Bullying. It's something that most parents worry about, and the parents of gay kids worry about it even more. At least, I know that I worry... a lot.
When my oldest son was in the first grade, he had an experience with bullying. Some boys were picking on other kids, and my shy, too-tall oldest son made a perfect target. The teacher was on top of it and let us know what was going on right away. When I got home from work, my son and I went somewhere quiet to talk, just the two of us. In our house that means the bathroom. Slowly I wheedled at him, and he started to tell me what happened. And my heart raced.
A couple of months before this incident, at only 7 years old and in the first grade, he'd announced that he is gay. He is very open and honest about it, and so are we. His teacher and principal were aware and totally supportive, but I knew they couldn't control everything. So as my son told me about these little boys, I was thinking, "It has started already."
There we were in the bathroom, I sitting on the toilet, my little boy cuddled into my lap, when I broached the subject. "Baby," I said, "when these boys were saying mean things, did they ever talk about you being gay?"
My son looked at me and rolled his eyes dramatically. "No," he said, exasperated. "They aren't that stupid."
It wasn't about my kid being being gay after all; it was just an average, run-of-the-mill, children-being-little-snots kind of thing. The teacher was on top of it, the bullying stopped, and everything went back to the status quo.
My oldest son is now in the fourth grade, and he's never had an incident of anti-gay bullying at school. And that may have lulled me into a false sense of security, because I was caught totally off guard when it happened to his little brother.
My middle son is in the second grade and is a smart, sensitive kid. He likes video games, looking for ghosts, and documentaries about weird prehistoric creatures. He also likes to get his nails painted. He likes picking through all the different polishes and choosing the most obnoxious yellow or putrid green he can find. Over the weekend he found a bottle of silver nail polish and needed it to be on his fingers. Wolverine was mentioned. So we painted his nails, he loved them, and I didn't give it a second thought... until I got home from work on Monday.
My middle son is a cuddler and always curls up next to me the instant I sit down.
"How was school, baby?" I asked. He shrugged, and I watched as he started picking at his fingernails. "Did anyone like your nails today?"
"Nope," he said, "but two thumbs down."
"Really? What did they say?"
"One girl said I was weird. She hates all the boys. And Jacob said--." He stopped abruptly, upset and confused.
"What did Jacob say?" I asked gently.
"He said I was gay. He said it lots." And my baby collapsed in tears in my arms.
The house went quiet for minute. My oldest son, who was doing something across the room, froze with his eyes on us. I rubbed my middle son's shaking back, my mind racing. Here I was with one son crying because he'd been taunted with a word that accurately describes the other. Not only did I have to think of what to say to the upset boy in my lap, but I had to keep in mind that my oldest son would be listening to every word.
"Sweetie, you know what 'gay' means, right?" I asked as his tears slowed. He turned his face up toward mine, his eyes wide. I continued, "It means when boys like other boys and girls like other girls to kiss and hold hands with." He nodded at me, already aware of the definition. So I asked, "Is being gay a bad thing?"
He roughly wiped his eyes and shook his head. "No," he said adamantly. This was an easy answer for a kid with a gay big brother.
"That's right," I said. "And does being gay have anything to do with wearing nail polish?" He shook his head. "Right. So if being gay isn't a bad thing and painting your nails doesn't mean you're gay, Jacob calling you that doesn't make a lot of sense. If he ever says anything like that again, what should you do?"
"Tell the teacher," my oldest son said from across the room, still watching.
"That's right. Right away," I said to both of them, then turned back to my middle son. "Mostly girls paint their nails, but there's no rule that says boys can't. Some boys do. It's OK for you to like it. And it's not OK for anyone to make fun of you for it. OK?" My middle son nodded and rubbed his face again. "As for being weird," I continued, "you are just as weird as everyone else in this family, kiddo." I tickled him. "And that has nothing to do with your fingers."
He giggled and snuggled up with me. "Can we watch Ghost Hunters?" he asked.
As I snuggled with my boy, I couldn't help but dwell on the absurdity of it. Actually being gay had never caused a problem with the other kids, but nail polish was just too much? I couldn't help but wonder how much bullying my oldest son had escaped because he is stereotypically masculine. His orientation isn't something that can be seen and pointed at.
While we watched shaky night-vision camerawork, my husband shot an email to the principal of the school explaining what had happened. The principal responded right away with "On it." We have confidence that he will be.
Some people think using "gay" as a slur isn't that big of a deal. I have to disagree, and luckily my kids' principal agrees with me. Children hear hate speech and internalize it. That's a big deal in my book. Not only was my middle son upset, but he was confused. He knew that he was being teased (kids pick up on the tone and intentions behind words) even though the other boy was using a word that my son had previously regarded as a benign descriptor.
My heart sinks because I know this is not going to be our only conversation. This isn't going to be the last anti-gay slur my kids hear. We'll have to talk again about the people who don't like gay people and how wrong they are. We'll have to talk again about how to respond when people say hateful words. And these are conversations were are going to have over and over again with all three of our sons, whether or not they are LGBT. Anti-gay bullying doesn't only affect gay kids. It's important to remember that, and as a mother, I can't afford to forget that again.
As for my son's fingernails, will I take off his polish? Of course... the moment he asks me.