If you watched Jack Black's 2003 comedy "School of Rock," you probably remember Billy.
In a pivotal scene where Black's character, substitute teacher Mr. Finn, is urging students to "fight the man" by insulting him, Billy's response became one of the film's standout one-liners: "You're tacky and I hate you."
GIF from "School of Rock."
The sassy comment was quoted off-camera. A lot. The line became a well-traveled GIF and meme with impressive shelf life. 15 years after the film premiered, Google pretty much knows that if you're searching "you're tacky," you're likely digging for the comedic gem in some form or another.
While Billy became an on-screen favorite, the young actor who brought him to life, however, grappled with a sobering reality unfolding behind the scenes: the pitfalls of being labeled the "gay kid" from "School of Rock" before he even really understood what being gay actually meant.
At 11 years old, all actor Brian Falduto knew about the word "gay" was that it was often meant to be an insult.
And many people — and media outlets — were directing the label at him.
Falduto (left) with a friend. Photo courtesy of Brian Falduto.
While he continued acting throughout middle school, Falduto returned to a relatively normal life in New Jersey after shooting the film. But the stereotypes associated with his character followed him there.
"For you to not even hit puberty and have people start labeling you [as gay] is interesting," Falduto explains, his tone suggesting there's another word for it.
"I was very quickly labeled 'the gay kid' from 'School of Rock' once the movie came out, both among peers and strangers. I was in fifth grade, and the world was informing me of who I was or how they saw me. My identity wasn’t mine to claim."
Falduto (front row, third from the left) and his young "School of Rock" co-stars. Photo courtesy of Brian Falduto.
Falduto's label as "the gay kid" in the film contributed to the bullying he faced in school.
He says he was picked on for hanging out with girls instead of boys. A couple of classmates created a "I Hate Brian Club" — something Falduto laughs off now as being ridiculous and juvenile, but at the time, he says it felt ostracizing. "It was rough to deal with," the actor explains of feeling different. "But a lot of the time, I would pretend I didn’t hear these things."
Falduto (middle) with loved ones. Photo courtesy of Brian Falduto.
"People have gone through much worse than I have," Falduto makes sure to point out, noting he had a good group of friends and was even elected prom king. But the love and support he felt couldn't stomp out all the homophobia.
In high school, another student spread a video of Falduto dancing with friends and included a gay slur and threatening message in the post's caption. "That was a rough day, for sure," he says.
Falduto's story may be unique because of his ties to Hollywood, but his battle with bullying is relatable for too many LGBTQ kids.
Queer youth remain at significantly higher risk of bullying at the hands of their classmates. One study published last year by research firm RTI International found LGBTQ kids are harassed or threatened at rates two to three times higher than their straight, cisgender peers.
What's more, RTI's research — analyzing data from the previous two decades — discovered a startling shift.
"We want to think that things are getting better," Tasseli McKay, a social science researcher at RTI’s Center for Justice, told The Daily Beast. "In regards to the victimization that young people are experiencing, the trend is toward victimization worsening, not getting better."
But Falduto's story shows why every LGBTQ kid should hold out hope.
Photo courtesy of Sub/Urban Photography.
"I’m finally OK being 'the gay kid' from 'School of Rock,'" Falduto explains of his journey toward self-acceptance. "I’m happy with who I am."
Today, the 26-year-old lives in Los Angeles and continues auditioning for new roles. He dove into the music world more recently, releasing his debut EP, "Love One Another," last summer and launched a live performance series on YouTube as well.
Falduto plans to be certified as an LGBTQ life coach, hoping his own story can help queer kids come out and feel confident in their own skin. "I almost appreciate my struggles more," Falduto says, "because people who may not have struggled as much may not have asked the same questions I’ve asked myself that have made me a better person."
Photo courtesy of Sub/Urban Photography.
"The freedom that comes with accepting who you are is so liberating," Falduto says.
"It sounds like the scariest thing you could ever do, but it’s actually the most liberating thing you could ever do."
Watch Falduto performing "Turn That Song Back On" in his live performance series below: