I have always encouraged my children from a very young age to ask as many questions as they like, about any topic that they are curious about. I believe these types of questions are important in fostering a child’s intellectual growth and allow them to gain awareness about how things work and their own surroundings. Over the years I have learned to be prepared for all and anything little inquiring minds may come up with in the form of questions – and I always do my best to answer as honestly and thoroughly as I know how.
Young children most always look to their parents for advice and knowledge when there is something they don’t understand. These questions can take many forms, some of my favorites include: why is the sky blue? If I take a screwdriver and unscrew my belly button will my butt fall off? Are boogers made out of brains?
The above questions are relatively easy to answer or find the answers to. This in my experience, is generally the scope and complexity of the questions presented by younger children. As they grow older, I am finding that the inquiries are becoming more complex. Whereas previously, my husband and I, or a trusted adult family member, served as valuable sources for reliable information, this is eminently changing. As they start to reach the age in which they are old enough to begin seeking out answers to life’s many mysteries from other information sources, answers may become conflated with inaccuracies and are in fact misinformation.
High school is the perfect breeding ground for many of these complex questions, the answers for which are being given by misinformed, (however well intentioned they may be) friends. Some of these friends may have parents that share the same parenting styles and beliefs that you do – others- not so much. Some of these friends may come from families that have strict religious beliefs on specific topics that govern their views on social issues that include topics such as race, politics and sexual orientation- others are simply misinformed, or just downright ignorant. The scary part about adults that hold specific views that are harsh or ignorant of the basic concept of human rights, is that these views transfer to their children, who then provide information to their friends. Children do not possess an innate concept of hate, racism or marginalization: this is something that is taught. By parents and other influential players throughout a child’s development.
Driving in the car yesterday, J turned to me and asked me point blank “Mommy, what does queer mean? Is it the same thing as gay? Some people at school say gay means happy but I hear other people saying that it means something different…”
Of all the years that I have been encouraging and answering questions from my children, I never considered that this might be a question. I took it for granted, and I was unprepared. I have made it a point to engage J in important dialog about various things such as the topic of sex, menstruation, racism, etc. but I had missed this topic entirely. How could this be?
I have many friends from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) community and always took for granted that even though I don't define my friends in terms of their race, religion, cultural background, gender or sexual orientation, that, high school tends to become an exercise in “people labeling.”
Sexual orientation of people was never something that occurred to me in terms of “normal” or “abnormal” the way I always understood it was love knows no gender. Faced with J’s question I was forced to consider what I knew of growing up, and realized: I never had any discussions about what it meant to be gay or queer, it just wasn’t discussed. Not like the birds and the bees, or menstruation. I found myself in an odd predicament. Although I have friends that self identify as LGBT, non of them are currently in a long term relationship, if in relationships at all, and non have children. As such, it was never a topic that came up – until now.
As a parent, I am aware of the impact certain moments and the way things are explained can have on my children. I am most certainly not perfect in any right, which is part of being human. It was really important for me to try to explain this to J in terms that she understood, without giving information that might be inaccurate. So where could I go? Well, I did some internet trolling, and came up with a couple of sites that might be of use to parents who might be looking for similar information.
The first one is from Berkeley’s Gender Equity Resource Center. The resource center offers a thesaurus of terms and their definitions. These terms range from “queer” and “Dominant culture” to “gender conformity” and “heterosexual” with everything in between. Some of the terms listed on that link are beyond the scope of the topic of discussion, but it offers a good base to start from.
“PFLAG promotes the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, their families and friends through: support, to cope with an adverse society; education, to enlighten an ill-informed public; and advocacy, to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays provides opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and acts to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity.” On this site there are many links to information and educational initiatives.
Parents will never have the answers to everything, but we do the best we can. The important thing I have found in my experience is to be open and willing to listen and answer questions to the best of my ability. Sometimes this means doing some extra digging around to find ways to explain things in age appropriate terms.
When it came down to my explanation I stuck with a combination of what I know, and offered up further information from the links above. This was best broken down into three important concepts:
1) Gay can mean more than one thing. It can mean happy. It can also be used in a situation where two people of the same sex either two boys or two girls are in a loving relationship. The same exact way that a boy and a girl can be in a loving relationship. It is also used by some people in a hurtful or mean way - this is wrong and those people need to be educated.
2) Queer is a more complicated term to explain. It is a term that is used to describe many people (an umbrella term). People who feel that people aren't born either a "boy" or a "girl" but that people can be either or. This could include people who are gay or people who are not gay. There is a whole area of study focused on this topic called queer theory.
3) There is nothing wrong with being queer or gay. People are people. Whether someone is queer or gay does not mean anything different. Its the same way that your name is J does not mean you are different, you are still a human being. Someone that does not know you cannot tell by looking at you, that your name is J any more than someone can tell by looking at a gay person that they are gay.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, people still need to be taught tolerance. I am a firm believer that our children are the key to a future of peace, tolerance and equity and that education offers a firm foundation for the way in which our children will act and respond to particular situations as adults.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can ever pass on to our children is that human rights are universal, and a natural right to all human beings regardless of race, religion, culture, economic status, or sexual orientation.