I was at a friend’s house recently, it was a birthday party for a six-year-old. The adults were congregated in the kitchen, getting the food ready; the children were sitting on the couch in the next room, engrossed in Despicable Me. Two of the kids, a boy and a girl, were cuddled together. A kiss on the cheek was involved. The moment, its sweetness, was reported back to the parents.
‘At least we know he’s not gay,’ said the father of the boy to the father of the girl. It was tongue-in-cheek, but I turned from my task at the sink instantly and asked, with perhaps more menace in my voice than I intended, ‘what’s the “at least” doing in that sentence?’
Semantics aside, my reaction sparked an important conversation I imagine liberal, thoughtful parents are having at dinner tables the world over. On one side of the argument is the idea that there can be a preference for a child not to be gay, which is divorced from any actual homophobic sentiment. The preference is just one of many that parents cling to in their desire for an ‘easier’ life for their children. On the other side is the question: how are we supposed to affect change in arenas of prejudice if we don’t work in our homes to redefine what constitutes an ‘easy’ life?
We would all prefer our kids to have a smooth ride, no major obstacles along the way, no bumps and bruises, no periods of uncertainty, of angst, of self-loathing. But preferences, even those that stem from best intentions, can influence presentation. Children are far more perceptive than we give them credit for. Even if we never express the preference for straightness in so many words, sometimes simply having the opinion creates a ‘heterosexualist’ approach to the world that they are going to pick up on whether we like it or not.
What’s the danger here? What’s the danger in talking, in the abstract, to your young son about his future wife but never his future husband? My own fear is that it is has the potential to exacerbate any emotional difficulties that child will experience if he realizes at some point down the line that he isn’t interested in having a wife. It would send a signal, intentional or not, that there was something wrong about his feelings, feelings that are going to be confusing and disorienting in the best of circumstances.
As I understand it, being gay has no innate distress associated with it distinct from the litany of growing pains that are part and parcel of discovering your sexuality full stop. The problems that gay kids notoriously encounter, rather, are to do with the societal norms our culture happens to embrace and the fact that their desires are at odds with what most people do. We need only think of Ancient Greece, where homosexuality of a certain sort ran rampant, for a marked contrast.
It is the norms that have to change, not the kids, the people at the dinner table agreed on this. What we didn’t agree on is to what degree our preferences as parents feed those norms. And where our responsibility lies in terms of reshaping them.
Sexual orientation is the frontier of equality my generation hasn’t quite managed to conquer. Many of us have a preference that our children not be gay precisely because we think we haven’t yet made enough progress on this front. We want to protect them from society. But where does social progress come from if not a razing of the outmoded preferences of the past? There was a time when it was the norm to prefer your child not to marry somebody of a different race because it was too fraught. This feels like something our grandparents might subscribe to, though, not us. Not anymore.
Picture the kids lined up on the couch, the white boy and the white girl snuggled especially close, an Asian girl two spots down. Would anyone say of this scene, ‘at least he’s not going to marry inter-racially’? You are born gay as you are born white. Choosing a same-sex partner can be just as challenging as choosing a partner from a different race or a different ethnicity or a different social class. As parents, we want to make it easier for a kid to follow his heart, not harder. Our preferences – even those that go unarticulated – may very well contribute to the difficulty we were trying to prevent by holding them in the first place.
We can’t control what kinds of prejudice our children will confront when they step out of our doors, but we can certainly do our best to convey the message that those prejudices don’t exist within them. And we can hope that the next family over is doing the same and the next and the next so that there will come a time when we don’t feel like we have to prefer our kids to be anything other than who they are.