We were having dinner on the screened porch overlooking the lake. Our nephew and niece had invited their best friends to spend a few days with us at the lodge. The children of both couples are also best friends. They were sitting nearby at their own table.
One parent speculated that their not yet 9-year-old son would end up marrying my grandniece, who is not yet seven. Another parent suggested that my grandnephew would end up marrying their daughter.
“What about one of the boys marrying another boy?” asked Ray. After a little, awkward laughter, there was a recognition that Ray was right. They were assuming their children were straight.
Our nephew grew up with out and proud gay uncles. His liberal wife and he asked me to baptize their three children. They speak up on our behalf at parties with conservative neighbors and friends. I trust them totally. And yet, they’re just a wee bit heterosexist. The good news is they admit it.
“We thought a lot about what happened last night in our conversation,” my nephew said. “It was totally heterosexist.” His friends agreed.
Heterosexism is not just the assumption of heterosexuality in another, it is a value that heterosexuality is to be preferred. Yes, one’s child might be gay, but let’s hope, for the sake of the child, that they’re not.
That attitude is easily understood. My mother cried when I came out nearly 50 years ago because she knew, as she said, that the world was going to be horrible to me, and there was nothing she could do to protect me. But, heterosexism, like racism and sexism, is based upon the false and dangerous assumption that one attraction, race, or sex is better than the other. Better for whom, and for what?
“What if everyone was gay? The human race would end.” I got that question more often than you might imagine when I spoke on college campuses in the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s a silly question because orientation isn’t a choice, and the percentage of homosexuals in a population seems to be consistent cross-culturally. Also, gay people can produce children through sperm and egg donation. The question is a distraction from the point. What’s so bad about being gay, or being lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer?
As is true with “Black Lives Matter,” the point of Gay Pride is that there is no reason to be anything but proud about being gay because it is nature’s or God’s intention. I am a magnificent manifestation of the universe, which is love in every consensual, non-exploitative form. As a gay man, I have gifts I would less likely have as a straight man. My love for, and from, Ray is as deep, strong, committed, life-giving, sacrificial, and natural as that of any heterosexual.
Parents should not only allow for the fact that their child might be gay, but be happy if that were true. Children need to know that their parents value gay relationships as equal to straight relationships. Both, or neither, might produce grandchildren, and both, or neither might be a blessing to the parents.
If children only see and hear gay relationships affirmed in the presence of gay people, they will not trust the sincerity or depth of their parent’s feelings about being gay. Ray’s and my grandnieces and grandnephews experience love, joy, laughter, and deep caring when they’re with us. When they’re not with us, they hear their parents speak with a deep love for us, without qualification. But, that doesn’t mean they trust their parents will be pleased if they come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer.
The same is true of race. One of my best friends in grade school had very liberal parents who treated black people with respect and kindness. They would be livid if anyone suggested to them that they were racist. And yet, when my friend fell in love with a woman who was Black, his parents refused to go to the wedding, and forbid his siblings from attending.
If the children at dinner on the screened porch were listening to their parents discuss who might marry whom, they initially would have had reinforced that heterosexuality was preferred. But if they listened long enough, they would have heard their gay uncles speak up, and their parents acknowledge that, yes, one of their children might be gay, and that would be just fine. Furthermore, if the next night they listened in too, they would have heard their parents acknowledge that it was totally heterosexist of them to make assumptions, and to speak in such limited terms.
The burden is on all of us to speak up kindly but strongly, as LGBT people, and as our allies, that being straight is the norm, but not the preferred status. It may be probable that a child is straight, but that makes it no more likely that the child will be happy, and end up in a healthy, loving relationship.
Listen up. Being gay can be an amazing, totally fulfilling life experience. If you tell me you’re gay, I’m very happy for you. Your parents may or may not come to your wedding, but that’s about them and their heterosexism, not about you.
Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at Brian-McNaught.com. The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training."