readily available and effective support service that they can contact if they are being attacked or cyber bullied.
Excluding people or dismissing their pain as “whining” when they reach out for support can often make them internalize a sense of shame over the entire situation. I experienced this profoundly. If a supportive environment is perceived in which the individual feels he or she can be heard as well as be themselves, it can save a life.
Nobody knows how to deal with all of this when it happens to them or someone they love. It’s learning process. I am still learning. The Tyler Clementi Foundation is helping all of us learn together. We have only just begun to take cyber bullying seriously.
Joe Mannetti is an anti-bullying blogger, public speaker, and multi-award winning LGBT activist. He has a Master’s degree in counseling, and he currently resides in Florida.