It has been over two weeks since Sam, the 8-year-old boy I mentor, told me, "I hate homos." He'd asked if I am married, so I told him the truth, explaining that I am married to a man. His reaction, and my overreaction to his reaction, left us in a state of limbo.
After careful deliberation, I have decided to continue mentoring him. Reflection and hindsight have proven to be invaluable bedfellows on my journey toward this decision; that coupled with the enormous outpouring of support that the blog post received and the time I needed to step back from the situation have made it a bit of a no-brainer. The choices became clear: Do I abandon Sam because the going got tough, or do I use this as a reachable, teachable moment?
If I abandoned him, what sort of message would that send? Would he see the correlation between what he said and my leaving? Would my departure hurt his self-esteem and confidence? Would I be sending the message that he is discardable if he says something that displeases an adult, that his voice, whether or not I agree with it, is without merit? Would I inadvertently be reinforcing whatever stereotype he has regarding "homos"? With so many questions of my own, I can only imagine what must be going through his mind.
I agree with the assertion that I did not handle this situation in the best possible way. No amount of training or experience can adequately equip you with all the skills necessary to tackle the curveballs that life throws at you. This particular curveball just happened to press a lot of my buttons, and I reacted disproportionately. My initial response came from a place of fear. I wanted to put as much distance as possible between me and the source of my frustation, even though in this case the source was an 8-year-old boy.
That is hard to admit, but it is the truth. Growing up gay in an environment that I deemed unsafe forced me to adopt some unusual survival skills. I learned to run, perfected the art of escape and became a master of disguises. I have spent a lifetime trying to unlearn these behaviors, but every now and again they rear their ugly heads. This does not make me a poor mentor; it just makes me human, fallible and still learning.
Do I wish that I had handled things differently? Of course I do. As illustrated by so many of the people who took the time to comment on my blog post, a much better response to Sam's "I hate homos" declaration would have been, "Do you hate me?" or simply, "Why?" Either redirect would have opened up the conversation for further discussion and allowed for an exploration of the origins of his words. Running away was not the answer; talking about it is.
The good news is that it is not too late. At my request, and with the help of my program coordinator, a conversation took place between Sam's mom and their family's social worker. She was shocked, a little embarrassed and very apologetic. I am confident that Sam was not repeating anything that he had heard from her. Sam has two older siblings who may or may not have been the source of that homophobic idea, but I cannot worry about them. My focus needs to be on Sam.
If this is going to be a teachable moment for him, then we are going to have to revisit the conversation. As the adult in this relationship, it is my job to address what happened and make it right. I will broach the subject calmly, from a place of compassion and understanding. It is not about making him feel bad or "less-than"; it is about offering him a different perspective.
I am nervous, partly because I want him to like me (and I see those feelings for what they are), but mainly because there is the potential, however remote, that he was telling the truth and really does "hate homos." The prospect that I might have come into his life too late to facilitate change saddens me. The idea that he could already be an opponent of LGBT people and not an ally makes me more determined than ever to procure a positive outcome. That is not to say that this has to end with me continuing on as his mentor, although that is my wish. A positive outcome may also mean that I challenge his "learned" behavior and help facilitate a change somewhere down the road or, at the very least, take a stand for LGBT people who will no longer accept intolerance.
Ultimately, I believe that Sam is a good kid. He loves soccer, LeBron James and his PS3. He is bright, inquisitive and funnier than he yet realizes, and he wants to play for the Whitecaps when he grows up. He deserves a break. I hope he is willing to give me one too.