When My 4th Grade Son Was Called “Gay”
“I naively thought if we loved him enough, and showed him how accepting we were, it would be enough. I’m learning it’s not.”
I guess it was the inevitable happening, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be — at least not yet. Early in his fourth grade year of elementary school, my delicate, sensitive son ate from the tree of knowledge. As he sat at the lunch table, joking and talking with a friend, a group of boys I’d come to know as the “popular jocks” of elementary school leaned in to my child, mocked his voice, and announced, “you’re so gay” before laughing and continuing on their way without a care in the world. And in that one moment, my son’s sweet spirit was forever wounded.
If there was any fleeting doubt before, it was an open and shut case now. Because so much was communicated in that one tiny insult, fourth grade was when my son became acutely aware that most of society thinks a young boy owning stereotypical “girls’ stuff” is wrong. Inappropriate. Sick. Messed up. Or the mother of all fourth grade, male-to-male insults: gay.
Though he boldly chose and wore a backpack matching his personality that year (which could only be described as a glittery rainbow explosion of kittens, hearts, and cupcakes), in fourth grade my son’s peers began excluding and ostracizing him. Almost overnight he’d managed to learn the ugly truth about gender stereotypes. In the safety bubble of our home, we didn’t have “boy toys” or “girl toys.” Our family of five tried to just have toys, and everyone was welcome to imagine, create, and play.
My son never resembled or acted like most other boys his age. At two and a half years old he offered, “Mommy, you know I’m only a boy because of my parts, right?” Despite being gobsmacked by the announcement and what in the world it meant, I was hardly surprised by the astounding verbal skills (which happened to be a great strength of each of my three kids). But I knew nothing of transgender people — let alone trans kids — at the time.
I thought I was perhaps raising a son who’d grow up and tell us, “Mom & Dad, I’m gay.” And I felt completely at home with that, because I grew up in the theatre, a place that historically has been a refuge for gay folks. I had more LGB friends than straight ones. I knew exactly what to do to be a welcoming mom to a gay teen (which was basically the opposite of what many of my gay friends’ parents did). Little did I know at the time that sexual orientation and gender were two totally separate things, having nothing to do with each other.
At age nine, my son saw the story of a little boy his age on the opposite side of the country who loved fairies, princesses, fashion, and Barbies. He was more feminine than masculine, and identified as gender creative. My son watched intently and then said with profound relief, “that’s me! I’m like him! I’m gender creative!” I came to learn a lot about that term. But at the time, it meant that he did not want to change his anatomy, or be a girl; he simply preferred all the things that were marketed to girls (including clothing, pajamas, shoes, toys, games, movies, décor, dress-up, and accessories — to name a few), and he always preferred the company of girls over boys.
While we were fortunate that many people in his school were accepting of the whole gender thing, and he received several compliments on his “girly” backpack and sparkly accessories, he was also, by many, ostracized. He became the target of not only unkind words, mockery, and nasty looks, but also of assumptions, cold shoulders, and isolation. Not just because of the backpack, but what the backpack represented: my son’s whole persona.
It was in the subtleties of his expression — the way he flinched when bugs flew near him, how he squealed with delight in high-pitched voice, cared for others with a tender, mother-like quality, wore knee-high rainbow striped toe socks with shorts, and the way his voice sometimes just naturally went all Valley Girl, circa 1985. It was somehow ingrained on his DNA, and it made him uniquely HIM.
After the “you’re so gay” comment happened, my son changed. Caught off-guard in the moment, he froze and didn’t respond at all. When he recounted the story to me later, though, he was crushed and embarrassed. His voice quivered and tears dropped as he itemized all the “should haves” he wished he’d said or done. And I did the only thing I knew how to do — listened, held him, and told him: 1.) There’s nothing wrong with “gay,” 2.) Other people’s words do not define you, and 3.) Please continue talking to me. You’ll always have my love and support. We brainstormed ideas for responding if someone said that to him again, but I guess it’s always easier to plan ahead than to execute in the moment. That specific insult would catch him vulnerable so many more times in the years to come.
