“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” Robert Fulghum
Last week I heard an openly gay father say his children didn’t know he’s gay. As a gay uncle with five nieces and nephews, it caught my attention. I also recently gave a TEDx talk that specifically addresses how being open and honest with children from a young age can prevent homophobia and bullying. I was curious why his kids didn’t know.
I’d first like to pay my respect to all parents. Parenting is no easy feat, especially if you’re a single parent. I just spent the day at the beach with my cousins and their kids, one of whom was a single parent for the weekend. After watching him all day, I thought, “I don’t know how single parents do it.” In between sentences he was either pulling one across the sand on a boogie board or playing catch with the other to divert their attention from running into the water.
I continued listening to the openly gay father share how he’s a single parent and that his 4 (almost 5) year old son has been talking to him about wanting to have kids and get married in the future. His son recently asked, “why didn’t you get married.” He replied, “Well, it hasn’t happened for me, but I’d love that in the future.” He said he quickly changed the subject from a split second decision. He didn’t feel the need to introduce things, such as his sexuality, to his children if they haven’t explicitly asked, he explained.
While I completely respect any parent’s decision on how they choose to parent their child, as someone who works with youth, it’s important for me to bring awareness to the areas parents, educators, and caregivers can sometimes overlook.
What was behind his decision to quickly change the subject is what interested me.
Earlier this year I was with my nieces and nephews at a restaurant and noticed someone transgender behind the register. I remember noticing because I thought how amazing it was to see a person who is transgender working at a local restaurant in my hometown. A few hours later I was showing them something on my phone and an email from the LGBT Center popped up. My 7 year old nephew asked me, “what does LGBT mean?” After I defined each letter they asked me what transgender meant. I told them and mentioned there was someone transgender at the restaurant we were at earlier. Without skipping a beat, they all said at the same time, “Oh, Bobby!” I asked if they knew him and to my surprise they said no.
What astonished me is that they knew what being transgender meant. I just gave them a word to define something they already understood.
In 2014, an Occidental College cognitive scientist, Andrew Shtulman, published a study about how children come to disbelieve in Santa Claus. The study found that a child’s developing intellect is what causes them to stop believing in Santa Claus. Even if a parent tries to keep his myth alive, the same thing that helped my nieces and nephews understand Bobby is what tells a child Santa can’t be real.
Something not openly talked about or widely addressed in the LGBT community, specifically with gay men (because I’m a gay man and so am speaking from my experience), is how internalized homophobia affects us.
As gay men, even if we come out and consciously live our life openly gay, we grow up in the same society with the same religions watching the same movies and picking up the same subconscious programming about what it means to be a man and to be gay as everyone else. As a result, although we may be out and proud, fragments of external homophobic and heteronormative messaging sometimes seep inside and left unexplored, can negatively impact our life, our choices, and our communities.
After I came out, I immersed myself in LGBT advocacy. In fact, for more than a decade I’ve dedicated my life to LGBT advocacy work. However, it wasn’t until three years ago when my 6 year old nephew asked me whether or not I had a girlfriend that I realized the pervasiveness of homophobia. His question and my family’s response, including my own, helped me see the deeper and nuanced layers of homophobia.
It’s not fair to project my experience onto anyone else’s and I can’t say what was behind the split second decision made by the openly gay father to change the subject to his son’s question; however, not communicating is still communicating. Kids will learn anything we teach them, including what we don’t.
If a child is old enough to talk about getting married and having kids, they’re certainly able to be introduced to what it means to be gay. Love between two men or two women is just as normal as what they’ve already seen on television and in cartoons. We live in a heteronormative world and beneath heteronormativity is buried homophobia. By normalizing something with children at a young age otherwise deemed different by societal standards, we help create allies, prevent bullying, and heal homophobia.
So, to the gay father who said he doesn’t feel the need to introduce things to his children unless they haven’t explicitly asked — please accept this not as an attack on your parenting, but merely as an invitation for you to take a deeper exploration as to why you changed the subject to your son’s question. I saw myself in your response and simply want to share with you what I’ve learned from taking a deeper exploration into my own life. Children are more insightful than we realize.
This is also a call for all parents and members of the LGBT community to ask ourselves how our own implicit biases affect what we choose to share with the children in our lives.
Times are changing and the deeper we go in our individual lives the more we can make even bigger strides toward a world of equality.