“Mommy, I’m almost embarrassed to tell you.”
My ears turn on and I am ready for a tough conversation. We’ve been here before and I know it will be heavy.
I had just picked him up from a highly anticipated sleepover. We had travelled an hour south back to our old neighborhood for a sleepover with his friends. Having moved away not too long and right before the pandemic hit, my son, who is entering high school, longs for his friends from younger years.
“That’s so gay.” Honestly, not what I expected to come out of his mouth. But there it was.
“Those are my people” he went on to say, “they are my friends, but I just don’t understand. How can’t they see that it is hurtful?” I thought he was talking about vaccinations and all of the pandemic hoopla that I drone on about day-in and day-out.
“You see” he said, “ that’s so gay is a put down that people use all the time. I promise, I never say it.” At that moment, he almost didn’t need to say another word. He doesn’t say it, but others do.
With that, his chin started to quiver and I could see the tears welling up in his eyes. He told the story of the evening. “I brought my Xbox and set it up so we can play. I’m really proud of all my stickers. I have stickers from our time in Florida swimming with the turtles. Stickers from Moab and the amazing food truck we visited. And, of course, all of my Colorado stickers, some of them with rainbows. And then I have my equality stickers.” Holding back tears he said “they asked me why all the gay stickers?”
With fire inside my belly, but cool as a cucumber on the outside, I ask, “are they using the word gay as a metaphor for stupid?” Not that that would be OK, just trying to determine the angle. He replies with a frustrated and defeated “no.” We sit in silence as I decide how I am going to respond. I tell him that I am sorry. And that it is not OK. I ask how he reacted? He said he didn’t say anything. He just couldn’t.
Among the other four kids at the sleepover was my son‘s very best friend. I have pictures of him and my child in a toy truck when they were just two years old. His friend with his fist up in the air and gleeful joy and innocence plastered all over their faces. Most days his photos show up on my iPhone highlights. Another boy in the room is a child we have known since kindergarten and the kids are now entering their freshman year of high school. Daily, he would ride his bike to our house. I still remember coming home and watching him ride down the street knowing exactly where he was headed.
These two children have been steadfast figures in my son’s life and have been welcomed into our family. They are acutely aware of the beautiful complexity of our family and knew my daughter before she transitioned. I cannot imagine the betrayal my son felt in that room.
I talked with my son about how proud I am of him and that I understand feeling shocked or even not knowing what to say in the face of such unkindness. We talk about what his standard response will to be to these types of homophobic slurs.
Before we can settle on anything he shares that his only good friend in our new area constantly uses gay as an insult. In fact, he says it in front of his parents and they say nothing. He says that his friend complains that he cusses. My son said “when we’re playing games sometimes I cuss. I know I probably shouldn’t, but I do. But using gay in a derogatory manner is much worse, in my opinion, then cussing.” He reports that the homophobic slur continues dispite his remider that continuously slandering a group, even after talking about how harmful and hurtful it is to him personally is far worse than cursing
In the end we settle upon a response that is measured, not angry, just deadpan flat. Something like this:
Using the word “gay” to make fun of someone is hurtful. I have friends and family members who are gay.
As his mother, I am torn. First, nobody says this around me, so clearly they know what they are doing. These kids have been in my house and in my office. My momma bear wants to reach out to their parents and have dialogue about the situation. But my reality check is that doing so will likely make it worse for my kid.
Here is where you can help. If you are an educator please be on the lookout for this type of banter. Welcoming Schools has a terrific handout to help teachers, or really anyone working with children, to appropriately and swiftly respond to homophobic slurs. Parents will benefit from reviewing this information as well.
Parents, please talk to your kids about toxic masculinity before something comes up. Jackson Katz made an incredible Ted Talk called Violence Against Women- it’s a man’s issue. I watched it with my son and my husband and we had fantastic dialogue. If you have other resources you would like to share, I am very interested. Please share with a comment on the post.