Tag Archives: children

It’s not the truth that confuses kids, or, reflections from a closeted queer childhood

“My hot take on LGGT 'education' (aka legally being allowed to mention that not everyone is cishet in a school without losing your job) is that if your kid is old enough to make fun of other kids by calling them gay, they're old enough to be told that they're being a bigoted little shit.” —@Neeerts
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I get extremely tired of hearing the lament, “But children will be confused!” thrown out any time anyone suggests that maybe it might be all right for movies or TV shows or books or just adults who happen to be near children to admit that queer people exist. It is not the existence of same sex married couples that confuses children. It is not the existence of transgender people that confuses children. It is not the existence of nonbinary people that confuses children. It is not the existence of asexual people that confuses children. What confuses children is when adults lie to them and then try to obfuscate it. And that includes lying by omission by trying to keep children from knowing that any of those things exist.

And the thing is, the people who most adhere to this idea of protecting children from even knowing that non-cisgender or non-heterosexual people exist all do a really poor job of that. Because I guarantee you that the children of those parents are the ones at school bullying any classmate who seems gender-nonconforming by calling them homo or sissies or some other slur. Kids may or may not understand the intricacies of adult relationships, but they glean and infer a whole lot about same aspects of sex and romance and related topics from the adults around them.

Some adults seem to completely forget what it was like when they were children. And that manifests in a couple of different ways. To illustrate, I’ll tell the story of two playdates.

Now, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “playdate” meaning “a play session for small children arranged in advance by their parents” didn’t come into the language until 1975, and these two stories from my childhood predate that (one happened in 1969, and other in 1971). And I’m not sure that 9-year-olds or 10-year-olds fall into the definition of small children, but the idea was mostly the same.

The first one happened early in the third grade. It was the first time I recall that my Mom took me to the home of one of my friends from school or church for the explicit purpose of letting us kids hang out. Mom also visited with my friend’s mother for a bit before taking my little sister to some other event, but I and my friend hanging out was the purpose of the trip. It was a fun evening, we spent most of the time in his room talking about comic books, as I recall. No big deal. Eventually Mom came back to pick me up. We went home. We had a few more similar get-togethers like that, usually with me being dropped off at his place, but it least one time his parents dropped him off at ours.

The second one happened in the middle of fourth grade. Because of my dad’s work in the petroleum industry, we had moved three times between these two playdates. Two of the moves involved crossing a state boundary. All three moves involved me being enrolled in a new school. At some of those intervening schools, we hadn’t remained in the area long enough for me to make much in the way for friends. At the third place, though, I quickly became very good friends with a classmate. Both of us were in orchestra (it was the first year I could join), and our mothers had met when they came to pick us up after practice.

So eventually, a plan was made when my classmate would be dropped off at our place for an evening. But the plan quickly became weird. Dad and a few other people made strange comments. I was getting teased about this friend.

Why? Because she wasn’t a boy.

When she was dropped off, her dad made some comments that made both Dad and Mom laugh, but just confused me. Most of the fathers of kids I’d known most of my life had owned guns. So why did her dad tell me about his gun and how handy it was to get to?

We spent most of the time sitting at the dining room table talking about our favorite books (she and I shared an adoration for The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew). At the end of the evening, Mom drove my friend home and I rode along so we could keep talking. When we pulled up in front of her house, Mom told me that I was supposed to walk my friend to the door. I said, “Sure.” We both got out of the car and walked up to the front door. I remember that her family’s dog was barking really loud in the house, and she made a comment about how we needed to make sure the gate was latched, in case the dog got out of the house.

We walked up to the porch. She said, “Good night.” I said, “See you at school!” She opened the door and went inside. I walked back to the car. I spent at least half a minute making certain I had latched the gate correctly, then I got into the car.

And Mom was very angry at me. “When you walk a girl to the door, you don’t just leave her there and walk away! You’re supposed to go inside and thank her parents for letting her go out with you!”

“I didn’t know that.” All of those times the year before when the other friend and I had gotten together, neither of us had been sent in to thank the others’ parents for letting us hang out. Why was this different?

There was some additional fallout, including a lot of teasing at school the following week. The upshot was that my friend didn’t want me to talk to her any more in class or at orchestra rehearsal. I was very confused about the whole thing. Not because I didn’t know why the other kids were teasing us. I knew what “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” meant. But I also knew that those words didn’t describe our relationship—we really were just two orchestra nerds who liked reading! Once that teasing started, I at least had a slightly better idea of what some of the weird comments from adults beforehand had been about.

