When my son was 11 he came out to my husband and I as gay. Or as he initially said it, “I think I am finally ready to realize something about myself.” (He’s smart and hilarious). My husband and I are both queer (more on that later), so he knew we would have not have a negative reaction. We did go out to dinner to celebrate his “realization”, but in a lot of ways it was largely a non-event. I am trying to find more resources for him to be able to hang out with more queer kids, but I was trying to do that for all the kids even before he came out. We live in a pretty rural area and though everyone he has told has been incredibly supportive, there are some people that he has decided to keep it from – for now – which is of course a totally valid choice.
Even though everyone has been really proud of him for being willing to take the plunge of coming out, I have gotten some questions from people that were … eyebrow raising. Keep in mind all these people are completely well meaning and know that I identify as queer. In fact, some of the people asking the questions are gay or queer themselves. The purpose of this piece isn’t to shame people who were trying their best to understand, but instead to explain why some of the common questions that people may ask in this situation are homophobic or heterosexist in themselves and/or have a completely flawed premise to begin with.
I am actually super grateful that people asked me these questions instead of him and that also I could talk to them about the questions themselves and what bothered me about them. We are all constantly learning and I am always happy to answer these questions if someone is genuinely interested in my honest answer, which may just be a critique of the premise of the question, or other social justice warrioring stuff.
All of these questions have been asked more than once so if you are reading this and think I am talking about you, I am not! I am talking about the other people that asked the same question. That problem solved, here goes:
Do you think he is gay?
A lot of times after I told people that my 11 year old came out (always with his direction or permission first!), their first question was whether I thought he was gay. I completely understand the impulse behind this question, the asker is trying to get the perspective of an adult that spends a lot of time with him. However, I resent the unspoken undercurrent of this question that somehow I would know better than him what his sexual orientation is. I like to pretend I am an expert on everything and I generally love when people come to me for my opinion or advice. But even I will admit there are some things that only the person themselves can define and know, and who they are attracted to is one of them. My answer would usually be something like, “it doesn’t really matter what I think.” Even though he is a kid, he is the only one who can know his sexual orientation.
A similar question that I minded much less was “Are you surprised?” I think in terms of the answers that people were looking for the two questions were identical, but to me there is a self-determination that the first one doesn’t recognize and this one does. Asking if I was surprised is a way to gauge whether or not there was more of a backstory while still acknowledging that my opinion of the situation is not necessarily the same as the truth of the situation.
And for the record: No. We were not surprised in the least that he is gay. First of all, we don’t default to heterosexuality as the “norm” and everything else as “other.” And he also had said and done things in the past that my husband and I’s gaydars picked up. I don’t think his (twin and slightly older) sisters were surprised either.
Do you think this is just a phase?
First of all, this is a question asked of all queer people for time immemorial. Immediately after the first person ever came out as gay, their mom asked them if it was a phase. I have a few answers to this question: 1) No. 2) So what if it is. 3) Given the fluidity of sexual orientation and desire, isn’t everything kind of a phase? There is no way to use only a single word to describe the uniqueness of a person’s sexual orientation and desires.
So, if we lived in a society that really incorporate the idea of sexual fluidity into its understanding of what labels like “gay” mean, and also the difference between identity and behavior, this could almost be a legitimate question. However, in the society that we live in, calling something a “phase” is a way to delegitimize it as an identity. It’s basically saying his gayness is “not real”, which is not okay with me. Like I ranted about above, only he can identify himself, and I will fight very hard so that his right to do that is respected. Maybe he will identify as gay his whole life and then one day fall in love with a woman and keep identifying as gay, or not, maybe he will have several partners who are all nonbinary, maybe five years from now he will identify as straight, who knows? Even if he does start to identify as straight in a few years, that doesn’t necessarily make him less gay now. I know that sexual fluidity (not to mention gender fluidity) is a real thing, but that identities and/or behaviors may look like “phases” to people invested in a sexual orientation that is fixed throughout the lifespan. Others of us who are comfortable with the concept of sexual fluidity understand that identity can change, and even if identities are a so-called “phase”, it doesn’t make them less legitimate than longer lasting identities.
