When I was growing up, the first sport I wanted to play was softball. My friend, who lived next door to me, played, and pangs of jealousy ran through my body every time she talked about her games. I remember one spring I begged my mother to sign me up for the softball team, but she said she wouldn’t because the coach was a “d--e.” Mind you, I was about 8 years old when she told me that.
“D--e,” “b--ldagger,” “l--bo” and “f--” were some of the terms I heard in my “Christian” household. To this day, I still don’t know from where “b--ldagger” originates, but it was my grandmother’s term for lesbians. I didn’t realize the softball coach was a lesbian until my mother told me. I was never to go near her, even though she was always outside playing with the other kids.
So here I was, the kid who wasn’t allowed to join the softball team because the coach was gay. I felt like the outsider. At that age, I did what I was told. So there was no softball for me.
It’s said that racism is taught from childhood, and I think the same can be said about homophobia. Recent comments on an article posted on The Root about having more gay couples on television brought back a lot of memories from my own childhood. There were plenty of “not in my house” or “why are you forcing gayness on us?” comments. I shuddered to think what these people were actually teaching their kids about gay people. Were they teaching them that they’re an abomination, or were they teaching that gay people should be treated no differently from everyone else? Unfortunately, if I were to assume anything, it would be the former.
The negative words and hatred I learned at home became a part of my life. I treated gay people as if they were lepers when I was a kid, and it wasn’t discouraged. But then I learned in seventh grade that my words and actions weren’t OK.
I had a friend who had two mothers. But at the time, I didn’t realize it. When they would come to pick her up from school, I always assumed one was the mother and the other was an aunt. It never dawned on me that they were actually a couple.
That was until I spent a Saturday at their house. My friend and I were playing in the living room, and I excused myself to get a cup of water. As I walked into the kitchen, I saw her mother kissing the woman who I had assumed was my friend’s aunt. I gasped and ran out.
I asked my friend did she know her mother was a l--bo. I used that exact word. My friend yelled at me. When the adults heard the commotion, they walked into the living room and looked at me as if the world were about to end.
My friend’s mothers talked to me that evening and made sure I knew that that word wasn’t allowed in their home. They explained to me that, although they weren’t legally married, they did consider themselves “wives.” I asked my friend why she never told anyone she had two mothers, and her response was that she didn’t think it was a big deal.
After our talk, the mothers asked if my feelings for them had changed, and I told them that they hadn’t. It was from that day on that I realized homosexuality wasn’t something that should be shamed or ridiculed. Unfortunately I had to learn it from people who were not in my family.
Several years later, after I graduated from high school, I did something that wasn’t widely accepted in my family. I shaved my hair completely off. It was my freshman year in college, and the humid New Jersey heat got to me. I walked into the barber and told him to cut it. He looked at my back-length hair and thought I was crazy. But I needed a change.
After some convincing, he eventually obliged and took the clippers and went for it. That weekend I took the train home, and my first stop was my grandmother’s house. Instead of greeting me with a hug, she greeted me with, “Are you turning into one of those lesbian things?” she asked. It was at that point that I realized I had grown up with some of the most homophobic people I’d ever met.
When I look back on the negative comments and names about gay people I heard as a child, deep down inside I knew that they were wrong. But being a kid and not having a voice about certain subjects, I knew to keep quiet and not disobey those who were older than me. It was like a virus that spread from them to me. I didn’t understand tolerance until I realized my friend had two mothers.
How do parents begin to explain homosexuality to children, especially if they grew up in a home where homophobia was common? According to Carla Rhodes, a psychotherapist based out of Baltimore, it starts with addressing their own issues with homophobia.
“One major obstacle to addressing and lessening the effects of homophobia is that, as in the case of racism, few people will acknowledge their own homophobia. They may feel that being homophobic means being hateful, when it typically reflects attitudes passed down within the family as well as messages from the wider culture,” Rhodes says. “It is imperative that parents examine their own speech and behavior so that they may be better prepared to raise children who are less likely to espouse homophobic ideas.”
Also, Rhodes says, if you’re a parent who isn’t homophobic, one way to teach children is to be consistent in your own actions.
“For parents who have already examined and managed their own homophobia, it’s important to be up-front with children about same¬-sex intimate relationships. If Uncle Michael brings his male partner to dinner, there is no need to refer to the man as his ‘friend’ if the same doesn’t apply to Aunt Michelle and her male partner,” Rhodes says. “Explain to your children early on [when you decide to have ‘the talk’] that some people love people of the same sex. Ideally, a parent would be comfortable with acknowledging to [his or her] child that she or he may experience such feelings and that it is perfectly natural.”
In my house, I’ve taught my son to be kind to everyone, even when it’s hard. He’s being taught to stand up not only for himself but also for those who are not as strong as he is. The world desperately needs people with more tolerance, acceptance and compassion, and if it’s not taught to children when they’re young, we’re in for one messed-up world in the future.
(Yesha Callahan is editor of The Grapevine and a staff writer at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.)