Vintage photo of two men sitting in a forest and kissing. “Men May Kiss Men”
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I have no idea if the boy I was friends with during the first part of third grade was also queer. At the time I didn’t know that I was, for goodness sake! It is true that one of the reasons we got along so well is because we both tended to be frequent victims of the same playground bullies, so maybe he was. Or maybe we were both just 9-year-old comics nerds who happened to hit it off. But none of the adults around us ever worried about us both being in either his or my bedroom with the door closed for several hours. No one’s dad made shotgun jokes when we got together. At the time, I had no interest in kissing other boys (that would come up a couple years later, when puberty hit like a freight train), and certainly had never thought of kissing him. We were just two guys who thought Spiderman was cool.

But everyone, including apparently our own parents, assumed I and the second friend were romantically interested. I can’t speak for her, of course, but since I’m not merely gay, I’m really most sincerely gay, that was the furthest thing from my mind. And 10-year-old me was just happy to have found someone who liked reading some of the same books as I did.

To circle back to the opening topic: People who assume that grade school children are too young to know about romance and such are the same people who call small boys “lady killers” and cute baby girls “future heartbreakers.” They are the same people who assume any time a young boy is friendly with a girl that it’s a crush. They are the same people who make those stupid shotgun jokes.

If the kids are old enough to hear bullies calling other children “fags” or “homos” or “sissies”, they are old enough to know that actual LGBTQ+ people exist, that they are members of their community, and that they are humans who deserve respect and love just as much as anyone else. If kids are old enough for adults to tease them about their supposed girlfriends/boyfriends, they’re old enough to know that sometimes a guy can have a boyfriend or even a husband, that sometimes a gal can have a girlfriend or even a wife.

Regret is the mind killer

I read this great post, “The Reading Police of the Young,” and found myself remembering the weirdly inconsistent way my reading habits were monitored when I was a kid.

For example, I remember longing to read my mom’s copy of Dune, the paperback sitting squeezed between a bunch of her Agathe Christies and Robert Heinleins. Mom had told me I wasn’t old enough after she finished it. When she realized I kept looking at the book–not reading it, not even opening it, just looking at the cover–she moved it to the small shelf in the bedroom, the one that had Dad’s books that I wasn’t allowed to read (mostly Matt Helm and James Bond books, whose sexual situations were considered pornographic back in the day, but are rather quaint and downright prudish when compared to modern prime time fare).

And so I wondered what forbidden topics were hidden within. When I finally did read it, some time in my teens, I was a bit disappointed. Not at the book, I found the story quite interesting. I was disappointed because there didn’t seem to be anything in it that should have been forbidden.

I mean, yes, it is clear that the Baron has a thing for pretty young men, but there is nothing about the way it is described that anyone could call erotic. And Herbert’s unconcealed homophobia, manifested primarily with the old cliche that the more gay a character is, the more evil they are, should have resonated quite nicely with Mom’s evangelical sensibilities.

Those evangelical sensibilities waxed and waned throughout my childhood. At one point she was encouraging me to read Asimov (both his fiction and nonfiction), Tolkein, LeGuin, and Bradbury. At another point we had the first book-burning incident–when under the influence of a new pastor, she decided that the astronomy books I’d checked out from the library were astrology books, and since astrology is the same as satanism, the books needed to be destroyed.

(I still occasionally have bad dreams that include a reenactment of my tearful explanation to the librarians about why I couldn’t bring the books back. When they called Mom to ask for the books, she harangued them for letting children check out satanic books. The library set up a special spot for my books from then on. I could check out books and read them in the library, but couldn’t take them home.)

The second book-burning had been Dad. Dad’s reasons weren’t overtly religious, my dad is the kind of atheist who is angry at god for not existing (think about that for a bit). No, he decided that I was getting bullied at school so much because I spent too much time “living in a fantasy world.” His book burning was worse because he forced me to pile up the books, pour the accellerant on, light the match, and watch it burn. With random slaps and punches because I was crying while doing it.

Then a year or so later, he bought me an encyclopedia set and told me that I was going to go to college and “make something of yourself” or else.

For the longest time I attributed those mixed messages to the ebb and flow of Dad’s alcoholism and abusive behavior. The worse Dad got, the more intense Mom’s fundamentalism got. When Dad appeared to be changing for the better, Mom loosened up and re-embraced her inner sci fi and comics fangirl.

Those were definitely major factors in the dysfunction in our family, but I wonder how much of the inconsistency was also due to their youth. My parents were both 16 years old when they married, then I was born 6 days before my dad’s 18th birthday. Current brain research indicates that the prefontal cortext (the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, foreseeing consequences, emotional modulation, et cetera) doesn’t fully develop until around the age of 25.

