There are some rites of passage that we go through as children and parents: the first lost tooth, the first day of kindergarten, the first sleepover. They go on and on. This summer we faced a different kind of milestone: Disney World.
Now, not everyone goes to Disney World; the place is hella expensive. We went to Florida on vacation this summer to visit some friends and let the kids play in the ocean, and one of the kiddos' grandparents very generously offered to pay for the kids to have a Disney adventure. I guess I should mention that I am not a Disney mom. I am not into princesses. I don't own a single piece of clothing featuring mouse ears, and I am not sad about it. The Magical Kingdom has never had much pull for me. But Disney World is one of those things that kids should get to do, right? So, we packed up the kiddos, lathered them from head to toe in sunscreen, and headed to the place that all the NFL players seem so keen to visit after winning the Super Bowl: Disney World.
The whole place is more than a little overwhelming and crazy, but the kids had a blast, and we just ran with it. One of their favorite things there was the car stunt show. It goes like this: A bunch of stunt cars race around a stage/set, and a film crew pretends they are shooting a movie. After the action, they break down all the sequences and show the kids how stunts are done. My sons ate it up. And it should have been one of those carefree parent moments. But in my head I was in total turmoil and having one of my least proud moments as a mother. And it had nothing to do with my kids. They were sitting, engaged, and being the non-monster version of themselves. No, this one was all on me.
Because this was a show all about cars, the crowd leaned more male than most of the others, with lots of dads and sons. One of these pairs was sitting right next to us. The little boy was around my oldest son's age, and they quickly befriended each other. They sat by one another, talked about how cool the show was, and asked each other silly, little-boy questions. So why was I such a mess? The man and his child were Southern, and the dad was fitted with a NASCAR baseball cap, so warning bells started going off in my head. I knew it was a stereotype, and I knew it is unfair, but I still looked at my son, sitting there and having fun with the other little boy, and thought, "Please, please, baby, do not mention you're gay."
Did I mention that I am so not proud of myself? My thoughts shocked me, even as they were forming in my head. I had never thought anything like it before. My son is who he is, and I have never wanted him to be anyone else. I am proud of him, and try I encourage him to be himself and empower him, but here I was, just a few feet away, willing him to hold part of himself back. The shame came over me instantly. What was I thinking? How dare I? What the hell?
The show ended without incident. Everyone else enjoyed themselves, and we parted ways after it was over. My son never mentioned that he was gay. And there was no reason he would have. The boys were talking about cars, not music or musicals. They asked each other about Angry Birds, not television shows. But still I sat there worrying.
A couple of days later, I finally mentioned these thoughts to my husband. I was embarrassed, but I knew it was something we had to talk about. I had realized that what I'd really felt in that situation was fear. Experience had taught me over the years that "Southern good ol' boy" often equals "homophobic." If my son mentioned he was gay, I expected to find myself in the middle of a distinctly unpleasant if not downright violent situation, in the middle of the "happiest place on Earth." We were surrounded by strangers, far from our progressive neighborhood in our Midwestern city, and I had no idea how things would go down if an altercation occurred. The thoughts I didn't want to be having were all about protecting my child. And even though it was the first time I had ever thought them, I knew it would be far from the last, because this fear is a real one.
I will always be proud of my son. I will never tell him to be dishonest about who he is and how he feels. But I have to face the cold, hard fact that in the the world we live in, hate can erupt almost anywhere.
And where does all this leave me as a mother? It makes me more thoughtful. It makes me more careful. But more than anything, it makes me angrier. Yes, I am not proud of myself and those thoughts, but I am even less proud of living in a country where I do not feel I can trust a crowd of strangers to help protect a child from being harassed for his sexuality. Would they have leapt to our defense? Maybe, but the point is that I don't know, and that uncertainty is intolerable.
But no matter how intolerable, it is an uncertainty that LGBT people live with every day. It is a threat just waiting to be realized, and one I now feel as a mother. It is real. It is every day. It is everywhere. It's why the fight for equality needs to keep moving forward, because right now, this is not a safe place to be.