I was hastily preparing for that day, I’ll admit; the day that someone would cross that line and move from saying “you’re weird” to “you’re gay.” The day that someone would associate my son’s effeminate tendencies with being homosexual, when sexuality was not yet even on his radar. The day when someone would take the word “gay” and wield it as the ultimate male slander — as a means of intimidation, an effort to emasculate, humiliate, and crush another human being who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes; a way to communicate one’s absolute disgust, intolerance, and outright bigotry.
This upset me on many levels, but mainly because my son knows the word “gay” doesn’t mean “stupid,” even though kids too often purposely (or ignorantly) conflate the two. He knows what it actually means to be gay because of the many incredible LGBTQ+ friends and role models our family has. Over the years he has heard both the horror stories and the happily-ever-after stories of our friends who came out.
He knows about the middle school struggles of feminine boys, which is particularly scary since middle school is on his not-too-distant future radar. He knows the gym class stories, like the cruel games of dodgeball. He has heard about how nothing stood between the adults and the kids but a steel door which was slammed shut and locked, allowing the boys locker room to turn chaotic and morph into Lord of the Flies — the hefty jocks pitted against the nerdy, scrawny, and especially, the “effeminate” boys. He knows that for our gay male friends who were more feminine, like he is, that middle school was literally survival of the fittest (or survival of the most conforming).
He has heard the stories of family friends who came out during high school in the ‘80’s, when the relatively new threat of AIDS was fueling our nation’s ignorant paranoia and gay teens were being kicked out of their homes, and banished from their churches. He knows how awfully merciless these people were treated, how they were verbally and/or physically abused by either family members or school peers, and sometimes both.
And then, a short time after the insult happened, my son learned about the Orlando massacre in Pulse Nightclub. Pulse Nightclub: a sanctuary and safe place for the LGBTQ+ community, located in the heart of Florida. Orlando, Florida — the place of Disney World and dreams, i.e., “the happiest place on earth.” Now, Orlando is known for being the location of one of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings, and the worst LGBTQ+ hate crime in recent U.S. history.
My son also knows that our family is liberal, and that we don’t share the outdated, prejudiced views against the LGBTQ+ community the way some others do. He knows that when he comes into his own sexuality, our family has only this request: that he’s happy and treated well. He knows we’re allies to the LGBTQ+ community. He knows, but knowing is unfortunately not enough.
I naively thought if we loved him enough, and showed him how accepting we were, it would be enough. I’m learning it’s not. Because no matter what his Dad and I tell him, no matter how much his older sister and brother tell him “it gets better,” he still has a world of politicians, radical religious zealots of all denominations, peers, adults, media, and more, all sending him the very clear message that as a gender non-conforming person, he’s not protected.
Thanks to carelessly speculated words said out loud, my son would be forced into wondering about his sexuality when just the day before, he wasn’t even considering it. He couldn’t have known what a self-fulfilling prophecy was, but after the insult incident, I saw the confusion and anxiety settle into the lines of his face like wrinkles on an old man.
Of course, it was no coincidence that puberty was also within grasp, and hormones were running berserk all over three fourth grade classes. However, when going into the tumult of adolescence (which is already hard enough for anyone) my son would now be going in with the additional, excessive worry of, “am I gay?” And if he eventually determined he was, he’d also be reconciling what it means to be gay in a society that outwardly says it’s welcoming, but inwardly — through the actions of its leaders — proves that it’s not.
Our son knows that our family would continue loving and supporting him no matter what. But I’m learning that even though we’re accepting and affirming, that doesn’t mean it will be easy for him to go through. Whether he’s trans or not, whether he’s gay, bi, asexual, pansexual, or queer — basically if he’s anything that varies from cisgender, heterosexual male, he is not protected; he is subject to legal discrimination. He is subject to hate crimes. He is in the group of young folks who are statistically more at-risk to self-harm, attempt, or commit suicide. He is even subject to the subtle (but exhausting) day-to-day discrimination that marginalized people face, called microaggressions.
