A while ago, my then-10 year-old son and I were alone in the kitchen – him picking at his breakfast, me doing dishes – when he announced, “I don’t think I like gay people.”
I paused in my dish-doing. His words were a statement but spoken more as a question. I asked carefully, “And why is that?”
“They are just so annoying! I don’t like them.”
I glanced at him over my shoulder and saw him lingering, still playing with his cereal. Now, in universal parent language, this lingering means that he is waiting for a reaction. Will Mom agree with this bold statement? Will she yell at me for saying I don’t like someone?
I turned back to my dishes and said, “I didn’t realize you knew any gay people.”
“Well, there’s PJ*,” he said quickly. “And he’s the most annoying kid I’ve ever met!”
*PJ (not his real name, of course) is a boy that has gone to school with my son since Kindergarten. He is feminine, likes dolls and ‘girlie’ stuff, and has feminine mannerisms. I think it was back in 3rd grade when my son asked what ‘gay’ meant because some kids (and grown ups) had started saying that PJ was gay. Now wasn’t the time to debate PJ’s sexuality – or why it was none of our business – but a bigger conversation was obviously necessary.
“Hmm,” I said and turned to face him, still drying a dinner plate. I waited a beat while he took a bite of his food. “You know,” I said, “I heard you arguing with Mikey* over the Xbox yesterday. He gets on your nerves sometimes doesn’t he?”
My son frowned a little. “He got on everybody’s nerves yesterday. I just stopped playing.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “It’s because he’s black, right? The reason he gets on your nerves so much – it’s because he’s black, isn’t it?”
My son froze with a spoonful of cereal halfway to his mouth. I’d never actually seen anyone freeze mid-motion like that but that was exactly what he did. His eyes were wide circles as he said, “What did you say?”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and kept going. “Mikey gets on your nerves because he’s black, right? Isn’t that why you argue with him so much?”
My son slowly put down his spoon as he stared at me with a mixture of confusion and fear. “That has nothing to do with it. You know that Mom. What Mikey looks like doesn’t mean anything. You know that.”
“Oh, right,” I said and continued drying my plate. My son eyed me as he took another bite of his breakfast. After another moment I said, “Well what about Ryan*? You’ve said you don’t like to play kickball with him sometimes and that he is annoying.”
My son visibly relaxed, grateful I was moving on. “Ryan is very annoying. And he yells at everybody!”
“Yeah…it’s because he’s fat, right? That’s why you think he’s annoying.”
This time my son threw his spoon on the table. “Why are you saying these things?” he shouted at me. His eyes shimmered. “Do you really think I’m like that? I don’t care about things like that at all. I’m not prejudice, Mom!”
I put down my plate and stood with my hands on the table so I could lean over and look my son in the eye. “Then what about PJ?”
At first he frowned in exasperation. Then, as if in a cartoon or something, I saw the light go on in my son’s eyes. His face drained of color and he looked me in the eye as if he couldn’t look away.
“It is the same thing,” I said, accentuating each word. “It is hate. Do you understand that?” Slowly he nodded. I pushed his cereal bowl. “You love Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Mikey doesn’t. Does that mean you hate Mikey?” He shook his head no. “It is all hate, J, and hate is unacceptable in this family. Do you understand that?” Again, he nodded. “Who does God hate, J?”
“So who do we hate?”
“But what if your friends hate someone, or their parents hate someone?” I asked, figuring out where this was most likely coming from. “Do you hate then?”
“It doesn’t matter what they say.” His voice was a little stronger now.
I backed off and picked up my plate again, letting myself take a deep breath now. “Does that makes sense, buddy? Do you really understand what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, I understand,” he said with his head down. “Sorry.”
I smiled at him as I gave him a hug. “Don’t ever apologize for telling me what you think, bud. And I’m not mad at you and you’re not in trouble. Ok?”
“Okay. Can I eat the rest of this in the family room?”
It was several months later that my husband was reading the news on his phone at our daughter’s softball game when he casually mentioned, “Hey, Jason Collins came out as the first openly gay NBA player. That was brave. Good for him.”
My son frowned. “Why was that brave?”
My husband, having put his phone away to watch our daughter bat, said, “A lot of people are probably going to give him crap about it. It takes a lot of guts to be who you are when you know some people aren’t going to like it. Atta’ girl! Good swing!”
I didn’t say anything but watched my son frown in thought for a moment, then smile up at his dad before joining in cheering for his sister’s team
Finally, this past summer, while driving with the kids to the store, the Macklemore song, “Same Love” came on the radio. After singing along for a few verses, my son said to his sister, “I think Macklemore is really brave for making this song because a lot of people and rappers don’t like gay people. But I like this song.”
My son is in middle school now and while I don’t think he will always agree with the opinions of his father and me – in fact, I hope he doesn’t – I also hope that we are setting an example for him that will keep his mind and heart open. After all, at this age, the influences of his peers are only going to get stronger. I keep my fingers crossed and my prayers flowing that we are giving him and my daughter the right tools to come to their own conclusions. 🙂