Tag Archives: homophobia

The Incident

A few months back, I wrote that my son had never been bullied at his Texas public school. Perhaps it was inevitable, given that Waylon is in third grade now, but a week or two later there was an incident.

The story unfolded over dinner at our favorite neighborhood Texmex restaurant. Waylon was well into his second bean and cheese taco when he broached the subject. “Mom, B– said that being gay is bad.”

B– is a familiar character in our dinner table conversations. He’s an older kid who attends Waylon’s after-school program. He has a prime position in the elementary school social hierarchy because his parents allow him to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Every day after school, B– captivates the children of our hippy dippy neighborhood with his encyclopedic knowledge of military weaponry.

“What did you do when he said that?” I was trying to keep my voice calm. I was thinking do not freak out, do not freak out, do not let him see that you are kind of freaking out.

“I said, ‘My parents are gay.’”

Oh my god, he’s like a LAMB to the SLAUGHTER!! What CALLOUS IDIOTS taught our son to be so trusting and forthright?

“What did he say?” my wife, Katy, asked. She was using her professional therapist voice.

“He said that must be why I look like his dog when I smile.”

I’m not going to lie; I wanted to track B– down and shake him ’til his eyes rattled. Then I wanted to drag Katy in the next room and chew her out for convincing me to have a kid in the first place.

Instead, I said, “How did that make you feel?”

Which sounds like a stupid thing to say. But somewhere, in the little part of my mind that wasn’t indulging in violent retributive fantasies or wallowing in guilt, I felt a tiny glimmer of hope that Waylon was willing to confide in his parents. I knew this wouldn’t be the last incident, and I needed to convince him that I could handle the truth.

“I don’t know,” Waylon said, looking kind of vague. “Bad, I guess…”

“Well, I feel really mad,” I said. My voice was calibrated to convey approximately 10% of my actual rage. “It’s not okay for him to say that.” I felt I was walking a tightrope, trying to help him identify his feelings without turning the whole conversation into the Seething Mom Show.

“Do I need to kick his ass?” Katy asked.

Waylon looked shocked. “I’m just kidding,” she said. “Sort of.” He smiled. I could tell he was glad that his mom had his back against a bully, even though he knew it was a fantasy.

Katy is a former bully herself, a gender nonconforming kid who kept people from messing with her by being the meanest, toughest kid on the playground. I emerged from a momentary reverie to hear her explaining about bullies, how they lash out because they’re scared, how B– was probably parroting his parents, repeating some version of the messages he’d received about himself.

Waylon was absolutely clear that he did not want us to intervene directly with B–. He wanted to see if he could handle the situation on his own before he risked antagonizing a powerful older kid.

The next morning, I was on the phone with the director of the after-school program. I didn’t violate Waylon’s trust; I didn’t tell her the name of the kid or any identifying characteristics, but I did let her know what had been said.

The director promised to respond with a generic lesson about name-calling and respect. I suggested that a unit on family diversity might be more effective, and she made some vague placating noises. I sent her a link to a research-tested curriculum about different kinds of families. I’m sure she and her colleagues had a good laugh about that one.

This is, after all, Texas public school. No one, not even the most progressive teacher, seems quite sure what they are allowed to say to public school children about the gays. Last year, I asked if our school could print the district’s nondiscrimination clause – which includes sexual orientation – in the school handbook. The principal deftly suggested that the school might run a statement in support of the nondiscrimination policy without actually printing the inflammatory words.

The next evening, when I picked Waylon up from aftercare, the head teacher approached me. He’d heard the details of the incident from his supervisor, and he wanted to assure me that they had a plan to respond.

“Yeah, we’ve got a whole bunch of worksheets for them. You’re probably going to hear Waylon complain about how boring it is for the next couple of days.”

Apparently, that’s our response to bias in Texas – bore the victim.

I was angry all over again. I coldly suggested that there might be a problem if he could predict in advance that his lesson would be mind-numbingly dull. It’s not, I explained, inherently boring material. Difference is actually pretty juicy.

