Teachable moment about “gay”


The phone rang and I hit dismiss because I didn’t recognize the number. A few minutes later I  listened to the message.

“Can you please meet me after school with your child,” said my seven-year-old’s teacher, “because he has been acting out today in ways that are just not like him. There were a few incidents in the classroom, and then he was calling kids names, including calling someone gay.”

Needle across the record: He WHAT?

We are a relatively progressive family. We talk openly about equality and tolerance and people being accepted for who they are. Heck, today, when I couldn’t find shoes to match my pants, he sighed and told me, in his most bored pre-pre-teen voice, “It doesn’t matter what you look like, Mom. It matters how you treat people.”

So when I heard that my son had teased other kids, including calling someone gay, I prepared to give an epic lecture. We will not make people feel bad for who they are.

And that is the righteous banner I held aloft as I marched to my child’s school. The doors swung open and I prepared for an epic lecture on historical repression with…my small, tired, slumping little guy with the too-big backpack and the bedraggled hair.

Oh, pumpkin. I think I’m doing this wrong. This isn’t a battle. This is a talk about kindness.

Reboot parent mode. I climbed off my high horse and sat in a tiny chair at a tiny desk so I could listen to my sweet, sensitive, wonderful little guy.

What happened?

Teacher: I was at the sink when I heard voices saying, “Quinn is gay. Quinn is gay.” When I turned around, Peanut was one of the kids saying it.

Me: Why did you say that Quinn is gay?

P: What? He is gay.

M: What makes you say that?

P: Jason told me he’s gay.

M: I see. Um…what do you think gay means?

P: I don’t know.

M: Oh. Well, gay is when a grownup wants to start a family with someone of the same gender. So our friends M and K are gay, J and N are gay, and G and L are gay.

P: Oh. [beat] But G and L don’t have kids.

M: Family doesn’t mean kids. Family means who you love. But who we love is not all we are. When we go to M and K’s house for dinner, I don’t say “we’re going to our gay friends’ house,” right? I say, “we’re going to our friends’ house.” And when someone is meeting T, I don’t say, “This is my gay friend.” I say, “This is my friend.”

P: I know.

Teacher: If you are kind of teasing, saying “Quinn is gay, Quinn is gay,” he might think there’s something wrong with being gay, and there isn’t. We don’t tease. Just like you don’t say, “Quinn is blond, Quinn is blond.”

M: Right. If you did say that, Quinn would think there might be something wrong with being blond, but he can’t change that. And if you say that he’s gay, he might think there’s something wrong with being gay. And all the people around you in class start to wonder if blond or gay are bad things for them to be. So calling someone blond or gay might not hurt their feelings, but it might teach other people to feel bad about being blond or gay or tall or thin or whatever the tease is. Gay isn’t who someone is. It’s part of them. Like their hair. Brown or blond or gay doesn’t change, so teasing about those things is making someone feel bad. And it’s not okay to do something to make someone feel bad.

P: Okay.

M: May I also point out, really, that the things Jason tells you usually aren’t true. He told you girls aren’t allowed to play soccer. He told you that boys should like dogs because girls like cats. He told you “every single person in Mexico, even the old people and babies have machine guns.” None of those things is true. In fact, they’re pretty ludicrous. So I’d do some serious fact checking before I believed anything Jason said.

P: Okay.

We left the whole discussion at the door. I didn’t bring it up again, which took a lot of restraint. I still had many, many words I wanted to use. But I have to let the poor child breathe.

And I have to breathe, too. I don’t think he was trying to hurt Quinn or to cement hatred against the LGBT community. I think he was trying out a new word. And I think my son just learned that some words are simply unacceptable. I still remember my mom walking me through a whole list of racial slurs I may not ever use, including definitions and an explanation of how horribly each group had suffered under that epithet. Looking back as a parent, I wonder if she unleashed that lecture because I had used one of those names. Or someone said one to me.

So can I maybe relax and realize this is just a rite of passage, just the first step in a long series of conversations about how words have power, and how some people use powerful words to bully other people. A long, evolving conversation about finding your own power rather than taking it from others by devaluing them.

I take really seriously…perhaps too seriously…okay. definitely too seriously…my job of raising people who make the world a better place. I really hope my sons and their peers grow up knowing there’s more to people than their skin color or sexual orientation or gender. Allowing people to be more than the single words we use as labels builds the holy grail of attributes: kindness. Thankfully, that one comes from nurture.

Or lecture. I’m not sure which, nurture or lecture, but I’m going to try both.

17 thoughts on “Teachable moment about “gay”

  1. While I was reading this post I found myself saying, “oh, that’s good, I am going to say that if (when) I come across this situation.”
    My 4 year old is getting to the age where that is becoming a possibility, and despite all the talks I have with her about equality, being kind, etc, I know there will be times that teasing will occur. Thanks for a great post!

  2. This is awesome. I loved how you and the teacher handled it, and yes, I’m totally using some of this terminology. Hubby and I have been wondering how to explain ‘gay’ in a simple, appropriate term to our little one b/c it (almost) came up already. I’m totally stealing your words here.
    And I love how you wrote about something so important and serious in such a funny way, girl.
    P.S. WTF is wrong with that Jason kid anyways? :)

    • Glad it might maybe help give you words. I was flying by the seat of my pants, but seemed to have handled it moderately well.

      Oh, geez with that Jason kid. He LOVES pushing buttons! He bickered with me for days about girls not being allowed to play soccer. I brought him news clippings about the World Cup team. He told me I invented them. Grrrrrr. Also? Awesome, as fake-closed-minded, stubborn, maybe-bigoted kids go.

      Asked the teacher to move Peanut’s table, though. I’ve had enough Jason for this year.

  3. I’m so grateful that your kids are a few years older than mine so that I can follow your lead. I’m often shocked by some of the things my son says that are so completely opposite of the views of those who are raising him. (I. E. “I really love guns, mommy). Which just tells me that we have voiced our opinions too strongly in front on him and not clearly. But that’s not the point. You handled this magically. In fact, I printing this and plan to use it as a script for the upcoming years. :).

    Jason sounds like a piece of work.

    • Em, Jason is my full-on cartoon nemesis. Read my reply to Liz. He’s AWESOME if you want opinionated and persistent. But HORRID if you want open minded and egalitarian.

  4. Napps. This is thorough! Peanut is lucky. You should not feel nervous about such an honest approach to this discussion. What with truth setting us free and all. And goddammit, you are totally right.

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