Editor’s note: Aaron Gouveia is “Raising Boys to Be Good Men: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy Sons in a World of Toxic Masculinity” and “Men and Abortion: A Father’s Guide to Grief, Relationships, and Healing After Loss“.
Teaching your kids life lessons is part of parenting, but what about doing that to other people’s kids? When (if ever) is it appropriate to make a value judgment and draw a hard line in the sand when it involves not only your child, but other children as well?
That’s when I was comforting my 7-year-old son when he was crying because an older kid in the neighborhood called him gay.
We live in an old-school blue-collar Massachusetts neighborhood with kids who flock to play football, hockey, and baseball and have Nerf wars that leave our streets littered with orange-tipped foam projectiles.
Some parents gather in the street for a drink or two while the lanterns are lit, occasionally uttering errant shots, but otherwise allowing the natural order to work itself out.
At best, the scene is completely Rockwellian and a throwback to the olden days. But, as this incident proves, the old days were not always the best in many ways.
The ages of this group of boys range from 7 to 14, and disagreements about the rules, whether or not someone has actually gotten a touch, and the usual personality conflicts are all too common. So when my 7-year-old son came in distraught with red eyes, I didn’t think much of it at first and was ready to tell him to sort things out on his own.
Then suddenly she broke down crying. “Dad, why is being gay stupid or bad?” he asked me
My three boys are growing up to benefit from the mistakes I made in my youth related to toxic male stereotypes. This means that using “gay” as an insult, saying that he “throws like a girl” and calling someone “retarded” is forbidden in our family. They know our gay friends, they have gay relatives they love, and we routinely discuss why such comments are so hurtful.
All of these conversations can’t control what other kids say, and I know that a friend’s comments can affect my young children. So when my son heard older kids expect gay to be used as an insult, a part of him wondered if his idol was straight.
My son was crying, and I knew he needed to calm down before he could talk. However, I knew I had to talk to someone other than my son. Therefore, even though I wanted to let the kids do the work themselves and not be “that dad”, I went outside to talk to the older boys.
These are good kids, so I brought that up when talking to this older guy. I told him that I know he is not a hateful person. But while he is free to say what he likes at home, I will not spare my listeners an inward applause. I also reminded him that many people around him may be gay or question their sexuality and asked him how he thought he would feel if everyone used him as a pejorative term for gay.
I finished with a high five and told him that I definitely know he’s better than that slur, and he promised to try harder. And in the couple of weeks since then, he has really made an effort.
Were my actions requested? Do other parents think I’m over it? I couldn’t let that reversal go unaddressed, not just because of what it did to my son. I care about how vulnerable LGBTQ youth are to stigma and how high their rates of self-harm are compared to their peers.
The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that focuses on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth, estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth consider suicide at least annually in the U.S. With a 45 second attempt.
Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of the Trevor Project, told me that LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience stigma, rejection, bullying, and violence compared to their straight peers.
“Gay is an identity term, not an insult. Using it like this can be very hurtful, especially for LGBTQ youth who are coming to terms with their identity,” Paley said. “We must all do our part to condemn anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and bullying, and work together to create safer, stronger communities for all youth. “.
If we’re going to start these tough conversations and create supportive communities and safe spaces, it has to start with parents on the front lines. And that includes fathers, whose outspokenness on these issues has historically been scarce but whose opinions can be highly influential.
The onus can’t just be on kids to deal with bullying, said Genevieve Weber, an associate 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 LGBTQ or ally, don’t always know where their parents stand on the issues. That’s because many parents never sit down and have a conversation. That’s why Weber and four other mothers founded pRYEde, a group in Rye, New York, made up of experts in mental health, literacy and education. It provides innovative and inclusive programming for Rye and surrounding communities.
“A lot of the parents I work with are scared because they don’t know what the terms pansexual or transgender mean, but that’s okay. Go to Google and do some reading. It’s okay not to know everything,” Weber said. “What is not good is losing the opportunity to talk to children, because once they know you care, it creates strength, because the conversations can continue. And if they see or experience something in the future, they will come to you instead of hiding.”
If all else fails, Weber recommends reducing the problem to the essentials.
“I ask people if they would do something small like using preferred pronouns, wearing a Pride pin or hanging a rainbow flag if it meant saving someone’s life, and they almost universally say yes,” she said. “People need to know that these little expressions of language and symbolism that we use are important because they absolutely save lives.”