That couldn’t have helped.

While both of them were readers who believed in the value of education, I know both of them felt they hadn’t done as much with their own lives as they could have or ought to have. So while hope for their kids drove some of their decisions, regret played a very big role, as well. Regret drove them to push me to do better in school, which is a good goal. But regret also drove them to micromanage my behavior on all levels, which isn’t just impractical, but if they had been successful would have had the opposite of the desired effect.

We can’t learn how to do anything correctly without learning from our mistakes as well as our successes. That’s just as true for thinking and imagining as it is for basketball or playing the piano. And while there is value in studying what other people have done, it isn’t sufficient. You have to try, fail, and improve on your own. Avoiding someone else’s mistake is no guarantee you won’t make new mistakes. Trying to duplicate someone else’s success may help you find a good way to do something, but it should also lead you to new directions they couldn’t explore.

And when you are buried in your own frustrations and regrets, you’re least likely to possess the objectivitely required to identity just which if your own past actions were mistakes, and which weren’t.

Regret, in that case, becomes both the mind-killer and dream-destroyer. You can’t wallow in the regret. Face it, yes. Let it serve its purpose of motivating you to do better. But then, let go. And become the better you.

Not so recent

Back in the early ’90s, when I was active with the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus, we had some sort of social at a member’s house. Our host and his partner were showing us around, when someone commented on the photos hanging on the wall of an incredibly adorable kid. “Is that your nephew?”

“No,” our host said. “That’s my son. Here he is with his two moms. And here’s one of all of us.”

He proceeded to tell the story of how a friend he had known “since school” had one day asked him if he would donate the sperm so that she and her partner could have a child. “The next thing I knew, I was explaining to my boyfriend at the time about how in a couple months we’d have to go about a week or two without sex to maximum my sperm count.”

They were doing it without the help of a clinic. So, as he said, he had to “produce a sample” at the appointed time, and a friend who had been recruited for the purpose drove the container across town to where the lesbian couple were waiting. It all had to be timed around when she was most likely to be ovulating, of course. Then they had to wait for a number of weeks to see if it worked.

It didn’t.

So they tried again. And again.

“By this point I suspect we were driving all our friends crazy, because we were all paying attention to her menstrual cycle and talking about it in inappropriate places!”

Eventually, they decided that the problem was probably that the drive time was too long for the sperm to remain viable. So, he said, one night he and his boyfriend went over to their house. She and the friend who was assisting with the equipment were in one bedroom, and he and his boyfriend were in another—”He was getting a bit tired of all these bouts of no sex leading up to each try”—and the gal’s partner waited outside the door to take the specimen jar once it was ready.

“It wasn’t romantic for any of us!”

But that time it worked. And ten years later, the lesbian couple were still happily raising their son, with the occasional help of the friend who had donated the sperm.

I was reminded of this story while listening to this story on one of the local NPR stations.

It also made me think about those comments during the Supreme Court hearings a couple weeks back where a couple of the justices kept referring to gay parenting and gay-headed families as a recent development. One justice insisted that the very idea was “newer than cell phones.”

The first analog cellular network went active in 1979, but no one called the large, brick-like phones (some of them were closer to the size of a briefcase) a cellphone. The phones small enough to fit easily in a pocket came out in 1991. About nine years after the birth of the boy whose story I began this post with.

And that wasn’t when gay parenting began. The American Psychological Association published one famous peer-reviewed multi-year study on the outcomes of children raised by gay and lesbian parents in 1970, for goodness sake!

When I was first coming out of the closet, in the late ’80s, a rather large percentage of the lesbians I met had children. Some of my “lesbian aunties*” had children who were older than I was, and those children had children of their own. A slightly smaller percentage of the gay men I met at that time also had children, some of them with children of their own, as well.

Most of those gay and lesbian parents I knew back then had married young while they were still struggling with their sexual identity, and the children were the result of the marriage. Because of various inequities in child custody laws in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the majority of those children were in the physical custody of their mothers. So I knew of a lot more kids who had been raised by lesbian mothers than those who had been raised by their gay fathers.

On the other hand, one of the adults I knew back then had been raised by an actual lesbian aunt and her aunt’s partner after her own parents had died when she was a baby.

Bottom line: gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have been raising children for many generations. It isn’t a recent idea.

And as to whether gay marriage is a recent idea? Well, the Roman Emperor Constantius II issued what was probably the very first legal ban on gay marriage back in the year 324 A.D. If they decided they needed to explicitly ban it, and then later add the death penalty to the punishment, then gay marriages had to have been happening before that, right?

* Not my actual aunts. These were older lesbian women who sort of adopted me when I was coming out.