On a cold winter day when my oldest son was in the first grade, he came home from school with a question.
"Mom, did you know that the word gay means more than just gay?"
Just a few weeks before, my son announced that he was gay. He knew what being gay meant (boys who wanted to be boyfriends with other boys) and was quite certain it described himself. As the days went by, he used the word gay more and more often.
"What else does it mean, baby?" I asked.
"Where'd you learn that?"
"At school. In music we sang a Christmas song that said gay. The teacher said it meant happy."
"She's right. It can mean that too."
Now, nothing in this conversation was particularly earth shattering or memorable. What makes it stick with me is this was the first time gay had come up in a conversation about school. While our son identified as gay, he had never used that term to describe himself at school. Everyone knew Blaine from Glee was his boyfriend (because it was impossible at the time to be around him for more than five minutes without him reminding you), but the actual word "gay" hadn't been used. My husband and I had a quick discussion and decided we'd rather talk to the school now, than wait and pray a problem never occurred.
I made an appointment with the principal, and I admit that I was more than a little nervous. We knew the school was gay friendly. They had gay staff and administration, but the existence of our gay-identified seven year old could throw off even the most ardent ally. The principal and I chatted for a few minutes, and then I laid it all on the table.
"My son identifies as gay. It will come up at school eventually, so I think we need to talk about it."
I shouldn't have worried. The principal was wonderful. He agreed that school should always be a safe place for all kids. When I told him I expected "that's so gay" to be treated like any other form of hate speech, he agreed as well.
"Normally, when 'gay' is used in that way, we get out the dictionary and talk about the definition of the word," he said.
"As 'happy'," I said remembering the conversation about the carol.
"But that's problematic. If people use 'gay' to slam my kid, they aren't talking about how happy he is. It also creates a problem, because it doesn't acknowledge the other definition. I don't want him to think that 'gay' as 'homosexual' is some kind of secret thing. Nothing about who he is should be shameful or secret."
The principal acknowledged that this wasn't an issue that had ever come up in his elementary school before, and I laughed knowing that had to be true. We agreed that we were both in brand new territory, and we would need to stay in close communication about my son's experience at school. In the meantime, I planned to have discussions with his teachers (they would be the ones on ground zero if/when something happened.) All of those talks went equally great. His teachers had the same questions everyone has (Really? Does he understand what it means? etc.) but they were all firmly in this corner. And I sighed with relief.
We are lucky. I know we are lucky. But until a few weeks ago, two years after these discussions, I don't think I realized how much.
As with most kids, our son is better at some areas of school and struggles at others. The question came up if there might be another program that would suit our son better. And when the mere idea of this was brought up, I froze. Our kid wasn't just any kid. Our kid was a gay elementary school student. And we live in the Midwest. Was there another program where our son's orientation would be so lovingly embraced? The staff had a suggestion of one school they thought would work.
I went to the suggested school and one of the administrators gave me a tour. Eventually, I asked her about the school's hate speech and bullying policies. She told me all about their policies as they applied to race.
"My son identifies as gay, so I am also interested in policies about anti-gay hate speech."
The administrator was surprised, which I had expected. Then she said, "Well, children might say those words, but at this level they don't understand what they mean, so we don't see them as a problem."
And if anyone is looking for the wrong thing to say to the parent of a gay child, that's it, right there. Because the kids don't know what they are saying, it's OK? That makes no sense. She had just told me the policies on racial hate speech. It wasn't ignored if the students didn't understand the implications of their words. Why should anti-gay hate speech be any different? The administrator didn't have any good answers for me.
I went back and talked to our principal about my visit. He was dismayed by the reaction of the other school. Was the other program a better fit for my son academically? Maybe. But my kid's current school was definitely a better fit for who he is. The principal and I worked together to get my son extra tutoring, as well as in-class help where he was struggling, so he can stay where he is -- somewhere that is committed to protecting him, helping him grow, and celebrating him. And I think that is the better choice.
So, we are lucky. While I appreciate that, I can't help but think we shouldn't have to be. My son is just a kid. He should be able to go to any school in our area and know that his school will protect him from hate. But that's not where we live. I want my son to grow up knowing being gay isn't something shameful or insulting. It's just part of who he is. I expect the kids in his school to start using "gay" as pejorative term at some point. I hate it, but again that's the world we live in and kids can be awful to each other. That's why it's so important that the adults my son is surrounded by, especially those in positions of authority, are ready, willing and able to intervene. After all, that's their job. At least it should be.