You’re 7 years old, attending at school a big birthday party with all of your new friends, and their parents.
The room is decorated with bountiful balloons and colorful streamers. A huge cake sits on a big round table in the middle of the room, surrounded by beautifully wrapped gifts. Your classmates are having fun playing tag, while the adults talk and laugh. You’re very excited, especially about having your gift opened.
It’s time for presents. As each one is revealed, children and adults clap, and say how wonderful and thoughtful the gift is. “Wait until they see mine,” you think. The moment arrives. You hold your breath. Your eyes are big as you look around anxiously waiting for the approving response every other gift has received. But there is no applause, just awkward silence. You see grownups roll their eyes, or look away. No one likes your gift. You’re embarrassed, ashamed, and scared, especially when you hear the disapproving whispers of children your age.
“From now on,” you promise yourself, “I’m going to give them what everyone else gives them.”
We all have gifts to share, and hopefully within our lifetime, we learn to give them without worrying about how they’ll be received. It wasn’t until I came out as gay that I was able to confidently acknowledge myself as a gift, and it’s only been with growing older that I’ve been able to name and acclaim the other gifts I bring to the party.
For instance, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had the gift of empathy. I can sense the feelings of others. I can also communicate thoughts and feelings in ways others can understand and relate to. I’m skilled in creating balance, beauty, and feelings of serenity in a house and garden. If I go on, my deceased Irish Catholic parents will appear, and drag me off by my earlobes.
Sadly, as a 7-year-old gay boy, I knew that I couldn’t safely express myself. It wasn’t that I had the inclination to rearrange my first-grade classroom, nor to tell the nun that I could feel the fear a classmate had of her. But, I knew the characteristics of a “sissy,” so I pulled my natural exuberance tightly into my soul.
My gifts, if fully expressed, would have caused awkward silence, and rolled eyes. My empathy was described as me being a “sensitive child.” My self-confidence could be described as “little mister know-it-all,” and “quite vocal.” The adult words for boys with great imagination were “a little easily distracted,” “perhaps a bit full of himself,” “a daydreamer.” If you giggled with delight, or cried with sadness, you were “not quite like the other boys.” If that’s how your unwrapped gifts are greeted, you keep them wrapped up. “From now on, I’m going to give to them what everyone else gives them.”
What would it have been like, not just for me, but for my classmates and teachers, if I had been a kite that had been allowed to find to its optimum height, rather than be controlled on a short string? What if all of us had the freedom and encouragement to show ourselves honestly at a young age? This would require a change in the manner in which children are taught, and in how we were raised.
“Mr. McNaught, you don’t create quite the impression you think you do.” That was Sister Genovefa, SSJ, speaking to me, at age 13, in front of my seventh-grade class at Holy Family grade school in Grand Blanc, Michigan.
I was, of course, shocked, embarrassed, confused, hurt, and ashamed, even though I didn’t know what action caused me to be so publicly humiliated. The sad thing is that I clearly remember the incident 60 years later. It turned out that a visiting nun, observing in the back of the classroom, thought I was disrespectful because of my larger-than-life exuberance. The D grade I got in conduct that quarter on my report card was nowhere as effective in reigning in my high-flying kite than the reproach I got in front of my peers by an adult in religious garb.
Fortunate for me, we moved, and I went to a new Catholic school where my eighth-grade nun at Holy Name grade school in Birmingham, Michigan. Sr. Claire Marie, IHM, encouraged my “gay” enthusiasm for life. She told my mother that I was “a prince of a boy.” But I nevertheless picked up from my early-teen peers not to suck up to the nuns, not to call too much attention to myself, and not to let the feminine in me express itself. That meant, don’t be too empathetic, too sensitive, too “goody-two-shoes.”
I shared these thoughts recently with a gay male friend who was visiting for dinner. Scott nodded his affirmation and raised his hand in recognition of his childhood experiences, as did Ray. It’s not too late for us to embrace as special gifts, as “superpowers,” the abilities we still have to easily and quickly read the mood in a room of friends or strangers. To do so, though, especially for gay Baby Boomers, may require some help in unwrapping the gifts, and in celebrating them.
The more we seniors learn to identify, embrace, and toast with gratitude our unique gifts, the easier it will be for young gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people to acknowledge and use their gifts. And, the more that we older and younger LGBT people claim and use our gifts, the more likely it is that when they are unwrapped, the response from others will be cheering when they see what we are offering.
Having gifts doesn’t mean that we don’t have to practice using them, just as a person who has an ear for languages, or for music doesn’t have to practice and practice until they master their gifts. The same is true for athletes. The parents of gifted athletes didn’t usually discourage the development of those skills in their children. They normally clapped and cheered from the sidelines as they watched their offspring practice and excel.
Do you know what happened as a result of people with gifts practicing, and parents, teachers, families, and friends cheering on the use of those skills? Formerly segregated high schools and colleges started seeking out those with such talent in order to win games. When someone in the culture has a gift that someone else wants, one’s skin color, religion, economic status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression become less important to them. That’s what drives the valuing of diversity in corporations. They want the competitive edge.
We gay men have a recognized gift to make things pretty. Even the most socially conservative people seek us out to cut their hair, design their clothes, and furnish their homes. And, that’s only one part of our gifts. Admittedly, not every gay man has a good eye, but they nevertheless have innate skills, and potential abilities, that will get celebrated and practiced only when they’re encouraged to believe the gift they bring to the party is magnificent.
If we can convince each other of our superpowers, and can encourage each other to practice them, just wait and see what wonderful things happen when they open our gifts at the birthday party.
What was your gift, anyway, the one you gave at age 7, and then, because of the response from others, decided against showing it again? I’d love to receive it.
Two Guys and A Dog is a semi-regular column from Brian McNaught, who has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. Visit Brian-McNaught.com to access his books and DVDs for free. “No one has done a better job of chronicling what it is like to be gay in America.” – Former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank.