For the past seven years I have been a volunteer mentor for a nonprofit organization that matches kids in need with positive role models. We hang out, see movies, eat a lot, have some laughs and otherwise do things that they would not normally have a chance to do. Without question, it is the best thing I do with my life.
I have recently started mentoring my second kid. He is 8. I'll call him "Sam."
On our third outing together he asked me if I had any sons.
"Nope, no kids of my own," I said.
"Are you married?" he asked.
"What's your wife's name?"
"I don't have a wife." By the look of bewilderment on his face, I knew that this conversation had the potential to get very messy very quickly. But he pressed me, so I told him the truth: "I'm not married to a woman."
"Come on," he said. "You're joking."
"Nope. I'm married to a man."
"But... that's gay!"
"Yup. And what's wrong with that?"
I have to admit that I thought about lying to him. It would have been easy to say that I was not married and let that be the end of it; however, in that moment of truth, I decided to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.
I have been married for five years, and I live in a country where marriage between same-sex partners has been legal since 2005. I live in a progressive city where gay culture and gay couples are commonplace. My husband and I have nothing to hide; our tiny condo doesn't even have closets. Admittedly, I do not have to deal with these types of questions very often.
I was surprised that the impulse to lie to Sam came up at all. What was I afraid of? Was I worried about being judged by an 8-year-old? Was this even an appropriate conversation to be having with someone so young?
The truth is that it is deeper than that. I was (and am) worried about people thinking that I am a pedophile. It is sad, but it is true. The perceptions that are out there are unkind. Some uninformed people would wonder why would an over-40 gay man want to spend his time with a preadolescent boy unless his motives were sinister. This myth is part of a much larger issue wherein marginalized minority groups are portrayed as a threat to dominant society's most vulnerable members. The right-wing, fundamentalist nut jobs of the world have done a terrifyingly effective job of attaching the "pedophile" label to gay men, even though the facts do not bear this out.
The reality is that gay men are no more likely to molest a child than a straight man is. Moreover, gay men are often more socially conscious than their heterosexual counterparts, tend to volunteer or donate their time more readily and tend to have more disposable income, so what better group of people to help mentor and educate our youth?
Ultimately, I told the truth, because dishonesty would have implied that there is something wrong with me being married to a man, and that simply is not true. As far as Sam being too young to discuss such matters, I believe that kids ask questions when they are ready for answers. If he were not ready, he would not have asked.
The next time we got together, he brought it up again. "Are you married?" he asked.
"Um, we talked about this," I said. "I told you that I'm married... to a man."
"Oh," he said. After a pause, he asked, "Do you know what 'homo' is?"
"Yes. I know what 'homo' is."
"I hate homos."
Right to my face. Understandably, I was stunned. After taking several deep breaths, I told him that that was too bad. "Unfortunately, Sam, we're not going to be able to hang around together anymore."
"Because what you just said to me was rude. You have some ideas that have been put into your head that are offensive and untrue. It's not OK to say those sorts of things."
"I'm glad that you're sorry, but we're going to have to find you somebody else."
We rode the rest of the way home in awkward silence. As far as I was concerned, Sam and I were finished.
I explained everything to the program's coordinator the following day. She assured me that I had the organization's full support, "whatever decision I made:"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Either way: if you decide to part ways or keep seeing him," she clarified.
"Keep seeing him?"
"Well, sure. Maybe it's a learning opportunity."
After a long pause, I asked, "For him or for me?"
My initial anger has given way to a tentative willingness to continue on as Sam's mentor. Perhaps he is just regurgitating some vile tripe that he has heard at school and does not fully understand what he is repeating. Eight-year-olds say a lot of crazy things without thinking about the consequences. If it is coming from home and they all "hate homos," then my decision will be a very easy one. This could be an opportunity to teach him about the "real world" and the fact that we need to respect others and accept that people come in a lot of different packages. Maybe I am just what Sam needs.
And perhaps this is a wakeup call for me, as well. I realize now that I live in a bit of a bubble. I read a lot, watch the news and keep my finger on the pulse, but maybe I am missing something important. I see the world changing. I see that LGBT people are on the right side of history, and that equality and acceptance are happening quickly, but it could be that I have let down my guard a bit. Have I become comfortable and complacent in a fight that requires vigilance and resolve? Maybe Sam is just what I need too.