But I knew I was barking up the wrong tree. The aftercare program is staffed by college students, and it takes training to facilitate the kind of conversation that these kids needed to have. It requires the freedom to acknowledge and describe all kinds of differences and the intense feelings they engender. I didn’t have much hope that kind of freedom was going to blossom from a worksheet.

As we walked to the car, I was feeling pretty low. I was ashamed of myself for snapping at the teacher. I felt guilty for being a self-employed writer who sends her son to low-cost after-school care. I felt like a self-indulgent jerk who had saddled her child with the burden of a weird family.

There’s nothing like parenthood for bringing out internalized homophobia.

Luckily, Waylon was in a talkative mood. “Did you see B–?” he asked. “I can’t believe he said I look like his dog!”

“I know,” I said. I stopped and looked him right in the eye. “I’m so sorry that that happened to you. I feel terrible.”

“Wait,” Waylon asked. “Why do you feel terrible?”

“I just think you’re so great, and I feel awful that someone would say something that made you feel bad about yourself.”

“Oh I don’t feel bad about myself,” Waylon said in a Mom-you-are-weird kind of voice. He opened the car door and tossed his backpack inside.

I’ve reviewed this moment many times. Was he feeling pressure to reassure me? Was he repeating something we’d said? Or could he really separate the slur from his own self-image?

When I was a kid, if people picked on me or called me names, I felt shame. I was afraid to tell my parents, because I didn’t want them to know that something was wrong with me. I thought it was my job to keep everyone happy with me at all times, which is probably why I didn’t come out until I was almost 30.

I’d like to believe that Waylon’s experience has been completely different. I hope he knows that the problem isn’t him – or even B–. It’s about whole systems of power and inequality, privilege and oppression, which we try to discuss in everyday words on everyday occasions.

In any case, we’ve lived through the incident, and I’m sure we’ll weather many more.

Mostly, I just hope Waylon keeps talking.


Dumbledore is Gaaaay

The trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has arrived. In order to convey the excitement that this news generated at our house, I have to confirm one of fundamentalist Christianity’s most apoplectic fantasies: the Harry Potter series is like the Bible in our queer home.

Dumbledore-s-Got-Style-albus-dumbledore-2477503-600-653.jpgI wish you could have seen my son’s face when we told him that J.K. Rowling had outed the series’ eccentric éminence grise, Albus Dumbledore. Waylon paused for an uncharacteristically long time, his little eyes blank with surprise. Then a slow grin crept across his face, until he was positively beaming.

For all of his short life, we’d been trying to help Waylon feel good about his family by telling him about famous queers who made a difference: Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Eleanor Roosevelt. But here was someone who was actually famous in Waylon’s world. Here was a gay who made a difference to five-year-olds.

Which was why it was so painful that Dumbledore should be the subject of the first anti-gay taunts that Waylon ever heard.

It was a few months into kindergarten. We were sitting around our battered rattan dinette, discussing Waylon’s hectic social schedule of afternoon playdates. Suddenly he looked down at his lap and frowned.

“I don’t want to play with V,” he mumbled.

“Why not?” I asked. “Did you have a fight?”

“No,” Waylon shook his downturned head. “It’s just that, I told him Dumbledore is gay, and he was making fun of Dumbledore.”

“What did he say?” Katy asked. I could tell she was straining to sound casual.

“He was running around the playground saying ‘Dumbledore is gaaay, Dumbledore is gaaay,’” said Waylon, mimicking his friend’s jeering singsong.

“Are you sure he meant it in a mean way?” I asked, hoping against hope that there had been some misunderstanding.

“Yes,” Waylon replied, shaking his head with certainty.

At this point, gentle reader, you might imagine a number of raw emotional responses that were wrestling inside my motherly bosom: wishing I could throttle this kid for crushing Waylon’s joy, wanting to call his parents and give them a ration of shit, vowing to devote my life to homeschooling my son and protecting him from haters.

