This is the question I faced while comforting my 7-year-old son who was crying because an older kid in the neighborhood kept calling him gay.
We live in an old-school blue-collar Massachusetts neighborhood with kids descending like locusts to play football, hockey, and baseball and we have nerf wars with guns that leave our lanes littered with orange-tipped sponge shells.
Some parents meet on the street for a drink or two when the streetlights are on, sometimes they avoid the missed shots but otherwise let the natural system run on its own.
The ages of this group of boys range from 7 to 14, disagreements about the rules, whether so-and-so scores a touchdown, and that normal personal disagreements are quite common. So, when my 7-year-old son came in with red eyes that looked troubled, I initially didn’t think much and was ready to tell him to work out the problem himself.
Then suddenly he broke down in tears. “Dad, why is being gay stupid or bad?” he asked me.
My three children are raised to take advantage of mistakes I made in my youth related to toxic male stereotypes. This means using ‘gay’ as an insult, telling someone they are ‘throwing like a girl’ and calling someone a ‘retard’ is a taboo in our family. They know our gay friends, they have gay relatives who love them, and we routinely discuss why such comments hurt us.
Not all of these conversations can control what the other kids say, and I know a friend’s comments can affect my little ones. So, when my son heard the older kids were looking forward to using homosexuality as an insult, part of him wondered if his idol was right.
My son was crying, and I knew he needed to calm down before we could talk. However, I also knew that I needed to talk to someone other than my son. That’s why, despite my desire to let the kids work on their own and not be “that daddy,” I headed outside to talk to the older boys.
These are good kids, and so I based on that fact when I talked to this older boy. I told him I knew he was not a hated person. But while he is free to say whatever he wants at home, I will not allow insults in my hearing. I also reminded him that many people around him might be gay or question their sexuality and asked him how he thought they would feel if everyone used gayness as a disdain.
I finished with a high five and told him unequivocally that I knew he was better than this slander, and he promised to do more. And in the past two weeks since, he really made the effort.
Have my actions been called? Do other parents think I’m overdone? I couldn’t leave this slander unaddressed, not only because of what it did to my son. I am also interested in how stigmatized LGBT youth are and how high rates of self-harm are compared to their peers.
Amit Bali, CEO and CEO of The Trevor Project, told me that increased risks come from LGBT youth being more susceptible to stigmatization, rejection, bullying and violence than their direct counterparts.
“Gay is an identity term, not an insult,” Bali said. “Using it as such can be very harmful – especially for gay youth who embrace their own identities.” “We must all do our part to condemn anti-gay rhetoric and harassment when we see it, and work together to create safer and more assured communities for all young people.”
If we’re going to start these challenging conversations and create supportive communities and safe spaces, it has to start with parents on the front lines. This includes the Fathers, whose candor on these topics is historically rare but whose opinions can have a significant impact.
It can’t just be on children to confront bullies, said Genevieve Weber, an assistant professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and a licensed mental health counselor who has worked with the LGBTQ community for 20 years.
Children, whether they are LGBT or allies, do not always know where their parents stand on these issues. This is because many parents don’t actually sit down and talk. That’s why Weber and four other moms started a Pride Group in Rye, New York, made up of experts in mental health, literacy and education. Provides innovative and comprehensive software for Rye and surrounding communities.
“A lot of parents I work with are intimidated because they don’t know what terms like pansexual or transgender mean, but that’s okay. Go Google and read a bit. It’s okay not to know everything,” Weber said. “What is not acceptable is missing out on the opportunity to talk to children because once they know you care, conversations can go on. And if they see or experience something in the future, they will come to you instead of hiding it.”
If all else fails, Weber advises easing the problem down to basics.
“I ask people if they would do something small like use favorite pronouns or wear a Pride pin or hang a rainbow flag if it meant saving someone’s life, and they almost said yes,” she said. “People need to know that the language we use and these little expressions of symbolism are important because they absolutely save lives.”
The Trevor Project trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help Or by texting START to 678678 for any young person who needs support.
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