Gay on the Playground
My mother didn’t want me to have children. She had given up trying to change my lady-loving ways but was adamant that I not bring a child into my “lifestyle”. She argued that if we had a boy, he would never learn to pee standing up and if we had a girl, we wouldn’t know how to do her hair. Given arguments with such substantial merit, it’s amazing that I had the courage to persevere. I reminded my mother constantly about our intention to have kids – every time we saw a baby or a commercial for diapers and even when I ran across a conversation heart that said “baby”. It became a game – “Ways to Remind Mom We Intend to Have Kids” which was a lot like Family Feud but with more feuding and less cheering. Each time, she simply pursed her lips, closed her eyes and shook her head. When I finally got pregnant and told her the news, she was absolutely silent – no sighing, no audible pursing of the lips. Then she asked what I expected her to say and I suggested that most people go with “Congratulations”. For the record, she did not go with “congratulations”. My mother believed what many people believe – living as an out lesbian is my choice but an unfair burden on children.
When I pick up my kids from school, I like to hear that they had a great day. I want to hear that they worked hard, played well with others and, time permitting, saved a kitten from a burning building. I do not want to hear, “Mom, you’re going to get a call from my teacher tonight.” This happened recently when Miguel told me that he had been in a heated argument on the playground. He had barely finished speaking when I launched into one of my stock lectures on getting along with others and respect and I used my stern voice and glared into the rearview mirror for emphasis and then he exclaimed that it wasn’t his fault so I launched into the respect-adjacent lecture on accountability and glared a little more and then, as we arrived home, I turned around to give my most serious parental look of outrage which just happens to include the lip pursing made famous by my mother and he snapped, “MOM! He used the word ‘gay’ as an insult!” I just closed my eyes and dropped my head because I did not have a stock lecture for that.
Queer. Faggot. Pervert. Dyke. I’ve heard them all. They have been shouted at me from passing cars, yelled at me in parking lots and on sidewalks. They have been whispered behind my back at restaurants, in city markets, in public bathrooms and at weddings. And yet, I consider myself lucky – lucky that I’ve never been physically hurt and especially lucky that my children have never witnessed any of this. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t know. They know about ignorance and hate. They have noticed the stares. They’ve been asked about their family, sometimes out of curiosity and sometimes in confusion. They know that we cannot get married, that we are not equal under the law. Kids are smart in this particular way – they measure their experience against the world around them and quickly determine their differences.
We went into the house and he paced and growled in anger while I sat silently on the couch drawing a mental flow chart of possible responses. When I finally opened my mouth to speak, he said through clenched teeth, “I WILL defend my family! I did it for me but I also did it for you!” I reached out and took his hand. I pulled him towards me and onto my lap with some effort. His jaw was set. His body was taut with anger. I looked at him – his messy hair, his freckles just like mine – and felt that familiar ache, an ache born from my desire to protect him from the world and my inability to lie. I wanted to tell him that this would never happen again, that it didn’t matter. But it will and it does so I told him the truth.
I told him that people hate what they don’t understand and there will always be people who say hateful things. I told him that I won’t hide, that I won’t pretend to be someone I am not and then – I started to cry. Tears are so very inconvenient when trying to project confidence. As parents, we want our children to stand up for what is just and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want him to defend our family. The problem is not in wanting that but in expecting it. That expectation is the unfair burden, one too great for a child to bear. It is not his responsibility to make the world safe for us. It is our job as parents to make it safe for him. So, through my tears and with a voice hoarse and raw, I told him that. I told him to follow his heart but to choose his battles knowing that our love is unconditional. I held him tightly and then let him go and, as he turned to walk away, I said, ”But don’t think there won’t be consequences for this playground scuffle, young man” and he cried and begged me not to take away his DS and everything was back to normal.
I can’t help but think of my mother as I write about this incident. This was, after all, her greatest fear – a prophecy of sorts. My mother struggled for years to accept me and, in the end, my children opened her heart and mind. She fell in love with them and, in loving them, she learned to love and accept Luisa and me too. People hate what they don’t understand but people can change. I’ve seen it. That is why, despite everything – discrimination, bullying and violence - I tell my children that people are basically good. Miguel finds this assertion quite annoying and I suspect he thinks I’m not very bright. Recently, in a fit of frustration, he asked, ”Why do you have to see the best in everyone all the time?!” The answer is quite simple – to do otherwise is unbearable.