In actuality, I felt shocked, unprepared. I know V’s mom. She’s a friend and one of the most ardent straight allies I’ve ever known. During our first tentative weeks in the kindergarten community, she was the one who made my tattooed genderqueer freak of a wife feel welcome in the circle of fieldtrip chaperones and classroom helpers. Wherever V had learned that gay was weird or wrong, it certainly wasn’t from her.

Moreover, V had spent tons of time at our house. He knew we were gay, and he liked and trusted us. Despite the hurtful impact of his words, I doubted that it had been his intention to wound.

Which somehow made the whole thing worse. It would have been easier to write the whole thing off as the ignorance of some redneck outliers.

In the moment, however, there was little time to think about the origin of the situation. Our son was looking despairingly into his mac-n-cheese. As with so many other parenting challenges, this one required a delicate balance between thoroughly responding to Waylon’s feelings and making the incident into a big, traumatic deal.

“Whoa,” Katy said. “That sounds disappointing. You were excited to tell V about Dumbledore, and then he made fun.” Waylon nodded. He looked like he was going to cry.

“How did that make you feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” he said. “Sad for Dumbledore.”

Sad for Dumbledore. The powerful parental figure whom he had idolized was suddenly vulnerable. It was hard not to see Dumbledore as a symbol for Mommy and Mama. Although we had talked with Waylon about homophobia, this was the first time he’d actually experienced the kinds of negative reactions that people might have toward his parents–albeit in an indirect form.

It felt like a lot for a five-year-old to have to deal with. Before Waylon was born, I knew there would be moments when he was teased or excluded because his family was different. I knew he’d have to discover that his parents’ identities were stigmatized, devalued. But knowing something and experiencing it are two different things. And he was so young! My head was a swirl of guilt, anger, and fear. It took every ounce of restraint to stay present with Waylon’s feelings instead of retreating into my own. In my turmoil, I reached for the most basic explanation that I know, the one we’ve used since Waylon was a toddler.

ToddParr.jpgTodd Parr’s It’s Okay to Be Different is as different from the rococo excesses of Harry Potter as a children’s book can be. The drawings are colorful stick figures. A few simple sentences fill each page. But its core message, so baldly announced in the title, has served as an explanatory rubric and family value ever since we first read it when Waylon was two.

“You know how we believe that it’s okay to be different?” I asked Waylon. He shook his head yes. “Well, some people don’t believe it’s okay to be different. Sometimes people are really, really afraid of any kind of difference. And because they’re afraid, they freak out if kids show even a little sign of being different. They might tease them or even punish for being different. And that makes kids scared and teaches them to tease and punish people who are different.”

Waylon looked like he was tracking, so I kept going. “And that’s sad for them,” I said, because they ‘re scared and acting out of fear.”

“Yeah, that’s sad for them,” Waylon concurred, sounding slightly cheerier.

“But we know it’s okay to be different, and we like Dumbledore for being different,” I concluded.

“Yeah,” Katy chimed in. “We like his purple suit.”

“And his long beard,” I added.

“And that he’s the greatest wizard of all time,” Waylon concluded, before turning back to his dinner.

The conversation was far from over. In the year and a half since the teasing happened, Waylon has continued to bring it up every few months. Each time, we help him re-tell the story, hoping that he’s making sense of it in a way that feels healing.

Right now, we’re about to finish reading the seventh Harry Potter book aloud. It’s the end of a family project that began when Waylon was four. Traditionally, each time we finish a book, we have a Potter Feast, which, for some reason, means eating chicken legs and drinking cream soda (AKA butter beer). Potter Feast number seven will happen some time in the next week.

We were planning our upcoming celebration after dinner the other night. Waylon was perched precariously in his chair, eating an ice cream bar while his parents cleared the table. “Remember when V made fun of Dumbledore?” he asked.

