When Kids Call Things "Gay"
You will always remember the day your mom sat you and your sisters down on the living room couch for a talk. Looking back, you can replay the entire scene from an outsider's perspective, like watching a movie director parsing out a careful script. Here is how it all plays out: your dad steps into the foyer near the front door, tall and strong in his pressed slacks and khaki vest. He shrugs his State Trooper hat low down his forehead. Next: he pauses. "I love you," he says. "See you later." He walks out the door. Exit stage right.
Your mom is fighting back tears and she begins to tell the children sitting on the family couch, slowly, that mommy and daddy are getting a divorce. The two girls, then eight and six, immediately start bawling, gushing hot tears that they don't fully understand. The little boy on the couch just sits there for a moment, and then he realizes that somehow, beyond hope, this all must be some kind of cruel joke. He starts laughing uncontrollably, harder and harder. His mother and siblings look on in shock. He can't stop screaming his laughter for the longest time afterwards.
After this, the memories flash by in a mélange of uncomfortable blurs. There are more serious talks and fleshy couches – stiff-backed graying sofas in child counselors’ and seasoned therapists’ offices, itchy coral-blue surplus ones in school social worker waiting rooms. Quickly arrive the vicious and expensive court proceedings, embattled custody agreements, well-meaning books and pamphlets on how to handle divorce.
There is lots of crying, and the scared boy flying from couch to couch knows in his heart that what is happening to him is uniquely unfair. For all the people he talks to, no one understands. The splashing vitriol and court-mediated divorce process tears his soft heart to shreds. The boy runs away a couple of times, but always ends up in school the next day, pretending to be okay. Everybody’s fingerprints are all over his profile and case files, and strangers are poking at the most vulnerable parts of his life. He just wants to be forgotten.
Once, the kid is sent to visit a high-ranking judge or lawyer of some kind. She hands him a pen and tells him to imagine it is a magic wand, to pretend that he can grant any three wishes he wants. The boy sits there nervous and fidgety on a patchwork of unfamiliar fibers and plays along only because he had to. He wishes for a million dollars, world peace, and for his parents to get back together. End scene.
I know it is painful for you to recall these memories. They are easier to abstract away, to bury them deep in your unconscious, and to think them nothing more than bad dreams.
You cry for hours the night before your first day of middle school. You beg to be homeschooled, so you won’t have to be thrown into a new place with new people. Your mother stills your sobs and firms your resolve: “people are like chess pieces, Ryan – conquer a new one every day and soon you will have plenty of friends, the whole board.”
The next day, you dress up nicely to make a good impression on your new friends. You wake up early, shower, and pull on a button down shirt. You quickly gel and comb your hair sideways, staring in the mirror and feeling like an adult. Your dad tells you he loves you and plants a kiss on your shining forehead as you get out of the car and head down the hallway to find your locker. Before anything else happens, a student two lockers away from you sizes you up and sneers: "you look like a faggot."
A few months pass before your world collapses again: your mom sits you down on a sympathetic, light green couch in her new apartment and comes out to you. She tells you, slowly, that she would be with women instead of men now, and that her partner would be a big part of your life now too. You are wide-eyed, surprised and confused.
You are only eleven. You don’t know what the acronym "LGBT" stands for, but you know that "lesbian" is what your friend called Jessica when she sat on another girl's lap on the playground, and everybody laughed at her for days afterwards.
You begin to notice every time your classmates scowl and call your gym teacher a "dyke,” when they play "smear the queer" during recess, or wink and gossip about "not wanting to share a room with Michael" on the class trip to Washington D.C. You begin to feel cold and squirmy inside when kids call things “gay,” like how it feels to pick up a wriggling insect. A pit the size of an orange opens in your stomach every time the subject of homosexuality is broached. You wonder how your friends would feel if they knew about your family.
One night, while walking down a winter road at a church retreat, a pimply cabinmate sidles up to you and begins fantasizing about lesbians making out in the snow. His salacious tone confuses you. Lesbians aren’t sexy, you think, they are my mom and her old friends. You shrug off a chill. He must have never met a real lesbian before.
In school and church services alike you hear a consistent message: gays and lesbians are not okay. We are not like them and we do not like them. You are hounded even in play, in your Boy Scout troop, where your mom serves as a respected and popular adult leader. You know that banal snares and trivial arguments with other leaders in the troop always hold a potentially darker edge – if anyone reports your mom for being gay, pursuant to official Scouting policy, she would be removed from her position. You double down and resolve to keep your secret all the more.
* * *
Little Ryan, if, beyond imagination, I somehow had you sitting on a couch right in front of me, plucking at stray cushion threads and looking up at me expectantly, I wouldn’t say anything. Not at first. I think I’d pick you up and just wrap you in a big hug. I wouldn’t speak until both of our bodies started to rack with sobs.
I would tell you, slowly, through tears of my own, that your mommy loves you. That your daddy loves you, and that I love you too. That even though your parents don't love each other anymore, they both love you and they will always do their best to honor and care for you and your sisters. Your family, though culled and legally cauterized and publicly picked apart, is still a family. I would smile and tell you that you are not alone, that as the child of a gay parent, you have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of. There are actually millions of kids like you. (You might not believe me at first.)
If I could manage it, here is what else I would say: you will face more pain, especially from religious friends. They will heap shame and heavy burdens upon you like salt on a wound. But for every community characterized by disdain and derision, there is one of acceptance and inclusion. You will find these. You couldn’t even dream about it then, but now more and more religious voices are speaking out from the pulpits and the pews, affirming and celebrating parents like yours. The world as a whole is moving in a direction that will honor people like your mom and respect your family’s splintered, broken wholeness.
Yes, there will be more bullies, more heartbreak, and more rejection.
But in the end, you will not topple. Rebirth is on the horizon. Pawns will become kings. You will breathe in peace. Your torn heart will heal.
After telling you all of this, I would have to take a breath. Then I would lift you high to sit on my shoulders, like how my dad used to carry me, and ask what you wanted to do next. Maybe we would hold hands as we talked some more and got mint chocolate chip ice cream. Mom’s favorite.