Though microaggressions may seem slight and insignificant, the everyday nature of them adds up to a whole lot of wreckage. Most of us cishet (cisgender/heterosexual) folks don’t understand or even recognize these more subtle acts of discrimination (which is what makes them “microaggressions.”) However, when you see it happen to your child, it’s plainly obvious and it hurts like hell.
Watching it happen through that lens is difficult because you see that others don’t even know they’re doing it, which then makes it harder and more awkward to politely confront them about it (especially if you tend to avoid confrontations in the first place, like I usually do.) Also in my experience, people tend to become very defensive about microaggressions, and they use the accusation as a springboard to launch into how society as a whole is just “too politically correct,” or “too easily offended these days,” (or another term I loathe: “butthurt.”)
Microagressions tend to be borne of assumptions and unfortunately, at some point, most of us have been obliviously guilty of perpetrating them. We might even think we’re paying a compliment. For example, saying, “wow, you sure don’t look transgender,” or “I’d have never even known you were gay,” as if those were triumphant accomplishments. Or running into a friend whose teenage son hit a sudden growth spurt, is now a handsome young man, and saying to him, “So… do you have a girlfriend yet?” (wink, wink). This assumes and asserts a heteronormative expectation. If that young person is LGBQ, and especially if they’re not “out” yet, that seemingly innocent, playful remark can be like pouring salt in a wound — just another daily reminder that they are different, unexpected, other, not normal.
How else do we see subtle discrimination, or microaggressions, without realizing it? One year during the elementary school’s annual PTA basket raffle, my son and I were having a sneak-peek at all the lavish baskets available for auction. He stopped to admire one in particular: The American Girl Doll gift basket. Included was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American Girl Doll, two outfits, and a white, frilly doll-sized canopy bed.
My son’s jaw dropped while he stood in admiration, having previously been unaware of the American Girl Dolls. (For years I had been hiding and recycling those darn mail-order catalogs we didn’t ask for but regularly received, because I knew my son would want one, and I couldn’t justify the expensive price tag, upkeep, and accessorizing for those dolls). But there she stood before us, in all her American glory. The cat was out of the bag for my son. I could no longer deny that such a doll existed.
My son reached out his hand and caressed the doll’s hair gently, saying, “You’re so beautiful. I wish I could take you home and brush your hair.” Shortly thereafter, a woman walked by, saw what we were looking at, smiled casually and said, “Oh! That’s going to make some little girl really happy, isn’t it?!” As she continued on her way, my son’s words disappeared into the air behind her, as inaudible to her as he was invisible, as he countered, “or some little boy…”
This microaggression was an innocent, seemingly harmless comment from a well-intentioned person. But it was a fatal blow nonetheless, because before that moment, my son was blissfully naive to the fact that most everyone thinks only girls could possibly enjoy playing with or owning dolls. As his Mom, I knew my kid the best, and he wasn’t ready yet to understand the cruel, unfair nature of gender stereotypes. I was going to tell him; I just needed a little more time to figure out how to educate him without crushing his spirit or making him fearful. But I didn’t get a little more time. That event that day led to another conversation that took away yet even more of his immature, but sweet and sensitive spirit.
Similarly, from the first day he wore his sparkly “girls” backpack to school that year, kids regularly gave him strange looks. Adults, too. As I walked him in the first day, one adult approached us on the way into school for small talk and commented, “Well… I see you got your sister’s hand-me-down backpack,” chuckling lightly at his own joke. My son stared at the ground, suddenly embarrassed, and not laughing while I gently told the man, “actually, my son picked it out himself.” If there was a way to make that conversation any less awkward, I sure couldn’t figure out how to do it right then.
We managed to quickly shrug it off and have a half-hearted laugh. But after the 18th or 20th of these daily microaggressions, it gets mentally exhausting. In response to this, my son could’ve easily decided to tuck his sparkly rainbow backpack in the corner of his bedroom closet where it would be hidden. He could’ve easily swapped it out for his old one — a neutral shade of pastel blue that he did not pick himself — and have a much easier time walking into the school building every day, blending in with the rest of the boys.
