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Through His Eyes – The New York Times

Through His Eyes – The New York Times


My son Oliver came out to me a year and a half ago. He was 13 years old.

He was unloading the dishwasher, his least favorite chore, and I was folding laundry, my least favorite chore.

“Mom, I’m gay,” he said.

“That’s nice,” I said. “Gay people can unload the dishwasher, too.”

We both laughed.

Sometime later I thanked him for telling me, although I already knew.

You want a rainbow T-shirt? No problem. You want to go as Apple Bloom from My Little Pony for Halloween? Great, let me get a pattern and figure it out (although next time please pick something less complex).

I never asked or pried. He is the hero in his own journey, and I did not want to control his narrative. I just did my best to be loving and open.

How did I feel when he came out? It was a bit like finding there was an unopened birthday gift that had been hidden under a couch for years. Learning something new about your child means there is something else to love. It is truly a gift.

Finding out that Oliver is gay was no different than finding out my other son is obsessed with “The Lord of the Rings.” To me it was both big and no big deal.

Later I had a fleeting thought about not having grandchildren, and then reminded myself that there was always adoption or assisted reproduction technologies. And how no one knows if her heterosexual child will grow up to want children or struggle one day with infertility.

I also reminded myself that this wasn’t about me.

Oliver’s love for the L.G.B.T.Q. community is something to behold. (For any reader wondering, the Q can stand for either “queer” or “questioning.”) He is so proud of being gay that I struggle to think of a personal trait that makes me similarly proud. Naïvely, I didn’t worry much about the impact of his coming out because we live in the San Francisco Bay Area. But even if we didn’t, there would be no point in trying to keep Oliver quiet.

Oliver and I speak a lot about coming out and what it means for him to be gay, thanks in large part to everyone who has come out before him. Seeing versions of himself on screen — as in the show “Glee” and, more recently, the movie “Love, Simon” — has done more to strengthen his sense of self than any conversation with me could have. The power of representation is something to behold.

So when he told me Chelsea Clinton was coming to speak at his school in early 2017 and his homework assignment was to write a question he would ask her if given the chance, I suggested he talk about his concerns with the Trump administration — including the fact that many cabinet positions had, by that point, gone to people with a history of opposing L.G.B.T.Q. rights, like Jeff Sessions and Dr. Ben Carson.

I also suggested he ask about what it was like for Ms. Clinton to work for her mother, or who cleaned Socks’s litter box at the White House. Like most parent-child homework interactions, each suggestion was met with a sour expression, and that was that.

Or so I thought.

I reassured myself that even if he did write a question about being gay, he was already out to all of his friends, and only 20 children in a middle school of hundreds would get a chance to actually ask their question. The odds he would be picked seemed small.

Small, but not zero.

And that’s how Oliver, age 13, stood up in front of his whole middle school and said, “I’m gay.” He also said that he worried about the impact President Trump’s policies would have on kids like him, and what should he do?

Later, when he told me about the experience, I was simultaneously bursting with pride and shaking with fear. He was, too, and consequently has no memory of the hour or so that followed (including Ms. Clinton’s answer, other than that it was brief).

The feedback was initially all positive. Teachers, parents and peers spoke of his bravery. But it has not all been a woke sitcom in the year since he asked his question.

I hear about kids who still can’t come out. I also hear about gay slurs and jokes on his school grounds and elsewhere (“that’s so gay” as a put-down is a common one), primarily from boys and usually when they are in groups of two or more. These words cut Oliver deeply. It’s never “just a joke” to a gay teenager in middle school.

I’ve been so steeped in the bracing emotions of a young teenager on the verge of manhood that I feel as if I am in a version of the movie “Freaky Friday.” I see the pain inflicted by taunts and prejudice as if I were him.

I’m ashamed that it took him opening my eyes to notice how often people fling insults, and to understand how much they hurt. There are the sophomoric jokes about gay sex by comedians (Jimmy Kimmel, who recently called Sean Hannity “a bottom” on Twitter, and Chelsea Handler, who said the same of Jeff Sessions; Mr. Kimmel later apologized). There are harsh slurs. And there is the constant, casual assumption that Oliver has a girlfriend.

Increasing societal acceptance has led to more children coming out at younger ages, but developmentally, young adolescence is a unique time for peer influence. Coming out is associated with improved mental health for L.G.B.T.Q. children, but they also face social exclusion, stigmatization and bullying, because early adolescence is also a time of greater prejudice and homophobic behavior.

Many children — gay or straight — are bullied in middle school and high school. But L.G.B.T.Q. kids experience far higher rates of victimization than their heterosexual peers and they suffer more for it, with higher rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide.

What happens at this developmental time is more likely to have a lasting effect, and not just for the gay kids, but also for their bullies. Middle school adolescents who engage in homophobic name-calling, some research indicates, are more likely to engage in sexual harassment in high school. Bullies, it seems, may cut their teeth on gay kids.

It is possible to change things. Studies tell us that schools that have a Gay Straight Alliance and other policies aimed at fostering a safer environment for L.G.B.T.Q. kids not only reduce the bullying of L.G.B.T.Q. kids, but also reduce sexual prejudice among heterosexual students and experience a reduction in risky behavior (such as unsafe sex, smoking and alcohol consumption) for all students. Working to make things better for gay kids helps all kids.

It is our job to create the best possible environment for L.G.B.T.Q. kids. While Oliver and his peers work to make their school a more welcoming place for gay youth, some Trump administration policies, like the ban on transgender individuals in the military, have confirmed fears that Oliver shared with Ms. Clinton. The newly created Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, an oversight entity within the Department of Health and Human Services, could lead to denial of health care services for L.G.B.T.Q. people.

It is not surprising to me, then, that there are reports of increased bullying of L.G.B.T.Q. youth since the 2016 election. I also suspect that it is not limited to youth. Legalizing prejudice and intolerance comes with ugly consequences.

Oliver has been pressing me for some time to write about his experiences and his advocacy. I have wondered if he is too young — he is not quite 15 now — and yet I was 16 when I first jumped onto my 10-speed bike and rode to picket in support of the first free-standing abortion clinic in my hometown. I have also been impressed with the amazing teenagers and children who have spoken publicly about the ravages of gun violence.

“Why don’t you think jokes about heterosexual sex are bad?” I asked Oliver.

“Oh come on,” he said with an epic eye roll. “You straights have everything. I just want the air around me to be friendly.”

Straight privilege does impose a stunningly narrow set of blinders. Recently Oliver was given an assignment that involved getting a shoe from the teacher. The task was for the student to wear the shoe for a little while and then write a story from the perspective of the person he imagined wearing it.

He was given a pair of high heels, and his essay was about the life of the drag queen he envisioned walking in them.

Dr. Jen Gunter is an obstetrician and gynecologist practicing in California. The Cycle, a column on health and sexuality, appears regularly in Styles.



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