I knew when I walked into the house that something was wrong.
"Babe," my husband said, "your oldest needs some mom time."
I looked further into the house and saw my 10-year-old son sitting on the couch, arms crossed, huffing and looking at his lap.
"What's up?" I asked my husband.
He shrugged. "I have no idea. Go work your magic."
Even though my husband is a stay-at-home dad, I seem to have this special power over my sons. Or maybe it's just tenacity, because if one of them is upset, I will not stop until I get what's wrong out of them.
I snuggled up to my son and poked him in the side. "What going on, baby?" I asked.
"You don't want to talk about it?"
He shook his head and and looked away from me.
I sighed. "Yeah, kiddo, you know that's not how it works." I pried one of his arms away from his middle and held his hand in mine. "Do we need to go to the bathroom?"
In our house the bathroom is one of the few places available for a private conversation away from all the distractions. But today the bathroom would not be required.
"Stupid Michael!" my son yelled, naming a boy in his class.
"What about Michael?" I prodded.
"He was saying things about me being gay. He said it was illegal!"
My son, though just 10 years old, has been openly identifying as gay for over three years. And as awful as it is to say, I had been waiting for this moment. Before that day, my oldest son had never dealt with any anti-gay sentiment at school (though his younger brother had). But as the parent of a gay kid in middle America, I knew it was only a matter of time. We had tried to prepare him. We'd talked to him about the hate that is out there in the world. We'd told him that some people don't like gay people. We'd discussed different political candidates, etc., but it was never part of his day-to-day life -- until now.
I'd like to say that I had a cool and measured response to this kid saying being gay is illegal, but I would totally be lying. My first thought, the mother-honey-badger-with-rabies thought, was that I wanted to find this Michael kid and rip his arms off. Yes, that is totally unfair and unreasonable and un-a-lot-of-things, but there it was. I managed to be a grownup and stuff that reaction down.
"Why do you think he said that, baby?" I asked in my kindest, Mom-loves-you voice.
"He said his parents told him."
And now I wanted to find Michael's parents and rip their arms off.
I pulled my too-big kid onto my lap. (He's 5-foot-2 now, so this looks a little ridiculous, but I am unwilling to stop.) "Is being gay illegal?" I asked in my softest voice.
He shook his head.
"Some people believe things that aren't true," I continued. "Just because they believe them doesn't make them true. You know that, right?"
"Yes," he hissed at me.
I stroked his hair for a while, then lifted his chin to look at me. What I saw in his face wasn't at all what I expected. I expected tears. I expected sadness and shame. I saw none of that. Instead I saw anger -- red-cheeked and fierce-eyed anger. "What did you say back to him?" I asked and watched as his expression turned sheepish.
He wriggled uncomfortably. "Stuff I'm not supposed to say at school," he said. "Then he ran away."
It took everything in me not to laugh.
We talked for a while about better things things to say. We talked about going to his teacher and the principal right away if it happened again. We talked about the gay people we know, and how none of them are illegal either. I told him how awesome he is. He rolled his eyes at me and said, "I know." We went on with our evening, and after the boys were in bed, my husband I talked about what had happened. We were both more than a little shocked.
We all know how this script is supposed to go: Gay kid gets teased and bullied. Gay kid feels demeaned and ashamed. Gay kid maybe gets beaten up. Gay kid runs off to lick his wounds and feel horrible about himself. Gay kid feels alone.
But not this time. This time the gay kid, my gay kid, got pissed. He fought back. And the bully ran away. Then the gay kid, my gay kid, went home and talked to his parents about it.
And you know what? I'm glad he got angry. That's a damn sight better than ashamed. He should be angry, because no one has the right to tell my kid that something he is is wrong. There should be no place for shame, because he has nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, he shouldn't have said bad words. But when I think of all those other kids out there being bullied in their schools, with no supportive parents or teachers, those kids who are ashamed and dying inside because of what people tell them about who they are, I can think of a few not-cool-for-school words I want to throw their way myself.
Now my husband and I have to face some facts. Our kid has had an idealist experience so far when it comes to his orientation. That time is over. Reality is settling down on us, a reality that is not always fun or pretty, a reality where our kid will be defending himself from the Michaels of the world, who have been taught by their parents to hate instead of love. We can't always protect him, so he'll need to protect himself, no matter how much that makes my internal mother honey badger with rabies scream with rage. But he will never be alone, because he will always have us to come home to, to tell him the truth, to tell him he's awesome.
So far so good.