Conversations we Can’t Avoid
There are a lot of conversations we have to have about things that are uncomfortable or difficult to talk about. We try and avoid things like sex, politics or religion–we label them as “out of bounds” and find less controversial things to talk about with people, but there are always going to be times when we have to talk about difficult things whether it’s discussing a health issue with a doctor, an emotional boundary with a friend or loved one, an employee’s performance.
There are just some conversations we can’t avoid. When it comes to kids, some of those difficult things seem even harder because we’re not only discussing a difficult topic for adults to talk about but we’re also talking to someone who is still developing and may not have the maturity or critical thinking skills to understand some of what we’re saying. Or we’re talking to our children who are trusting us for honest information about a topic and we’re feeling unsure about our own knowledge. Or because it’s just one of those topics that make us squirm because of our own baggage.
Our discomfort doesn’t absolve us from having those conversations. Avoiding these conversations doesn’t mean the questions go away. Sometimes it means that we lose our opportunity to provide factual answers to someone, at other times it’s a lost opportunity to provide answers that reflect our beliefs and values to someone who trusts us. And it means that we erode that trust that someone placed in us.
Say Gay, Florida
Now Florida is trying to pass a “Don’t Say Gay” bill. A bill that would prohibit discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classrooms. Also known as a “No Promo Homo” bill. Each individual parent or guardian would be able to enforce this bill. In other words, any random parent would be able to object to basically anything queer–explicit or implied.
We’re not necessarily talking about something where the queer content is right out there in front of you either, like in And Tango Makes Three–a story about Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins who are given an abandoned egg which they care for and hatch, forming a family of three. (No explicit sex or anything–just two male penguins in love.)
We’re talking about reading writers like Walt Whitman or Langston Hughes or Virginia Woolf. We’re talking about banning discussion of how the queer experience might have affected their writing. The way I was first introduced to the work of James Baldwin, for example, without any discussion of the queer influences. I still fell in love with the writing, but that lack of context meant that I was missing so much nuance, so much depth as I read the stories. I found so much more depth in Baldwin’s work when I saw the whole picture. How much more I might have gotten out of “Sonny’s Blues” (the first James Baldwin story I read) if I’d been able to apply more than just a lens of racism to the themes of struggle and pain in the story. Or to understanding shame and judgment in If Beale Street Could Talk.
These “No Promo Homo” bills are harmful to everyone. Gay kids, straight kids, all the letter-salad kids.
How to Human
People aren’t born knowing how to Human. We learn how to do that. We learn from our parents, we learn in our communities and we learn in our schools. 2 Rules columnist Josi Lacrete writes about navigating how to incorporate social-emotional education into her classroom. Any adult who interacts regularly with kids probably has some story of watching a kid try to figure out how to Human. The Florida state social studies standards for kindergarten and first grade include a number of references to knowing about families and community.
This means kids talk about their families as part of classroom discussions. Do we want teachers to have to navigate whether or when to shut down discussions about families when those discussions include kids who talk about queer family members because someone else’s parent objects to the conversation? (You know teachers will do this even if the law says kids are allowed to talk about their families.) Why shouldn’t those kids talk about their families–parents, siblings or other people in their orbit who also happen to be queer? What does that tell those kids (kids who very likely will grow up to be straight) about the people they love?
Teaching Doesn’t Just Mean Academic Subjects
Part of teaching kids means dealing with things outside of the academic subjects. Teaching kids how to Human means teaching them how to get along with other people. How to be kind. How to talk to people who are different. Maybe even how to work with people who bring radically different experiences to the table. How to navigate conflict. How to coexist in the same environment when someone’s values or beliefs or lifestyle is completely counter to your own.
If we can avoid passing the “Don’t Say Gay” bills, it doesn’t mean endorsing anything. We’re not asking teachers to tell kids “it’s okay to be gay” if that’s not what they believe. We’re asking them to do the bare minimum–to keep the floor open to conversations that may wade into queer-adjacent topics and provide value neutral, factual answers.
#FloridaMan is a Homophobe
By the way, we’re talking about a state where 94% of kids report hearing “gay” used as a perjorative. Where many students report discipline applied more harshly to queer students. Where 69% of LGBTQ kids report harassment based on sexual orientation. Public schools are supposed to be open and equally accessible to all children. Instead, the law will tell them to silence discussion. The law will tell schools they can hide honest information from kids whose families are okay with them having it. Why? Because another kid’s family doesn’t want them to have it.
“Don’t Say Gay” Means “Don’t Learn to Ask Questions”
What happens when kids who aren’t sure grow up questioning their own identity? Questioning doesn’t mean they’ll discover that they’re queer. Questioning is just that.
They’re looking at their own identity, their own feelings and trying to discover for themselves what they really feel. Where do kids find safe, healthy resources and support for asking those questions? Some kids are fortunate to find them at home, but what about those kids who don’t have that safe space? Half of all teens get a negative reaction from parents when they come out. One and a half million teens experience homelessness each year. Forty percent of them identify as LGBT.
New Homophobic Laws Means New Generational Trauma
The dangers of these bans on talking about homosexuality have the potential to trickle down for generations–how many of the straight teens that we know will grow up and become parents, and what happens when those parents discover their kids are wrestling with big questions and they don’t have answers, they don’t have examples or experiences to draw on?
