Callen Harty grew up in a small town in southwestern Wisconsin called Shullsburg and he now lives in Winona, where he is writing plays and has published his book My Queer Life, a collage of essays, poetry and stories he has written in the last 30 years. He has also written an autobiographical play about childhood sexual abuse called Invisible Boy.
Stella: Can you tell us the story about your experience with sexual abuse?
Callen: It started when I was 9 or 10 years old when I was touched briefly. I tried to tell my mom and she didn‘t know how to react so she told me “Well, you shouldn‘t let him do that to you”, which really isn’t a good thing to say to somebody who is trying to tell that they have been touched inappropriately. So, because of that, the next time something happened, I didn‘t go back to her because it didn‘t get me anywhere the first time. It got worse over the course of several years and continued from the time I was 10, until I was about 17 and a half.
One of the things about that is, when you can‘t tell someone, you get trapped in it. They know they got away with it, so they know they can do it again because they know you are not going to tell. When nothing happens to them in response to their actions, they feel safe trying it again.
Stella: How do you feel it has changed you?
Callen: In really, really significant ways. Statistics will show that people who are abused as children, well a lot of them will have the same things happen in their lives. They become drug addicts, alcoholics, they become very promiscuous, have a lot of anger issues, issues with intimacy with a boyfriend or girlfriend. And pretty much all of those things happened to me. I‘ve had flashbacks before and those have been really severe. Even if one were to happen in my age now, I would feel as I did when I was that age, when I was 12 and bad things were happening to me. It throws you back into that exact moment emotionally. A lot of time there‘s self-hatred. You know, like you don‘t like yourself very much because of what happened because people tend to blame themselves. Even though that‘s not true, people have a tendency to blame themselves. Especially as a little boy, because you know, they feel like they‘re supposed to be manly and be able to protect themselves and so when you don‘t, you feel like you did something wrong. And I think also when you‘re gay, there‘s another level to that. I was thinking “because I‘m gay they‘re doing this to me. Maybe they know”.
Stella: How strongly do you feel about the prevention of sexual abuse?
Callen: Incredibly strong. A lot of sexual abuse survivors never talk about it. It took me until I was in my late 40s and early 50s where I could really talk about it openly. I now go and speak at different places about my abuse very openly to therapists or whoever may need to or want to hear about my story. I wrote my play and that was really important to me because I figured by doing that, other people would hear that they are not alone. Last year I had seen a film that I wanted to bring to Madison called Boys and Men Healing, and it was the story of three survivors that they had made a documentary about. I contacted an organization called Male Survivor, and they have a program where they bring the film then do a discussion, and they suggested to contact some other local organizations to bring the film to Madison, so I contacted Rape Crisis Center, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault and a couple of other groups, and they all thought that it was a good idea, but we decided instead, we should do a conference. So, I organized a one-day conference about child sex abuse survivors, and we geared it toward hope. It wasn‘t about the abuse, it was about the survival. It focused on male survivorship, since that was something that didn‘t receive a lot of attention, and it was the first of its kind in Wisconsin, and we had 75 people show up from all over the state, northern Illinois and eastern Iowa. Now we are organizing next year‘s as well and that has been really powerful, to get people thinking and moving and doing what they can for prevention.
Stella: In your opinion, what is to most important aspect of this complex problem?
Callen: I think, in fact, I know, that the most important aspect is that we need to talk about it. It is one of those things that‘s secret—children don‘t tell and often times parents find out that it‘s happening without contacting the police or a therapist. They just separate the child from that person, but then that person might go on and do it to someone else, so there‘s nothing to stop it. Every once in a while, something will happen, like the Penn State scandal, something that‘s in the news and people are talking about it, but, if you look at the stories from that period where they were recording on the Penn State sexual abuse scandal (2011), 98% of those stories were about that coach, and about his boss, the other coach and about what that was going to do to the football team, and none of those stories were about the children and what happened to them.
Stella: And lastly, what is your opinion on equal rights for genders, races, ages and sexualities?
Callen: As a gay man, I am absolutely for equality for everyone, but even if I weren‘t gay, I would be still. In our culture in 2013, there is no reason for women to be paid less than men, for there to be a huge population of African-Americans in our prisons compared to other ethnicities, and that I, as a gay man, cannot marry my partner of 23 years, so, I think equal rights are vitally important for all of us.