But, he bravely and independently chose not to do that. Instead, I watched every day in awe as this 4th grade boy of mine strapped on a “girly girl’s backpack,” wore it like a warrior shield, and in the process, gave a collective middle finger to all those who dared to judge. His bravery, day after day, in this single act of noble defiance made me feel like maybe I had done something right after all.
If someone were to ask me why miccroaggressions matter so much, or “why can’t people like your son just toughen up and get over it? Life isn’t fair! Quit being offended by everything!” I’d respond with scientific research — research that has proven that the more LGBT youth experience microaggressions, the more likely they are to report elevated rates of emotional distress, symptoms related to mood and anxiety disorders, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior when compared to heterosexual, cisgender youth, and that compromised mental health is a fundamental predictor of a host of behavioral health disparities evident among LGBT youth (e.g., substance use, abuse, and dependence).
It matters so much because it is completely within our control to educate ourselves on issues of sensitivity, to enlighten others with our knowledge, and to not perpetuate microaggressions that, over time, cause someone to take their own life.
Coincidentally, at the time of my son’s fourth grade insult incident, just when society had made considerable progress towards the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, in my home state of North Carolina we managed to step backwards in history about 40 years. The Obama administration had been steadily expanding its measures on LGBT social progress and equality to prevent bullying, discrimination, and hate crimes against LGBT Americans; to support LGBT health; to ensure LGBT equality in housing and crime prevention; to recognize LGBT history and contributions; and to advance and protect the rights of LGBT people around the world, to name a few.
Then, when our nation celebrated the Obama administration’s monumental strides towards legalizing same-sex marriage, and ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, religious anti-LGBT groups, and Southern Poverty Law Center-identified hate groups were left reeling in anger, along with the extreme conservative right. A storm was brewing just beneath the surface. Not much later, the GOP-dominated House and Senate in NC seemed to retaliate by making House Bill 2 into law. HB2, a.k.a. “the bathroom bill,” was unarguably the worst, most sweeping anti-LGBT law in recent U.S. history.
Not only did I have friends for whom this bill would significantly impact their lives, but also, I had a gender nonconforming child who stood a higher than average chance of being on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and who would likely be affected as well. This was personal. So, I joined hands with other people in grassroots movements and did everything I could to fight against HB2, from calling and writing my representatives, to advocating, writing, speaking and educating, to voting, to founding a program called *S.E.A.R.CH., which later became an official program of my local LGBT Center.
But I, like so many others, still had the overwhelming feeling of being only one person running one project, and I felt powerless against the massive tide of extremist, right-wing, conservative power — conservative extremists who wouldn’t be swayed, and who were also blind to the outright (and even subtle) discrimination that our LGBTQ+ population endures every single day.
I wish it wasn’t so, but I had to realize that I couldn’t then, and cannot now spare my son of the “gay” slander, as much as I want to. I can’t stop other kids from ignoring him, mocking him, or excluding him by asserting, “you can’t play with us.” I can’t stop the weird looks. I can’t stop the judgment. I can’t guarantee him dignity. As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to know that your child has to be brave just to be himself.
Now, a few years later, we’re transitioning to yet another stage, one that involves temporary puberty blockers and official updates on school records, and all kinds of other scary firsts. Our child has gone through a few labels, from identifying as “gender creative,” to “genderqueer,” to “TGNC,” to a more label-less existence and they/them pronouns. Though almost everyone now refers to my child as “she/her/your daughter,” I still can’t stop the subtle discrimination that chips away at my child’s foundation day after day. Hell, in this unsteady political climate, we can’t even guarantee our kid legal recourse or protection for such discrimination. And yet, despite all of this, despite knowing the risks of letting my child live authentically, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My child is just exactly the type of human I want to raise.
*S.E.A.R.CH. (Safe Environment for the Acceptance of Rainbow CHildren)still runs today as a playgroup for TGNC (trans and gender nonconforming) children ages twelve and under, and discussion group for parents. S.E.A.R.CH. also has also developed a third leg of the program in order to reach more people, which is a secret group that is active on Facebook. For more information, please contact writer & program founder, Martie Sirois, here for more information.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on June 18, 2016.