If you’re familiar with this post that floats around social media every so often, it’s a “warning” about how homosexuality is unnatural. There’s “Gay Island” and “Lesbian Island” and “Straight Island.” (We’ll save the discussion about bi erasure, or nuance in sexual orientation and all of those things for another time.) You’re sorted onto the appropriate island, where, it’s implied, that you must stay, and according to the story, the populations of Gay Island and Lesbian Island will die out within one century because they won’t be able to reproduce. Except that’s not true. Gay kids come from straight families all the time.
And queer people can have children. I did.
Unfortunately, Kids are already Sexualized. Don’t Blame Queer People for That
We hear arguments that talking about LGBTQ issues sexualizes children because there’s no way that queer kids know they’re queer at five, six, seven years old. That’s just not true. Even if you ignore the fact that many queer people will tell you that they knew there was something different about them although they might not have been able to name they what it was it’s not true.
Talking about it is still not sexualizing them any more than people do when they talk about what a heartbreaker a little boy will grow up to be, or when we talk about fathers needing to get a shotgun to protect their daughters. It happens even earlier in infancy, with onesies for infants that say: “I <3 Boobies…just like my Daddy,” or: “Does this Diaper Make My Butt Look Big?”
Are we indoctrinating kids into heterosexuality when kids almost exclusively see examples of heterosexual couples and heterosexual relationships all around them? In 2022, it’s still noteworthy when we see healthy models of families with same sex parents or other queer family members in children’s media.
AGAIN FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK: BEING AROUND OPENLY QUEER PEOPLE DOESN’T ‘TURN’ YOU QUEER
Being around openly queer people didn’t make me queer. I didn’t know most of the queer people in my life WERE queer. Not until after I’d already begun to question my own identity. Talking about queer stuff didn’t make me queer–the conversations I grew up around were things like “I don’t understand why they have to flaunt it.” (Newsflash, Mom–it’s not flaunting it anymore than you wearing a wedding ring or talking about your husband is flaunting it.)
Reading queer books didn’t make me queer either. If anything, reading those books had the opposite effect. It made me feel like it might be possible to be happy, fulfilled and queer.
I didn’t grow up in an outwardly or aggressively homophobic environment. But it was definitely one where I didn’t feel safe or comfortable coming out when I was growing up. Instead of struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, isolation, and all kinds of other things through my adolescence, how much better might things have been for me growing up if I’d felt safe, and instead of constantly dealing with crushing low self-esteem, which persists even now as an adult, how much better off might I have been if I had positive images, heard welcoming discussions and not spent so much energy on trying to figure out how not to be “that way”?
Would I have been brave enough to pursue some of the things I wished for or dreamed of if I hadn’t been so afraid of what might have happened if I’d been found out?
“Say Gay”: How to Have Healthy Conversations with Kids
Among the hardest conversations families have to have with kids are talks about sex, love and romance or healthy relationships. Building a supportive community bridge between home and school is helpful, not harmful. The parts about values, ethics and morals come from home. That’s where they should come from. But the factual things? Evidence based stuff? Let our schools support that. If they’re hard discussions for parents to have with their kids, they’re also hard conversations for kids to have with parents.
Connecting school and home resources to support the factual conversations gives everyone more resources. Parents can seek out support from the school community. Form partnerships. Kids can get accurate, factual information. They have time to process, to question, to explore and to know they’re safely able to bring those questions home. And they have caring adults to practice those conversations or work out their questions. To get ready for the bigger, harder talk with family at home, too. Why don’t we want kids to have as many safe, supportive people to ask questions of as they can find? The stronger their network is, the more emotionally healthy they’re going to be.
When we ban conversations about LGBTQ topics (i.e. When we “Don’t Say Gay”) what happens?
- Kids won’t talk about families…even though the bill doesn’t explicitly prohibit this, teachers may discourage it–whether because of their own beliefs or out of fear of consequences or retaliation.
- Straight kids don’t learn to be kind to queer kids. The consequences of bullying are well documented. And this can persist into adulthood, too.
- Queer kids don’t have resources and continue to remain at higher risk for mental health issues, alcohol and drug use, suicide, homelessness, risky sexual behavior and more.
- Straight kids are deprived of lessons that will help them navigate the future if their kids grow up queer
Don’t Run Away
We cannot run away from these conversations. In the same essay (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”) where she says “Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde also says “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
When we allow these kinds of bills to pass, when we let these things go unchecked that silence doesn’t just choke us those of us who have the choice to speak, but it chokes all the kids, queer and straight looking to us as role models. It muffles the voice of every queer kid who is looking for the same love and support as their straight peers.
Our Obligations as Adults
I take my obligations as a queer adult very seriously. Knowing how many voices of the generation before mine were silenced by AIDS, by people being afraid to speak, recognizing how that left me and my peers without some of the vital ties to queer community that are so important in learning history, culture and how to cope with the world. I have to take this role seriously. I cannot let fear and bigotry keep queer voices from being heard. Silence has harmed too many people already.
Speaking up lays the foundation for the kind of gentler, kinder, safer and better place that I want to live in, that I want my kids, every kid to live in. We need to make space for these tough talks so that every kid hears the facts…especially those kids whose families aren’t prepared to share. Speaking up is an act of love.
Part 2 of this piece, “Don’t Say Gay” is Bad, Not Just for LGBTQ Kids is available here.