Modern Family

The brave new world of gay and lesbian parenting

Homophobia Unwrapped

The mistake of whitewashing homophobia

When our son, Shawn, was seven, one of his school pals — I'll call him Dave — suddenly became less available for weekend play dates. We took no notice at first: kids have busy schedules, multiple friends, parents can't always chauffeur, etc. But when Dave went missing for more than four weeks, we started wondering.

It didn't take very long to connect the dots: around the time of the boys' last play date, I'd had a first "getting to know you" chat with Dave's mother, more than the quick smiles and hand waves we'd been exchanging through the car window when the boys came and went. During that chat, I disclosed that we were a two-dad family. Dave's mother was visibly taken aback.

It was after that encounter that Dave became unavailable for play dates.

Some months later, Shawn was the only one of a circle of friends not included in the following season's soccer team assignment. Why was he left out, we wondered? Then we learned that Dave's father was the coach of next season's team. First play dates, now soccer. There seemed a pattern.

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Here's the question: When we parents suspect that homophobia might be at play in our children's lives, should we talk about it with our kids? Should we share our suspicions, despite the fact that homophobia can be difficult to pin down. Without clear evidence, our suspicions are nothing more than suspicions. Many parents I know prefer not to share with the kids such speculations; what if we're wrong? Other parents (and I include myself in this group) believe that understanding homophobia and knowing how to talk about it without demonizing the homophobe arms our children with the concepts and language they need to move through life feeling confident and empowered.

After so many years, I don't remember if we spoke with Shawn about our suspicions of Dave's parents. If we did, I hope it sounded something like this:

"Dave hasn't called you lately, not since I chatted with his mom about our family. She didn't know you have two dads, and seemed surprised when I told her. I wonder if Dave stopped phoning because his parents aren't comfortable knowing we're a family with gay dads. There are many people, as you know, who don't like the idea of two men, or two women, living together as a family and raising children. It's a prejudice called homophobia. I don't know if Dave's parents have that prejudice, but if they do, I'd feel sad to know their prejudice is getting in the way of you and Dave playing together."

Prejudice won't vanish because we wear blinders in the face of it, and avoid talking about it. Our silence often seeks to shield our kids (and ourselves) from the difficult feelings that may stir when we broach the topic — feelings like sadness, upset, anger, embarrassment and perhaps even shame. Yes, those feelings may stir, but the trade-off is in how we empower our children when we speak truthfully to them about an aspect of society that's likely to affect their lives. The conversation demonstrates that there's nothing to fear, nothing to feel shame about, and that the "problem" isn't within us, but in the narrow-minded prejudice of others.

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

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