Children and I don’t really mix well. When they’re near me, when I bear even the remotest responsibility for them, I’m terrified they’ll get hurt. My anxiety makes me an awful guardian. My little sister has the scar on her forehead to prove it.
With that understanding, you can imagine how nervous I am, as my partner and I play host to his younger brother, sister-in-law, and their three kids, 5, 7 and 9 (and a half, I should note, as this seems to carry some weight with the younger set). They run into things. They bump themselves. They bruise. They cry. There are children’s bandages and designated times for specific medicines. I’m terrified.
My terror in childish circumstances is nothing new. I could anticipate it. What I did not anticipate was the meager cultural support these young parents get when it comes to the gay thing. I’d never really thought about it.
These particular parents, my de facto in-laws, are public-school teachers. Both have multiple gay siblings. And both seem relatively liberal. Explaining my relationship with Uncle Nando to the kids, however, seems like some tricky shit. This is no thanks to the sorts of parents who are up in arms over books like Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three children’s nonfiction tale of gay penguins. Granted, those socially conservative parents at whom I wag my finger probably have no problem with that particular book now that one of the featured penguins seems to have joined the “ex-gay” camp.
Still, my in-laws have their work cut out for them with everything from trying to keep their kids from mimicking Lady Gaga’s anthem about riding “disco sticks” to managing time-outs. They've got their hands full. Explaining that girls sometimes love girls and boys sometimes love boys has taken a backseat to worrying about everything else parents worry about. But when they do think about it, the primary concern seems to be whether or not their kids might be bullied for having gay relatives, or whether they’ll be confused when some other kid calls something “gay.”
Watching Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs with this crew during their visit, I was made aware of just how alone parents are in their task of promoting diversity. On one hand, this was a pretty good movie in that it promoted “chosen family” as well as the traditional kind. There was even a gay joke for the grownups about how one character knew an oversized butterfly when he was a caterpillar, “before he came out.”
On the other hand, I’m at a loss trying to think of any gay-leaning characters offered for children’s mass consumption. Screens are filled with princes saving princesses, and male aliens, bugs, monsters, etc., falling for female aliens, bugs, monsters, etc. Would it be too much for Ice Age’s saber-toothed Diego to nuzzle up to another male tiger in some minor plotline? Would that be box-office poison?
When it comes to children’s fare, even interracial relationships are largely taboo. I thought I was terrified of children getting damaged, but Hollywood seems far more cautious. But what is everyone afraid of?
I’ve heard the arguments from parents bemoaning – to the point of lawsuits – that their children were “exposed” to sex education in the form of the children’s book King & King by Linda De Haan. Obviously, these parents are trying to either protect themselves from an awkward moment of having to explain that, yes, sometimes boys like boys, or they’re trying to insulate their children from reality long enough to indoctrinate them into whatever sociopolitical viewpoint they prefer before differing viewpoints might corrupt them.
With what’s on offer in children’s entertainment, those right-wing parents should have a fairly easy time of it. From Sleeping Beauty to WALL*E, their limited worldview is reinforced over and over again. Perhaps that’s why the notion of same-sex romance or affection aimed at children is so distasteful to them. But it’s hardly sex ed. Leslea Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies has nothing to do with STDs or how to use a condom (or a dental dam, for that matter). All it conveys is a loving family, one that is far more grounded in reality than the inter-species-yet-hetero Little Mermaid.
I don’t expect to ever see an animated Disney 3-D imagining of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with peacock drag queens and dingo roughnecks, but I would hope a little more gay might creep into our children’s popular entertainment at some point. Not hanging out with the playground crowd, I just didn’t realize till know how revolutionary that could be. It’s easily on the same tier as gays serving openly in the military or adopting. These are the boogiemen that come knocking on the door of the right-wing’s Potemkin village wherein the nuclear family is thriving and WASPy, there is a golden lab in the backyard, Bud and Kathy have washed up for supper and there will be prayers before bed. It’s a cardboard backdrop incompatible with reality, where gay people serve and die defending your freedoms, have children and maybe even move in next door.
And as distasteful as it may seem to the parents of that magical fairyland, when their own kids – as they’re bound to do every once in a while – come out, they too will wish that Diego had a boyfriend. If only they knew how much easier a little acknowledgement of that nature would make their lives when the cardboard walls come tumbling down.
Will O'Bryan, Metro Weekly's managing editor, was born as the Stonewall Riots ended, making him a Stonewall Baby, he insists.