There’s a part of me that cringes every time he brings it up, because it confirms that the incident made such a big impact on his little mind. And there’s a part of me that’s actually glad when he brings it up, because at least he’s talking about it. At least he knows that his parents are not too fragile to help him deal with the emotional injuries of the playground. I hope that confidence will serve him later, when kids say meaner things that really are intended to hurt or shame.

Last night, Katy was telling Waylon about another silver-haired gay icon: Lady Gaga. “Waylon, between almost every song she said something about how much she loves the gays!”

Waylon, who has been known to shout “pa-pa-paparazzi” like a magical incantation, was listening avidly to Katy’s account of the concert. Then he broke into a chant of his own devising: “Gay is good! Gay is good! Gay is good!” It was irresistible; we had to start chanting along. And then somehow, I can’t quite remember how, the words shifted into a hearty and affirmative “Dumbledore is gay! Dumbledore is gay!”

And then we went upstairs to read.
Image credit for Dumbledore’s Got Style: tomscribble on fanpop


Two Worlds in Texas

I recently returned from a visit with the Mormon side of my extended family–an experience that I’m processing by obsessively watching Big Love on DVD.

I should hasten to say that the Mormons on Big Love don’t actually remind me of my family. In fact, it’s kind of like watching the L Word, because the people on the series are so much richer and skinnier than any of the people I know. Nevertheless, Big Love is addictive, and lately I’ve been pondering which of the show’s three wives I resemble most.

I wish I could say I identify with Barb, the smart and sexy first wife. Or Margene, the young and spunky third wife. But, in my heart of hearts, I know I’m most like Chloe Sevigny’s character, Nicolette–the cranky middle wife who is passionately attached to her otherness and suspicious of integrating into mainstream society.

Which is why, when my son emerged from his first grade classroom last week wearing a Cub Scouts sticker, I ripped it off him like it was the mark of Satan.

“Hey, why’d you do that?” Waylon asked, looking stricken. “I want to go to Cub Scouts. You get to shoot BB guns and bows and arrows.”

Perhaps a cooler, more experienced mom would have taken a deep breath at this juncture. Perhaps hypothetical mom would have asked her son a few questions and then backed off, waiting to see whether the desire to join Cub Scouts was more than the passing whim of a seven-year-old with a short attention span.

But I wasn’t feeling like hypothetical mom.

I was feeling like an edgy, sleep-deprived lesbian mama who just returned from an Arizona family funeral where everyone treated her as if she were a slightly suspect single mother.

“You can’t join the Cub Scouts,” I said, marching him down the sidewalk towards the car. “They don’t allow families like ours to participate and they discriminate against gay kids.”

“Well maybe we could pretend to be straight,” Waylon said. “Because Mommy is both, a boy and a girl.” The crossing guard gave us a funny look.

“Waylon! Even if Mommy and I were straight, we still wouldn’t let you join because they discriminate against gay kids,” I scolded as I opened the car door. “They’re injustice,” I added, trying to appeal to his comic book sense of ethics.

Waylon began sobbing in his car seat. I felt like the meanest mommy in the world.

Back home, I emailed the parents of Waylon’s close friends to find out whether every other boy in his class would soon be sporting a yellow kerchief. My hands shook and my heart raced as I typed. I was outraged that public school children would be recruited into an organization that discriminates against whole classes of kids and adults. I was angry that much of the situation was beyond my control. I was scared that Waylon was going to feel excluded because of his family. And I was ashamed for losing my cool and making him cry.

In a testament to our community of straight allies–or at least to the laidback ethos of South Austin–none of Waylon’s friends’ parents were jazzed about Cub Scouts. And once Waylon realized that his buddies weren’t joining up without him, the sting was gone. By dinnertime, he had transitioned from wanting to join the Cub Scouts to wanting to “destroy” the Cub Scouts. And I had transitioned from a nay-saying harpy to a warm, compassionate mother who calmly counseled him to respect other people’s choices and to refrain from visiting superhero-style vengeance upon people with different beliefs.

