Twin sisters question the meaning of “gay”
In February 2008, Lawrence King, a gay teenager from Oxnard California was killed by a classmate for openly expressing his sexuality. After reading the chilling details of the story on the Internet, I was left with a perturbing question: How does a child grow up to believe that hatred and murder are acceptable responses to difference?
My eight-year-old twin daughters have been brought up in a fairly typical, liberal heterosexual family. Yet the word “gay,” with all its ambiguous cultural freight, entered their lives at a young age. One fall day in Grade 1, they asked offhandedly, “What's ‘gay’”? My face must have registered surprise because E added by way of explanation, “Connor was talking about it.” Connor was a boy in their class who had older siblings and was clearly in a different league of worldliness.
I hesitated. How could I respond to such a question in a way that a 6-year-old could understand? “Well,” I ventured, “when you’re a man, and you want to spend most of your time or life with another man, you could be gay, or if you’re a woman and you’re more interested in living with a woman than a man, you might be gay.”
“Can two girls or two boys get married?” the other twin—J—asked.
Canada had recently passed legislation legalizing gay marriage, so I answered truthfully, “In this country, yes.”
E piped up: “When I grow up I’m going to be gay; I’m gay.”
“I’m not,” J said, “I don’t want to be gay.”
OK then, I thought, I’ll have one of each. Just give me grandchildren. Aloud, I said, “You don’t have to worry about this stuff for a long time.”
I didn’t hear anything further about “gay” for a few months. Then one day while the girls were playing dolls with a friend in our kitchen, I overheard an interesting conversation. The friend, a good-natured North Toronto girl, said about her favourite doll: “When Taryn grows up she’s going to marry a girl, so she never has to kiss a boy.” The twins nodded approvingly. I tiptoed out to the living room stifling a laugh.
It wasn’t until the end of Grade 2 that I began to notice the twins’ neutrality towards all things gay and lesbian starting to erode. E no longer wanted to be gay because, as she explained—after I was forced to answer very pointed questions about where babies came from—she did not want to have to “to borrow a seed” from a sperm bank (a solution my husband had helpfully proposed). J asserted that being gay wasn’t the best option because it wasn’t “the tradition,” at least not in our family. Curious, I quizzed them on their attitudes, wondering if they had heard negative talk at school.
“Well, we don’t know anyone who’s gay,” E said, accusingly. I pointed out that there was a lesbian couple living a few houses away on our street. The girls were surprised; my husband had taken them trick-or-treating to that house, but neither they nor we knew the couple well.
J looked thoughtful. “Hmm,” she said, “maybe it would be nice to be a lesbian because you could have lots of nice teas on the verandah with your wife.” She proceeded to launch into a make-believe dialogue, playing both parts herself in a bad English accent: “Ella come and have tea with me on the verandah. In a minute dear. OK dear,” and so on.
“Is that how you think lesbians live?” I asked, laughing.
J's favourable—albeit Victorian—view of lesbianism seemed to persist. In the middle of Grade 3 she told me that her friend Sarah had taken to telling her almost daily that she loved her. “But,” J explained, “Sarah always adds, ‘as a friend,’ because otherwise she says we’d be gay.”
“What do you say?” I asked.
“Nothing. Except once when she said, ‘or we’d be gay,’ I said ‘well, we could be,’ and Sarah said ‘eeww,’ and ran away.” I considered telling J that I was proud of her for uttering that little phrase “well, we could be,” for daring to acknowledge, in her own childish way, that gayness exists, but I let it go. It seemed I’d said enough.
Except it's never enough. Time and again, I'm jostled out my doze of complacency—by a conversation, a word—into an awareness that as parents we can never do enough to inculcate acceptance of difference in all its incarnations.
Not long ago, the girls asked about another culturally freighted word, “queer.” A socially savvy friend had informed them there was another meaning besides “odd” or “strange,” but she wouldn't tell them what it was. I launched into a complicated, politically-correct explanation of how some people use “queer” as a not-so-nice way to say “gay,” but that some gays and lesbians had “taken back” the word and now used it to refer to themselves, which is OK because . . . Two pairs of 8-year-old eyes glazed over in unison. I left it at that.
Then, just last week, the girls rushed in the door after school, bubbling with excitement. “Mom,” E said, “Lauren finally told us what the other meaning of ‘queer’ is and it’s not what you said at all.”
“What is it then?”
“She said it means stupid.”
We can never do enough indeed.