Friday, February 17, 2006

An En-gay-ging Mommy Question

Lengthy post, but I need help...
Okay, here is a mommy insight on which I apparently have no insight. My seven-year-old (who was much cuter and easier to understand when he was the 3 year old in this picture) has become familiar with the term "gay,"--not a problem in and of itself. The problem is, he's submitted to the not-so-pleasant knee-jerk world of the playground and decided that the word "gay" and being "gay" are negative things. I noted his knowledge initially because he eavesdropped on a conversation in which I was describing Brokeback Mountain to my cousin, whom I shall call T.

After I got off the phone, he asked me, "Mama, what does gay mean?" But with the little smirk that let me know he'd already heard the term before. So, I give a glib, confusing, "You know how some boys and girls like each other? Like, like each other? Well, some boys like other boys and some girls like other girls in that way." Okay, besides being woefully insufficient, this definition got off on the wrong foot because it references heterosexuality as a norm. I admit that. But I worried if I made a big deal out of it, like, "Let's sit down and have a talk," he'd assume that this was something "different." Now, while different is not bad, the judgments I'm scared he'll make--being a young, black male already thoroughly enchanted with hip-hop culture--may not be acceptable to me. So, I went with an it's-no-big-deal approach: problematic in and of itself bcause it ignores just how much negativity this society and our own culture has generated around "gay" and apparently, not much of a match for my son's curiosity b/c his next question was, "Why?" To which, I waved a hand and said "Just because it's like that. Now quit listening to grown folk's conversation."

Thought I bought my cowardly self some time. Poor, naive Elle. Did anyone else know that homophobes had a vested interest in passing their beliefs and thoughts on to your children? Wow, did the world intrude on my son and me on this issue!

First came ignorant male relative (IMR) who came to visit last month. My son mentioned that I'd seen Brokeback Mountain and that he knew it had gay cowboys. IMR looked at me with wide eyes and said, "You're teaching him about that?" I bite the inside of my lip, keep folding clothes, and finally say, "About what?" "About gay," IMR says, his face contorted, "Are you teaching him that it's okay to be gay?" The kid is standing right there while he's saying this. "What I'm teaching him (and now I know I should have said, is none of your damned business, but i said) is that yes, it's okay, and even if some ignorant jackass (I think he got the hint) says it's not okay, it's none of their business anyway."

Okay, at this point, I'm feeling no victory, first b/c he questioned me in front of my kid and second, I've trivialized being gay into something that gets a judgment of okay or not okay. But, I repeat, I simply had no idea what to say or do. So I called in my sister and I called up the cousin with whom I had discussed Brokeback Mountain so we could launch a politically incorrect--because we're ignorant in our own ways--but motivated-by-the-right-intentions attack. IMR tried to hold his ground: "You're saying God made them like that?"

Now, here I don't know what to say. Because I do believe some people are born gay. But I have a gay friend who doesn't want to explore that b/c he's scared scientists will locate some "gay" gene and people will start to abort all the "gay" babies. But, cousin on speakerphone says, "You know damned well there are some kids here (in our small hometown) who you've known from the start were gay." And my sis nods. So, I don't have to speak on that one.

IMR's next attack: "Why would you discuss that with a kid?" I do open my mouth for this one. "He sees and hears about heterosexuality all the time. Why is that any more appropriate?" To which he grunts and rolls his eyes.

Did I mention that the kid is standing there for all of this? Eventually, IMR, outargued and out-womaned, turns to the kid and says, "Some people are gay. And you shouldn't not like them because they are. But I don't agree with it."

But, apparently, the kid wants to talk more about it, so he takes the issue to school. His teacher is an old-school, 60+-year-old, "God-fearin'" sista, whom I generally like. But, apparently, she was so appalled that he knew about "gay" that she made him look it up in the school dictionary. He comes home to report, "Mama, Ms. P says that all gay means is 'happy.' I had to look it up and that's what it says." Which, confuses him more, because he knows gay doesn't "just mean happy." And now thanks, to all the outside interference, I'm back at square one.

So, as of now, I'm taking the inefficient, "public-school-approach-to-Black-history-month" approach on this. What that entails is this: for the month of February, instead of discussing a few, overused examples of black people outside of any context and calling it a celebration of black history, I'm discussing a few examples of gay people outside of any context and calling it "why it's okay to be gay." Example 1: "Kid, remember when I went to DC a while back? I went to see Uncle J. You know how you love Uncle J. Well, I stayed with him and his boyfriend and they had the best, most-loving relationship in the world and I had the best, most fun time in the world and we all lived happily ever after." Example 2: "Kid, you remember C who used to take you to the playground when I was teaching and going to school and too busy for everything? You know how you love C. Well, he's gay and he is the coolest person in the world and the best spur-of-the-moment babysitter in the world and we're all gonna live..."

Well, you get the picture. This approach is not working, however, as I heard my son hiss to my nephew last night that if nephew did something, nephew was "gon' be gay." This was definitely meant as a warning, which spurred me to issue my own, not-so-polite warning.

I don't want to raise a bigot, y'all. Suggestions?


Quinn said...

We're sort of battling a similar situation with the Drama Queen. She's very interested in gender roles, and wants to talk constantly about what boys do and what girls do. I try to reinforce that boys and girls can do just about all the same things (except girls can have babies in their bellies and boys can't), but all my work gets undone at the park, with her grandparents, or at school.

Persistence? And maybe talk about how unfair it is to think badly about a person based on something like gay or not gay? I don't know. Your words -- and the way you treat others -- will carry weight. Remember that.

Elle said...

Quinn, I hope so. It seems like it's too soon to be losing the battle against peer influence.

vance said...

Just the fact that you are completely aware of the issue and seem determined to give your son an open mind is already something. I think just by being a parent that encourages free thinking and a loving heart, will eventually pass down to your son. I think if your son meets his uncle in DC and has more first hand experiences of "a gay", he will realise what he is referring to whenever he uses it in a negative tone. Still, it IS a tricky situation and my heart goes out to you as I think I would have frozen up in the situation.

Dondre said...


First of all kudos to you for even beginning this conversation at such a young age. You're right, it seems the battle begins earlier and earlier these days. I work with kids your child's age and believe me, it never ceases to amaze me at some of the questions and/or comments I hear on a daily basis.

That being said, I believe it is imperative to teach our children the importance of being accepting of all "our" people. At an appropriate age for your child, you can begin to educate him more and more on some of the realities homosexuals go through in this society. First and foremost, however, you MUST teach him not to hate; not to judge! This, my friend, I think you have mastered as a parent. At age 7, be satisfied (or if you so wish, consider yourself having "bought time") with educating your child on the fact that all people wish to be loved. Love is a wonderful thing that each human being should have a chance at experiencing in life. Consider yourself successful at teaching your child that all people have an innate wish to be respected. That unless or until given reason to hate, hatred is a horrible thing to carry in one's heart. These, I believe are the important values to teach in order to build seeds of openness and acceptance of all "others." Elle, I think you have inspired these seeds in your son's heart. Nurture them and continue communicating the way you are. Finally, trust with love, support, and care that your nurturing will eventually bear the fruit you've planted. Kids will be kids and he will hear horrible things in the outside world. Remember though, what you do and say in front of him really matters. You're on the right track and if you ever want to talk more about this, you know where to reach me.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...