But, despite my calm façade, I was rattled. My son had been beguiled by an organization whose leadership believes that people like his parents are unfit role models for children. My feelings of anger, vulnerability, and fear grew as I attempted to follow up with the principal, the Campus Advisory Council, and the Cub Scout recruiting lady.

(Cub Scout lady, I know you don’t read LGBT blogs, but I just want to use this forum to apologize for trying to explain my objections to your organization in the school corridor. That was inappropriate. And here’s a tip: in the future, if you want to calm an outraged lesbian mama, don’t tell her that your policy for gay kids is “don’t ask, don’t tell.”)

In response to my initial inquiries, I learned that the Boy Scouts’ presence in public schools is federally protected. Back in 2002, when schools with nondiscrimination policies were banning Boy Scout troops from their campuses, the Bushies slipped the “Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act” into No Child Left Behind. (Ah, the Bush administration and No Child Left Behind–two gifts from Texas that just keep on giving.)

Luckily, the Boy Scouts’ federally protected status only mandates that they have “equal access” compared to other extracurricular activities. I was assured that other extracurricular programs were not allowed to market directly to kids during the school day and that this kind of thing would not happen in the future.

Which should, perhaps, have calmed me down.

However, most everyone I spoke with persisted in likening the Cub Scouts recruiting visit to other recent “controversies,” like the sticker machines in the school lobby. Their failure to make an ethical distinction between discrimination and the distribution of Pokemon decals made me crazy.

The Cub Scouts recruiting visit didn’t shake me up because I have some intellectual or political disagreement with their policies. Rather, their federally protected presence in the school reminded me how perfectly respectable it is to insist that queer folks have no business being around children. That’s essentially what their policy says. And it cuts right to the heart of my fitness to raise a child. My fitness to be Waylon’s mom.

I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m sending my kid to public school in Texas, a state that just made Phyllis Schlafly a mandatory part of the social studies curriculum. On television, right-wing pundits have been waging a witch hunt against Kevin Jennings, President Obama’s openly gay appointee to the Department of Education. And hate groups like the Traditional Values Coalition have been inciting moral panic over transgender teachers as a major tactic in their battle against ENDA. What else did I expect?

Intellectually, this is pretty much what I expected. Emotionally, I’m having one of those moments when my defenses have been stripped bare and every little bump leaves a bruise.

If I was unprepared for how personal something like Cub Scouts in public schools would feel, it’s partly because, in most of my day-to-day life, I’ve managed to carve out my own queer social world. I’ve worked in LGBTQ professions. I attend a gay and trans-affirming church. I volunteer for queer and feminist organizations. My friends are queer. Heck, three out of four people in my family of origin are queer.

Public school is challenging for me because it’s the only significant institution in my day-to-day life where queers and allies are not woven into every fiber.

I know the stock recommendations for LGBT parent involvement in their kids’ schools. Get involved. Join the PTA. Volunteer. Work extra hard to build credibility and goodwill so that you can try to create a supportive environment for your child. But, although I am something of a community junkie, I sometimes find myself avoiding opportunities to be involved in Waylon’s school. When it comes to how I’m going to apply my civic energies, I’d rather do it in a context where I don’t have to deal with other people’s ignorance and discomfort around LGBT issues.

Don’t get me wrong–I value the culture shock of public school. I want Waylon to grow up around kids from different racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. I want him to grow up knowledgeable about other ways of life and comfortable around all kinds of people. I want him to have options in terms of how he lives his own life. In my dreams, public school is a place where he can learn the skills to play and communicate and collaborate with people who are different from us.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about that hippy school on the edge of town where lots of my friends send their kids. Waylon wouldn’t be the only kid in his class with gay and trans parents. He could read books about families like his, and the rest of the class would read them too. There’d be no Boy Scouts. No “don’t ask, don’t tell.” No forms that ask for “mother’s name” and “father’s name.” No shuttling between two worlds before 7:45 each morning.

Life would be a lot easier.



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