Don’t you think he is too young to know if he is gay?
This question is just straight up bullshit. The answer is no. Lots of people talk about knowing their sexual orientation at a much younger age. Most straight (and not straight) people definitely have at least clues to their sexual orientation well before age 11. Gayness has an experiential element to it that straightness doesn’t. People will ask people questions like “if you never had sex, how do you know you’re gay?”, but the same is never asked of straight people. If we all think back to when we were younger, you could have attraction feelings that were not necessarily like “I want to have sex with that person”. Even as an adult when I have a crush it’s more about wanting to talk to and be around the person more than it is thinking about having actual sex with them.
Because I love this story so much: I remember the first time I was attracted to someone. I was probably about six and my dad and I were in a hardware chain in Maryland called Hechinger’s. I remember seeing a guy who I thought was cute and I immediately started sobbing because I didn’t really understand the feelings I was having. I am pretty sure he was an adult and I remember that I liked him because he looked like “La Bamba” from the movie, which is actually Lou Diamond Phillips. (I just checked and that movie came out a few months before I turned six, so the age is about right).
Long story short, lots of kids totally know who they are attracted to.
Do you think he came out because you guys glorify gayness in your house?
I love this question! This question always makes me feel like a very successful parent. I am working on getting that toaster. (Old Ellen joke which makes me feel old because it was from when she had a sitcom, but Ellen was totally one of my queer roots so I need to give credit where credit is due.)
More Radical Reads: On This Edge: Creating Safe Space for Gender-Neutral Youth
As I mentioned above, my husband and I are both queer. “How can a man and woman who are married to each other be queer?” people I barely know ask me. There is this cool new thing (actually it is old and not usually seen as that cool) called bisexuality! I highly recommend it. Anyway, we both identify as bi and queer and make sure that our kids know that. They have even been to a summer camp for kids in queer families. I know there is a ton of privilege in a straight appearing couple with kids, but queerness is a really important part of our identities and the way we parent. For example, in our house we don’t default to straight. What that means is that until we are instructed otherwise, when we ask our kids if there is anyone at school they like, we don’t make it gendered. We ask them about “boyfriends or girlfriends”, not defaulting to the “opposite” sex. So far the girls don’t want to claim a sexual orientation, which is totally fine, and the other boy is a baby. He does really love boobs, but the jury is still out.
Basically, our parenting style defaults to queerness in a way that a lot of people’s don’t. There is no straight “baseline” with which gay deviates from. There is “all options are open” – which is different from compulsive bisexuality. It’s “you may potentially have feelings for anyone and no one and as your parents we don’t need to know all the details or anything but we don’t want you to feel like liking anyone is some kind of othered status is our house”.
More Radical Reads: Raising A Son In a World of Toxic Masculinity
In terms of glorifying gayness, we are generally too busy glorifying obesity to glorify gayness, but I guess we can spare the time. Seriously though, even if we put a huge premium on gayness (which we don’t – in fact neither my husband nor I are gay), it would be a small weight on the scale compared to society’s premium on straightness and heteronormativity. My son is in sixth grade in a small, relatively rural school. He is not out to most of his classmates, but he is already bullied a lot. At home we already love him and care for him and if he was that concerned about earning our favor, he would do a better job on his chores or something, not decide to identify as something that he knows is marginalized in society. In fact, he probably sees more casual homophobia than most adults. He spends his day surrounded by sixth grade boys. Do you know how many times they use “gay” as a slur, or even say “fag”? Countless. Countless times a day. If anyone has every incentive to not identify as gay it is a sixth grade boy.
I know I said it a lot above, but I do want to again state that the people that asked these questions were totally well meaning great people who love both my son and I very much. I don’t approach these questions from a place of “can you believe people asked me this?”, rather I believe that these are common questions most folks would have when an 11 year old comes out as gay and I want to respond to them in a broad way so that hopefully individuals will have less of a burden of explaining these concepts.
I do have one question myself though: how many more until I get that toaster over?
[Feature Image: A gray scale photo of a person with their hair covering their eyes, wearing a striped hoodie. Source: Amy Rachel]