“Another child victim of biological engineering!” An anti-gay protestor shouted this at my then four-year-old son K-bird and me, as we were walking up the stairs into the California Supreme Court building in San Francisco, heading to one of the many Proposition 8-related hearings.
In the reflections on the glass doors in front of us, I watched K-bird look back at the man holding his “God Hates Fags” sign. I gave a silent prayer of thanks that B-man, my older son who could read, was at that moment nestled safely in his kindergarten classroom. “What did he say?” K-bird asked.
Crossing the threshold into the building, I whispered, “We’re going to ignore that man.”
“Why?” K-bird turned to me with a genuine look of confusion on his face. I mean, how often do I tell him to ignore a grown-up?
“Because he isn’t making good choices.”
“What do you mean?” K-bird continued, as I laid my messenger bag down on the security checkpoint’s conveyor belt.
Before I could answer, he pointed to the machine scanning my bag and asked, “What’s that?”
Dodged that conversation, I thought.
But nearly two years later, when we’re talking yet again about Proposition 8’s agonizingly slow progress through the court system, K-bird asks, “Remember when we went to the White House and that man yelled ‘You’re bad’?”
Okay, yes, his details are totally off, but the sentiment: dead on. I know exactly what he’s talking about.
So here we are at the kitchen table, on the cusp of a conversation I thought I had avoided. And here I am, once again, wanting to escape the conversation.
What’s with this desire to escape? It’s not like this is the first time we’ve talked about homophobia. I mean, our entire family history has been set against a backdrop of California’s marriage equality movement. For as long as our kiddos have been aware of their surroundings, my wife Tracie and I have been talking to them about LGBT politics.
But while I’m used to translating news stories into terms my kids can grasp, there’s a significant difference between me describing something that’s happening out there, say amongst a group of politicians, and my kid wanting to talk about something that happened to him, like a Repent America protestor spewing hate in his general direction.
Before having kids, I had developed the thickened skin of a seasoned activist. No matter how personal an issue, I could tuck my vulnerability away and stand up, She-Ra-Princess-of-Power-Style, to fight for justice. But things changed when I became a mom.
Case in point: my oldest son’s participation in his first marriage equality action, circa 2005. Along with dozens of members of LGBT organizations, Tracie, baby B-man and I had traveled to then Governor Schwarzenegger’s San Francisco office, towing several red wagons full of postcards asking him to sign a bill that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. (Historical side note: Arnold vetoed said bill.)
Though Arnold himself wasn’t in town that day, a representative from his office met with our group and asked us if anyone would like to speak. Always game, I raised my hand, intending to deliver a line about how Tracie and I had the same hopes and dreams for our son as every other parent on our block, but we did not have the same rights. Halfway through my sentence, though, something unprecedented happened: I burst into tears.
What the hell?
At first, this waterfall of feeling embarrassed me. I mean, I’d kinda built a reputation for dropping well-reasoned, camera-ready sound bites in a calm and steady tone. And now this? But as my tears continued to flow through every other heart-rending speech I heard that day, I snuggled B-man against my chest, stroked his silk-fine hair and realized what a gift it was to peel off my thickened skin and feel the truth of the moment: being treated like a second-class citizen hurts.
That day it became clear to me that while I’d gotten really good at playing the role of the impervious activist, I hadn’t actually bypassed the very personal pain caused by homophobia. I had buried it. As a childless adult, I had gotten away with ignoring my pain until it bubbled up in the form of an inexplicable cranky attitude, a mind-dulling headache, or flare-ups of stinging sarcasm. But as a parent, I need regular access to my most patient, heart-felt, healthy, mindful self. And in order to access that self, I need to embrace my vulnerability.
Before my kids showed up, I had one defense against homophobia: depersonalize it. When a protester spits at you on your way to your wedding, when a pastor makes headlines by saying you should be rounded up behind a fence and left for dead, when a campaign ad suggests your very presence is a danger to children: remember, that hatred is about them, not you.
But my kids have taught me an equally important skill: acknowledge your feelings. That whole sticks-and-stones-may-break-my-bones schtick is a crock. Words hurt. Discriminatory laws hurt. Being the target of someone’s hate hurts, even when you know what they’re saying about you isn’t true.
Ultimately, ignoring that hurt doesn’t defend me against homophobia; it defends me against my own feelings. Last time I checked, “ignore feelings” wasn’t on the list of best practices for mindful living.
So as my family progresses across the choppy emotional sea of social change, though I still face resistance every time I meet up with pain, instead of ignoring the hurt, I’m trying to make space for it. Which is exactly what Mr. K-bird is challenging me to do here, staring into my soul with his giant hazel eyes.
“Remember that guy,” K-bird asks again, “with the really big sign?”
“Yeah sweetie, I remember him,” I say. And then I wave away that pesky resistance to pain and jump in: “How did you feel about that?”
This post was featured on Schmutzie’s “Five Star Friday” on March 1, 2013.