Last night at dinner, my kids were talking about school and some of their teachers. My son said, “Mr. Jock [not his real name] keeps doing something really annoying.”
And what might that be?
“When two guys are wrestling around in the hall or something, Mr. Jock will ask them if they’re going out. Or he’ll call them girls — like, ‘Girls, are you coming to class?'”
Mr. Jock apparently makes such comments fairly often. Homophobic words litter his everyday speech.
His — and a lot of other people’s.
Teenagers have taken to using the word “gay” as slang for something stupid or ridiculous. Don’t like a movie? “It was really gay!” Think a kid at school is doing something goofy? “He’s so gay!”
I can fix that behavior within the confines of my house. My daughter’s ex-boyfriend learned to eliminate the negative “gay” figure of speech pretty quickly. Now we’re working on the new boyfriend.
But I can’t fix the behavior of my son’s teachers, and the other students, and all the people he’ll encounter for the rest of his life, who will speak and behave in ways that are bigoted and hurtful. Many of them will do so unconsciously, reflecting the way they were raised and taught. Others will do so very much on purpose.
And we live in relatively enlightened times! I’m frightened enough for my son as he faces the rest of his teen years and then adulthood. What must it have been like for parents of GBLT youth 20 years ago, or 50? It gives me some slight inkling of what it must be like to parent a child who’s a member of racial minority, even today. How did mothers and fathers bear to let their children leave the house in the days before Civil Rights brought at least partial sanity to our society?
For our gay youth, there is still very little sanity in the United States. Hate speech of the kind that is no longer tolerated when it refers to skin color is commonplace when it refers to sexuality. GBLT people can’t talk openly about their relationships or hold hands with their partners on public streets without risking verbal or physical violence. Prop 8 and similar laws around the country remind them that regardless of the strength of their love, many people consider their relationships “wrong” and unworthy of cementing with a marital bond (unless, like some dear friends of ours plan to do over Christmas, they travel to one of the few enlightened places that allow gays and lesbians to wed).
I love my son more than I can possibly express. I want to be able to ensure that his every moment is filled with happiness, love, and sunshine. But I can’t. I’m helpless even to ensure him a hate-free environment at school — we decided that it’s better not to try to address Mr. Jock’s behavior, lest fallout come back on my son; and my daughter has warned her brother that although the high school he’ll attend next year is a relatively GBLT-friendly environment, he’ll face plenty of unthinking insensitivity there, too.
All parents want their children to experience the very best that life has to offer. In the United States, all parents want to tell their children that they live in the land of equality and freedom. But some of us have to tell our children that as much as we love them, and as great as our country is, life for them will not be equal and free; instead they’ll encounter venom and hatred and disgust, not because of who they are but because of who they love.
No mother should have to say that to her son. It isn’t fair to either of us. And it makes me very, very angry.