When I first started volunteering to be a mentor for at risk youths, I was filled with optimism and hope. I had finally decided that my fears of being labeled a dirty old man or a predator by an unkind and unjust moral majority were no longer going to prevent me from making a difference. Their agonizingly effective campaign of linking homosexuality and pedophilia (I'm looking at you, Scott Lively and Tony Perkins) was succeeding, and I was just another victim of the lies and misinformation. I am a gay man and my interest in "little boys" pretty much begins and ends with LEGO. Oh yeah, and being a positive role model, making a difference and blah, blah, blah... where's the LEGO? I wasn't one of their monsters, so it was time to stand up and be counted.
After a thorough vetting -- which included a criminal background check, an extensive questionnaire and several interviews with my now coordinator -- I was paired with a seven-year-old boy (I'll call him Mike) who, like me, had recently lost his father. When I called his house to set up a meeting -- a "getting to know you" session -- with him and his mom, I was sent to voicemail, so I left a brief message explaining who I was, the program I was affiliated with and my contact information. Then, I waited.
Several days later, I got a call from my coordinator saying, "Something's come up," and would I please get in touch with her. It turned out that the "something" was that I was gay. An older sibling had listened to my message and dropped an off the cuff remark about, "The gay guy who wants to hang out with Mike," and panic had set in. Mike's mom, who was just as much a victim of Right Wing smear as I was, had called the offices fishing for information about me, and ultimately, about my sexual orientation. With my permission, she was told that I was gay. Upon reflection, and with some reservation, she agreed to allow the meeting to take place.
This was basically my worst fear coming to light: They think I am a child molester. I called Mike's mom and left another message in which I told her that I understood if she did not want me to be her son's mentor. I get it. I live in the same world that she does. I hear the horrible things that I am called. I told her that she had to do what she thought was in the best interest of her child, and if that wasn't having a gay, over 30, volunteer spending time alone with her seven-year-old son, then so be it. It really wasn't any of my business. She appreciated the call and told me, "I want Mike to grow up knowing that the world is filled with all sorts of people. That just because some of us are different... it shouldn't make any difference."
Still, when I met them for the first time and walked into the room, there was an audible sigh of relief. I am not the gay man portrayed in mainstream media. I am 6'2", unshaven and perpetually out of shape. I never wear a tank top or a polka dot bow tie or cropped pants with colorful shoes. I am low key, masculine and do not speak with a lisp. I am not Jack McFarlane or Rickie from My So Called Life. I must have fit their criteria -- not the kind of gay that might rub off -- because Mike and I have been hanging out ever since.
There are a lot of gay men who feel marginalized or dismissed, even by their own community, because they do not fit into our heteronormative world. Sadly, society seems more prepared to deal with me because I am sufficiently camouflaged. This may be patently unjust, but it's true. If I had been deemed "too gay," what would I have done then? Would I have collapsed back into somebody else's version of my self worth? Would I have given up completely?
Ultimately, it all worked out and far better than I had ever dreamed possible. Mike and I still hang out, eight years later, and I have become an extension of his family. He has enriched my life beyond words.
Which brings me to Sam, the second at risk kid I've mentored. You know, the one who said to me, "I hate homos." I struggled with my own fears and insecurities, but eventually decided to continue on as his mentor. It was a teachable moment, a chance for me to show him that friends don't abandon you when you say things that hurt their feelings, and perhaps even prove to him that his limited understanding of gay people was misguided.
We settled into a comfortable rhythm. He apologized for what he said, telling me, "I'm a kid, right? Sometimes kids say things that they don't mean." I gave him the benefit of the doubt, as all along I assumed he was just regurgitating some vile nonsense he had picked up on the playground and didn't really know what he was saying. We had our ups and downs, like the time he YouTubed some Smosh videos on my phone and I asked him to turn them off because they were homophobic, racist and misogynistic. After explaining what those "big words" meant, he told me that he didn't understand what the big deal was, after all they were "just videos." "Maybe so," I told him, "but I still don't want them playing in my car."
My decision to stop mentoring Sam came about after a play date with my friend and her son, who is also eight. We met at a local park, and the two boys spent the afternoon running amuck, laughing together, and having fun. When it was time to go home we decided that we would all meet up again in a few weeks for another adventure.
She called me later that night and said that maybe it was best if her son didn't spend any more time with Sam. That on their ride home, her son had asked her if I was married. She told him yes and reminded him that I was married to Jason.
"You can't say that Mommy."
"Because they're both boys."
My friend handled the situation with grace and precision. She first reminded her son that he had met Jason and I on many occasions. Then, when he agreed with her assertion that "You and Robbie always have fun together?" she asked, "So what does it matter who he is married too?" He thought about it for a moment, shrugged his shoulders and agreed that it really didn't matter. When pressed, he revealed that Sam had brought it up earlier in the day.
I do not think that Sam is a bad kid. He's just not a good kid for me. I think he has been told some nasty things about gay people and, unfortunately, those nasty things have stuck. He could have chosen to see me as friend, as someone who was generous with his time and money, but instead he chose to see me as a "homo." Instead, he chose to talk about me behind my back and tried to poison another child's mind with his ignorance. This time, I did not wrestle with my decision to end things. I went to see my coordinator, confirmed that she would find somebody else to mentor him, and walked away.
I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect -- I don't care if you are eight or 80. My duty to Sam was to keep him safe and to be a positive role model, both of which I did. I did not sign up to be abused, or to tolerate homophobia.
I truly hope Sam and his new mentor are a good fit. I hope their relationship is light and fun and free of drama, and that somewhere down the road he becomes an enlightened young man. I've done all I can do for him, but that does not mean his journey to acceptance and understanding of LGBT people is over. The optimist in me believes he will make it.
In the mean time, I am looking forward to the next few years with Mike -- girlfriends, high school, driving lessons -- Oh, Lord...what have I gotten myself into?
There are so many boys and girls in need and never enough volunteers. I encourage you to find an organization in your area and make the call. We cannot continue to let the likes of Tony Perkins and his Family Research Council, or Brian Brown and his National Organization for Marriage set the agenda and write the narrative. We are a strong community with strong leaders and we can make a difference. I can't promise you it will always be easy but I can guarantee it will change your life