“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” ~ Robert Fulghum
Last week I heard an openly gay father say his children don’t know he’s gay. As a gay uncle with five nieces and nephews, it caught my attention. I also gave a TEDx Talk that specifically addresses how being open and honest with children from a young age can prevent homophobia and bullying. I was curious why his kids didn’t know.
I’d first like to pay my respect to all parents. Parenting is no easy feat, especially if you’re a single parent. I recently spent the day at the beach with my cousins and their kids, one of whom was a single parent for the weekend. After watching him all day, I thought, “I don’t know how single parents do it.” In between sentences, he was either pulling one across the sand on a boogie board or playing catch with the other to divert their attention from running into the water.
I continued listening to the openly gay father share how he’s a single parent and that his almost-five-year-old son has been talking to him about wanting to have kids and get married in the future. His son recently asked, “Why didn’t you get married?” He replied, “Well, it hasn’t happened for me, but I’d love that in the future.” He said he then quickly changed the subject. He explained he didn’t feel the need to introduce his sexuality if his children hadn’t explicitly asked.
While I completely respect any parent’s decision on how they choose to parent their child, as someone who works with youth, it’s important for me to bring awareness to what parents, educators, and caregivers can sometimes overlook.
What was behind his decision to quickly change the subject?
Earlier this year, I was with my five nieces and nephews, ages 5-11, at a restaurant and noticed someone transgender behind the register. It amazed me to see a person who is transgender working at a local restaurant in my hometown. A few hours later I was showing them something on my phone and an email from the Los Angeles LGBT Center popped up. My seven-year-old nephew asked, “What does LGBT mean?”
After I defined each letter, they asked me what transgender meant. I told them and mentioned there was someone transgender at the restaurant earlier that day. Without skipping a beat, they all said at the same time, “Oh, Bobby!” I asked if they knew him. To my surprise, they said no.
What astonished me is that they knew what being transgender meant. I just gave them a word to define something they already understood.
In 2014, an Occidental College cognitive scientist, Andrew Shtulman, published a study about how children come to disbelieve in Santa Claus. The study found that a child’s developing intellect is what causes them to stop believing. Even if a parent tries to keep the myth alive, the same thing that helped my nieces and nephews understand Bobby tells a child Santa can’t be real.
Something not openly talked about or widely addressed in the LGBTQ community, specifically with gay men (because I’m a gay man and so am speaking from my experience), is how internalized homophobia affects us.
As gay men, although we may be out and consciously live our lives openly, we grow up in the same society with the same religions, watch the same movies, and pick up the same subconscious programming as everyone else. Fragments of external homophobic and heteronormative messaging can still seep inside. Left unexplored, these messages can negatively impact our lives, our choices, and our communities.
After I came out, I immersed myself in LGBTQ advocacy and have dedicated my life to this work for more than a decade. However, it wasn’t until three years ago—when my six-year-old nephew asked whether or not I had a girlfriend—that I realized the pervasiveness of homophobia. His question and my family’s response, including my own, helped me see the deeper, nuanced layers of homophobia.
I can’t say what was behind the split second decision made by the openly gay father to change the subject to his son’s question; however, not communicating is still communicating. Kids will learn anything we teach them, including what we don’t.
If a child is old enough to talk about getting married and having kids, they’re certainly able to be introduced to what it means to be gay. Love between two men or two women is just as normal as what they’ve already seen on television and in cartoons. We live in a heteronormative world and beneath heteronormativity is buried homophobia. By normalizing for children at a young age something that’s otherwise deemed different by societal standards, we help create allies, prevent bullying, and heal homophobia.
To any parent who doesn’t feel the need to introduce things to their children—I extend an invitation for you to take a deeper exploration into why you’d choose to change the subject to certain questions. I share here what I’ve learned from taking a deeper exploration into my own life. Children are more insightful than we realize.
This is a call for all parents and members of the LGBTQ community to ask ourselves how our own implicit biases affect what we choose to share with the children in our lives.
Times are changing. The deeper we go in our individual lives, the more we can make even bigger strides toward a world of equality.