Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Breeding Tolerance: Is it Possible?

In 2008 I published an article in a local newspaper about my daughters' emerging understanding of the word “gay.” The article was inspired in part by Ellen Degeneres’ emotional plea for tolerance in the wake of the murder of Lawrence King, a teenager from Oxnard, California killed by a classmate simply for being gay. Now, two years later, King's murder trial is underway, yet the bullying of gay teenagers continues unabated. Gay teens have been driven to suicide in Indiana, Texas and California. Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death after his roommate posted a video online of him kissing a man in his dorm room. In light of these deeply disturbing incidents, I have decided to post an earlier, less-edited version of my 2008 article here; I believe it is—unfortunately—still relevant and timely.

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.


  1. Great post -- I hope you'll update it from time to time as the kids get older.

    It's strange to me that, as the culture has become much more accepting of homosexuality, the culture of children seems to lag behind. I live in a liberal, gay-friendly college town, but, as far as I can tell, "gay" remains a slur on the playground.

    I wonder what effect the presence of kids with gay parents will have. There seems to have been a great increase in gay parenting over the past ten years, and those kids will soon be approaching their middle- and high-school years. How will kids react when some of their straight friends have gay parents?

  2. Chris,

    "Gay" is a slur on the playground at our school too, and we live in a progressive city, in a country where gay marriage is legal (in all provinces). But I do see occasional signs of change, which make me hopeful for the future. For instance, last year my daughter had to write a mock interview with an Olympic athlete for a media studies course (don't ask!), and she choose Johnny Weir. When she told her table-mates whom she'd chosen, one boy said, "but he's so gay!" Before my daughter could answer, another boy at the table said, "So what if he is? There's nothing wrong with it." This second boy's response surprised and pleased my daughter, who was about to defend Weir by saying something similar. So, although it's happening slowly, I think a change in attitudes is underway. The schools could do a lot more, though, in my opinion, to speed this process up; for instance, they could tackle homophobia head on, in the earlier grades.

  3. Yeah, and of course people in their twenties are the demographic that is most gay-friendly (see this chart, for example). That must be some interesting learning curve to get from where they were in elementary school to where they are at twenty-five . . .

  4. Interesting chart. (I'm impressed that you can put a link in a comment. Clearly I have a lot to learn about blogger--and many other things!) I wonder if the figures would be the same in Canada, given that gay marriage has been legal here for several years. I often wonder, for instance, if the mere *fact* of gay marriage (see I don't even know how to italicize in comments), has an effect on attitudes. I remember thinking that it might be having an effect on kids' attitudes while I was writing that article two years ago. I was surprised by my daughters' friend's comment about her doll marrying a girl; to me it meant that she somehow knew that gay marriage existed as a possibility. And this was a 7-year-old girl from a fairly traditional family.

    (By the way, in my previous comment above, I meant she *chose* Johnny Weir, not "choose." I really am tired--to bed!)

  5. That's true. Gay marriage is legal in our state, too, and the kids are definitely conscious of it. On the other hand, I'm sure they're also conscious of the fact that gay marriage and gay relationships virtually never appear in any of the books they read or movies and TV programs they see. And of the fact that bringing up the topic is likely to freak adults out. I wonder how they make sense of it all.

    P.S. Putting a link in a comment isn't too hard, though they could certainly make it easier. You actually have to type out the HTML tag. Here's a link (ha!) explaining how to do it.

  6. Here's an article about a school district in Beaverton, Washington, that apparently *has* an anti-bullying curriculum to "advocate for the promotion of respect for individual differences." But when one of their teachers mentioned in a conversation with a student that he was gay, the district freaked out and fired him. Talk about mixed messages . . .

  7. Chris, Thanks for the interesting link. Until gay teachers are allowed to be as out to their students (of all ages) as their heterosexual counterparts, there's no real equality. And if more adult role models in schools were "out" wouldn't that help curtail the anti-gay bullying? The gay male teachers at our school (and this being Toronto—which has been called San Francisco of the North—there are a few), are neither in the closet exactly, nor out of it. I wish they felt freer to be open about their sexuality with their students, but of course it's a very personal decision. I'm pretty sure they couldn't be fired for talking about their spouses (or lack thereof), though.

  8. On the brighter side, here's an article about an old friend of mine who came out publicly during the speech he gave when he was named Teacher of the Year.

  9. Wow, what a great story! Kudos to your friend. It's so nice to read some good news about this issue right now (even though I realize it happened a couple of years ago). Have there been any repercussions or interesting discussions in the classroom/school as a result of his coming out?

  10. He definitely has a few stories to tell (keep in mind that he's a *middle school* teacher), but he tells them better than I do. Maybe I can get him to post something . . .