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.
Todd 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