When my son was 11, he came out to me and my husband as gay. Or as he initially put 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 wouldn’t have a negative reaction. We did go out to dinner to celebrate his “realization,” but it was largely a non-event.
I’m 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 he has decided to keep it from for now. This 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’ve gotten some questions from people that were… eyebrow-raising.
Keep in mind, all these people are completely well-meaning and know 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. Instead, it’s to explain why some of the common questions people may ask are homophobic or heterosexist and/or have a completely flawed premise to begin with.
I’m actually super grateful people asked me these questions instead of asking my son, and that I could talk to them about the questions and what bothered me about them. We are all constantly learning, and I’m always happy to answer these questions if someone is genuinely interested in my honest answer. Of course, my response may just be a critique of the premise of the question.
All of these questions have been asked more than once, so if you’re reading this and think I’m talking about you personally, I’m not! I’m talking about the questions as patterns that have been directed my son’s way.
1. “Do you think he’s gay?”
A lot of times after I told people 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 who spends a lot of time with him.
However, I resent the unspoken undercurrent of this question, which is that I would somehow know better than my son what his sexual orientation is. I like to pretend I’m 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 themself can define and know. 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’s a kid, my son is the only one who can know his sexual orientation.
A similar question I minded much less was, “Are you surprised?” I think in terms of the answers people were looking for, the two questions were identical; but in the second question there is a self-determination the first one doesn’t recognize. Asking if I was surprised is a way to gauge whether 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. My husband and I were not surprised in the least that our son 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 our gaydar picked up on. I don’t think his (twin and slightly older) sisters were surprised either.
2. “Do you think this is just a phase?”
First of all, this is a question asked of all queer people from seemingly time immemorial. I have a few answers:
Two: so what if it is?
Three: 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 incorporated the idea of sexual fluidity into its understanding of what labels like “gay” mean, and also critically reflected on the difference between identity and behavior, this could almost be a legitimate question. However, in the society 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.
I will fight very hard so that my son’s right to his identity is respected. Maybe he will identify as gay his whole life, and then one day fall in love with a woman while continuing to identify as gay. Or not. Maybe he will have several partners who are all non-binary. 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.
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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.
3. “Don’t you think he’s too young to know if he’s 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.
Assumptions about gayness have an experiential element to them that those about straightness don’t. By this I mean that straight people will ask gay 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 feelings of attraction that weren’t 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.
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’m pretty sure he was an adult, and I remember I liked him because he looked like “La Bamba” from the movie, which is actually Lou Diamond Phillips.
Long story short: lots of kids totally know who they’re attracted to.
4. “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’m 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.)
As I mentioned above, my husband and I are both queer. People I barely know ask me, “How can a man and woman who are married to each other be queer?” 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 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’re instructed otherwise, when we ask our kids if there’s 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” from which gayness deviates. Instead we teach that all options are open, which is different from compulsive bisexuality. We tell our kids, “You may potentially have feelings for anyone or 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 in our house.”
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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 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 who asked these questions were totally well-meaning, great people who love both me and my son very much. I don’t approach these questions from a place of “Can you believe people asked me this?” Rather, I believe these are common questions most folks would have when an 11 year-old comes out as gay. I want to respond to them in a broad way so that hopefully individuals will have less of a burden explaining these concepts.
I do have one question myself, though: how many more until I get that toaster over?
[Feature Image: A grey scale photo of a person with their hair covering their eyes. They look sad and are wearing a striped hoodie. Source: Amy Rachel]