As a single parent, I enjoy sparring with my son over controversial topics, and our cultural, political and social milieu is rife with possibilities.
From videos shot on cellphones to thought provoking articles, media showcases those defining moments where raw racism, sexism and any other “–ism” crash into our reality.
However, events don’t have to be grandiose to inspire a good debate or conversation in my household. My son and I, actually, delight in the actions and words — subtle and sometimes, not so — of the people around us.
We find people fascinating not just in and of themselves but also our reaction to and understanding of them.
What are they saying about themselves? What do my reactions to them say about me? Should I even care? What really are my values? How do I want to live my life?
It was at a recent festival we attended in Baltimore, MD, where some actions and words provoked a conversation over homosexuality.
My son and I have discussed this topic in recent years — and I never tire of it. With each exchange, we evolve in what we share and how we feel. The articulations are clearer. The experiences have greater context.
My son wanted me to share this conversation with you, dear reader, in my single parent column. It is our hope that we can encourage the start of more conversations and promote a greater awareness of sexuality.
The annual HonFest is a rather eclectic affair where the culture of a Baltimore community is on parade, literally, and artisans, crafters, musicians and chefs of any ilk showcase their skills and wares to festivalgoers on a busy street.
Despite having been raised in the area, I had never attended this festival, so this year my son and I decided we would go for a little adventure.
As we walked from one end of the festival to the next — and back again — I noticed the vendors and the various items they were peddling, but my son noticed the gay pride flags hanging in the storefronts and the many gay men and lesbians walking in attentive pairs.
At one point, I turned to him and observed that he appeared stiff and awkward as he glanced around him. And being at least 6 feet tall, his body language was even more pronounced. When I asked him discretely if he was OK, his response was quick and agitated.
“No. I’m not OK. Why didn’t you tell me all these gay people would be here?”
“I didn’t realize they would be. And who cares? Don’t worry. I can assure you gay people aren’t interested in you.”
“Why are you so defensive of them?”
Neither of us wanted to discuss this issue among the festivities surrounding us.
Personally, I didn’t want our conversation to unintentionally offend anyone, and he preferred a less distracting environment where we could talk at length.
But most importantly, I needed that hour-long drive to gather my thoughts and sift through my own life experiences.
The conversation that ensued brought back so many memories and touched on beliefs I had not contemplated in some time.
“Why does homosexuality bother you? You’re not gay so why should it matter if someone else is?”
“It just not natural. It’s not supposed to happen.”
“But, honey, it is natural. People are just gay . . . like people are just straight.”
“Well, I find it unsettling.”
“What do you mean?”
“I get this tightness in my chest when I see body language by gay guys that isn’t right.”
“What body language are you talking about?”
“Crossed legs. Clothing in pastels. Unwelcome touches.”
For Joseph, sex roles and sexual identity seemed intertwined. Boys act a certain way and so do girls.
His reasoning didn’t really surprise me.
Adolescence can be a confusing time, emotionally, intellectually, physically and sexually. As this internal and external chaos swirls, personal boundaries are taking shape and being tested and teenagers are trying to make sense of the world and their place in it.
When it comes to this topic, Joseph made this succinct statement: “Everything in society is about sexuality and gender. It’s oversaturated.”
Sex roles and sexual identity became issues for me because of the biases and ignorance of others.
Some people labeled me a lesbian because of stereotypes they believed supported their point of view. I had a short haircut, spoke assertively, didn’t want to date and was a feminist, therefore in their eyes I was a lesbian. Apparently, I couldn’t be all of these qualities and still be considered a heterosexual woman.
Joseph shared a similar experience. Because he did not have a girlfriend, some of his classmates were claiming he was gay. He confronted the ringleader of this rumor, telling him he was not, and then pretended he had a girlfriend to stifle it further. The situation was difficult for him. In our conversation about it, I stressed that he should imagine the fear and sadness someone who is gay would have suffered under these circumstances.
I endured this ordeal of being mislabeled on and off for years, particularly in college, and it angered me like it did Joseph. I was not a lesbian, but the rumors spread and I lost many friends. The alienation was cruel and relentless.
This experience left me wondering about the immense rejection and loneliness a man or woman who is homosexual feels under such circumstances. The denigration they are made to endure for no real reason other than their sexual preference. Their thoughts and feelings were dismissed and deemed irrelevant.
My year in graduate school was a turning point in my life. At a small university in southern Minnesota, I met and befriended several men and women who were gay and transgender. Our common humanity and our individual differences were celebrated and welcomed. In this environment, I could be myself and enjoy the company of so many wonderful people.
And any anxieties I had absorbed from being mislabeled melted away. I was OK being myself regardless of what other people thought or said about me.
I have often shared these incidents and the wisdom I gained from them with Joseph, but he is still young, learning about the world and finding trusted companions.
“Would you be friends with someone who is gay?”
“It depends on the person, but if they were a good guy, I would. I’m friends with one gay guy now. But I don’t need to know. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“’It’ being their sexuality?”
“Would you love me if I was gay?”
“Yes, but it would take me a while to work past it.”
At first, his response saddened and even scared me. The love we shared seemed a bit different in that moment. It could be tested by this one condition.
But I had to understand that he, like so many boys, is trying to make sense of the various sexual identities and orientations existing in our society while being comfortable and feeling safe with the one he is.
I also had to understand that I taught my son from a very young age that his body is his own. He had a right to say no to certain touches and yes to others — on his own terms. This lesson definitely factored into his willingness to be around people who may not respect his boundaries in their search for appropriate companionship.
“As people get older, they learn who is best suited for them sexually and who isn’t. I don’t think you’ll have to worry.”
“Maybe if we lived in a different community, I would feel differently about it.”
As his mother and a woman who takes on various roles, I hope he discovers the joy of friendships with people of all kinds and experiences the beauty and insight such diversity brings to our world.
I know he will and his journey is just beginning.
If you are a friend, ally or family member of someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, visit PFLAG to discover groups and activities that help build and strengthen this community.
If you are or know someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and in crisis or in need of a compassionate listener, call the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline at 1.888.843.4564.
On Thursdays I share a blog about a day in the actual life of a single parent. Every fourth Thursday, instead of a personal post, I put together one where I assemble news on and about single parents nationally and globally.
I would love to hear from you! Feel free to send any comments and questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am also on Twitter @parentsonurown and can be found by searching #singleparentandstrong.