A friend recently shared an article with me about Perez Hilton saying he would prefer it if his five year old son wasn’t gay. Hearing an openly gay parent say something like that makes me sad and frustrated. It also reminds me that just because we’re gay or lesbian, it doesn’t mean we can’t be homophobic or pass along homophobic beliefs. Being a gay parent doesn’t automatically exclude us from teaching homophobia.
Growing up in a heteronormative society, it’s not possible to completely escape fragments of homophobic beliefs from unconsciously seeping inside. That’s the conscious inner work required of a person who is gay or lesbian, to look within our own life and see if it’s possible we’re teaching homophobia to future generations.
As an uncle, someone who works with youth, and also a gay man who has worked to heal his own homophobia, I’d like to address why I think it’s harmful for Perez, or any parent, to prefer their child be a certain way. Especially when it comes to having a preference over a child’s sexuality, it can be particularly harmful.
The first reason is that it implies being gay or lesbian is a choice. Being gay or lesbian is no more a choice than being right or left handed. Some people are born right-handed and some left-handed, but it’s not a choice. In fact, if we were to try to remember how we made the choice to start using our dominant hand, we couldn’t. It’s just something inherent in who we are.
The second is that it doesn’t address the root of the concern. I understand not wanting a child to experience hardship or challenge, but when we say we would prefer our child to be straight because we’re afraid of how the world will treat them, blame is placed on LGBTQ children and does nothing to change why they’re statistically more at risk for bullying and abuse. All children will face challenges. It’s our job as parents, and uncles or aunts, to help young people know their own worth and their own strength and to support them in whatever challenges life brings them. That’s like saying we’d prefer to not ever speak up for what we believe is right because we fear how people would respond.
The third and most damaging reason I think it’s problematic for a parent to say they would prefer it if their son wasn’t gay is that it sends the message being gay is less than and not to be revered. It also teaches homophobia. Until we live in a world where the message to young people that being gay or lesbian isn’t something to fear, the closet will continue to exist — and the closet is a hotbed for shame.
Shame is one of the most detrimental human emotions to have and is highly correlated with suicide. According to the Trevor Project, there has been a rise in suicide among 10-14 year old lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. The Trevor Project, a crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization, as wonderful a group as they are, unfortunately exists because there are LGBTQ children who think it’s not okay to be who they are and would be willing to take their own life rather than be themselves.
Although same-sex marriage is legally recognized in 26 countries and transgender rights have become an international conversation, homophobia still exists and it continues to perpetuate the closet and feed shame within families. Recent research shows that among LGBTQ youth, addiction, suicide, and homelessness are at an all-time high. Even if we support LGBTQ friends and family members, we grow up in the same society, learn the same religions, and pick up the same subconscious programming about what it means to be a man, a woman, gay, or straight. Even the most accepting families can unintentionally pass along fragments of homophobic and heteronormative messaging. If such issues are left unexplored and uncommunicated, they can negatively impact how we parent.
Saying we prefer a child to not be gay perpetuates shame and the closet. Creating allies and a world where closets don’t exist happens one child at a time, and it begins with each of us and what we consciously or subconsciously teach. In an increasingly more diverse and connected planet, children need to be taught how to experience acceptance of others and acceptance of self—and acceptance is taught just as easily as intolerance.
It’s not enough to provide passive social support for LGBTQ youth, we have to go a step further and help normalize being LGTBQ among new generations. For every youth who is out, there are more in the closet who think they are alone or fear being themselves
What’s more is that Perez has already made the assumption his five year old son isn’t gay. If we want to be a part of the solution and help create a world where all children are normal and natural, we have to challenge the dominant heteronormative worldview and not make assumptions about our children’s identities. We also have to consciously create a safe space to allow children to be who they are.
Regardless of his son’s sexuality, by saying he would prefer it if his son wasn’t gay, Perez is sending the subtle message that being straight is somehow superior to being LGBTQ.
When we prefer a child to be a certain way, we’re automatically making the ones who aren’t that way wrong. A more empowering and inclusive parenting approach would be to explore why we have certain preferences and whether we’re willing to challenge them before they’re passed down.
My hope is to help shine a light on the more nuanced layers of homophobia that can continue to harm children, not to condemn Perez for how he raises his. I had always considered myself a good LGBTQ advocate, working hard to create change in the world. It wasn’t until I became an uncle did I realize the pervasiveness of homophobia and the deeper I had to go into my own life to uncover the subtle ways in which it continued to show up in my family.
As more gay men step into the role of fatherhood, it’s vitally important for each of us to do the conscious inner work to heal any homophobia within ourselves so that we don’t teach it to our children.