How young is too young to talk about gays?
Those who know me well know that I occasionally do freelance admin work for a man who runs his own business (a legal consulting firm) from his house. The setup is nice: I go in whenever my schedule allows it and organise the crap out of his office, calculate his expenses, pack away his old files, etc., and then invoice him at the end of the month. Sometimes, when my weekdays are especially busy with other temp work (an actor has to eat), the weekends are my only opportunity to stop in.
One particular Saturday, when my work kept me late into the evening, George and his wife Jessica informed me that they would be hosting some neighbours for an indoor cookout and also to watch some big important match or something on telly. I said that it was fine, as I’d be tucked away in the office upstairs, and maybe I’d join them for a burger once I was finished. So I got to work, sat at the computer clicking away with my iPhone plugged in and playing music to keep me focused. Jessica, in her perpetual franticness, popped her head in the doorway at one point and said, “Would you like a glass of wine? White or red?” I said I’d have white please.
As the neighbours arrived, so did their kids, and some time later, the small group of them decided to play hide and seek. And of course, when you’re playing hide and seek, the entire house is your playground. When they finally made it up to the office, I pointed out a few good places to hide and there they sat waiting for their seeker. Meanwhile my iPhone played on; by then I had moved on to YouTube to play songs I didn’t have in my library.
“Why do you watch the videos?” said one girl who must have been about six.
“Because I like them,” I replied.
“I saw a music video once. They were kissing,” she said, horrified.
“I know. They do that sometimes.”
When they were eventually found and dragged out, one of the boys, probably 8 or so, instead of running back downstairs, made a beeline for my phone and helped himself to it. “Is this an iPhone?” he said, and then, without waiting for approval, added, “What games do you have?” Thankfully it was plugged in and charging; otherwise I would have grabbed it back from him for fear of him walking off with it. Instead I told him I had loads of games and allowed him to switch off YouTube and flick through my apps; after all, people have inspected my phone in such a fashion before, and knew better than to keep incriminating or embarrassing material on it.
Well, except for that photo I use for the background of my home page: a mostly naked male model, well-built and well-groomed, and in an ever-so-slightly sexual pose. The idea was that I would see it every time I used my phone and remind myself that I’m actively trying to eat healthy and get fit (and then put the chocolate back). I hadn’t exactly forgotten about it, but in that moment it didn’t cross me as something shameful. Most of my friends wouldn’t bat an eyelid (well, maybe they’d raise an eyebrow), but then most of my friends are not 8-year-old boys.
He hadn’t even noticed it until he flicked all the way to the last page, where there were minimal screen obstructions and you could pretty much see everything. “Who’s that?”
Oops. Maybe it was that I didn’t want to take the time to explain my psychological encouragement to get fit, or perhaps it was that large glass of wine on a near-empty stomach, but what I ended up saying was, “Oh, he’s … that’s my boyfriend.”
By then, his sister, who was maybe 10 or 11, had returned to collect her sibling. It was she who piped up then. “You have a boyfriend?” she shouted, more astonished and incredulous than curious.
I responded simply with “Yup,” and then she came over to have a look. They studied the photo for a few seconds when the girl said, “What’s his name?”
I couldn’t think of a fake name fast enough, so I just said, “Richard.” I was on the verge of taking it back and saying, “Okay that’s enough,” when the boy, already bored, started flicking back through the pages, looking for more games.
The girl looked back at me. “Why do you have a boyfriend?”
“I just do. Some boys have boyfriends.”
“Do you love him?”
“Of course I do.”
“But that’s weird.”
“No it’s not. It’s perfectly normal. Why would it be weird?”
“It would be fine if you had a girlfriend. You can have a boyfriend or a girlfriend; it doesn’t matter.”
I must have started to go over her heard at that point because she redirected the attention back to her brother. “Isaac has a girlfriend. Her name’s Katie.”
“Well that’s perfectly normal, too,” I said.
Isaac, either not listening or not caring, said, “This is an iPhone 4.”
“No it’s not,” I said. “It’s a 4S.”
“Nuh-uh, if it was a 4S it would have Siri.”
“It does have Siri.”
“No it doesn’t.”
So I took the phone from him and showcased the 4S by holding down the home button and asking, “What time is it?” when Siri popped up.
Isaac took the phone back, activated Siri again and said, “Call … my boyfriend!”
The two of them laughed out loud at that and I thought it was harmless, but after a few minutes, somehow Isaac was able to find Richard in my address book and then attach the label “my boyfriend” to him. (Man, kids and technology nowadays!) It actually started to call him when I finally snatched the phone back and said, “Okay that’s it! Out of the office!”
“I’m gonna tell everyone that you have a boyfriend!” the sister threatened with a big, fat, mischievous grin on her face.
“I don’t care,” I teased back rather childishly. “It’s not a secret.”
Not convinced by my answer, she ran down the stairs and ducked into a bedroom. I took my empty wine glass into the kitchen, where Jessica promptly refilled it. I was chatting with some of the other adults for only a minute or so before the girl ran in and shouted to everyone, “Jonathon has a boyfriend! He has a picture of him on his phone!”
If I’m completely honest I’m sure I reddened a little, but no one seemed to have noticed. The woman who was speaking didn’t even allow the girl to interrupt her speech. A man who must have been her dad turned to her and said, “Yes, yes, Abby, now go play.” He shooed her away and turned right back to the conversation, not giving her outburst a second thought.
And that was it. She ran off and went back to playing with the other children, and I finished my work there for the day (and had a lovely lamb burger and some grilled Halloumi cheese). Afterwards part of me wondered if being honest about my sexuality to an 8-year-old was appropriate, but then I thought, why not? If they are old enough to have girlfriends, then they are old enough to understand that some people are gay.
I’m glad Abby’s father dismissed his child’s apparent revelation of a scandal as mere silliness. But obviously at some point Abby learned that if boys love boys (or if girls love girls), then that’s weird. Or perhaps she had never considered that kind of situation before. But either way, maybe it’s important to be prepared to have a brief discussion with children about that when they’re ready.
Parents shy away from discussions like this because they don’t like to think of their children (or any children) as sexual beings. But why aren’t they? Humans are sexual beings, and children are humans. We don’t think it’s weird when hordes of screaming prepubescent girls chase One Direction down the street (though maybe we should – that’s a bad example), or when a boy and a girl play at a pretend wedding. So why is there a discrepancy with gays? We don’t think twice about straight behaviour. I think it comes from an underlying subconscious prejudice that some of us have that still equates “straight” with “normal”.
So how young is too young to talk about homosexuality? The simple answer is that it’s the same age you feel it’s too young to talk about sexuality in general. Why make it a different topic? Perhaps the six-year-old girl was horrified by the thought of kissing because she innocently didn’t understand it. But the fact that she even saw it means she’s already slowly being introduced to a world with sex in it. Wouldn’t you rather your child grow into an adult with a healthy attitude towards sex? They won’t become that by only paying attention to the media.
I get really annoyed at adults who say things like, “I can’t tell my teenage children about gay people; they just wouldn’t understand.” Why not? Why is it such a difficult thing to explain? When adults make homosexuality a taboo subject, children interpret that to mean it is something shameful. And if they’re being taught those sorts of things while growing up, it will be harder to convince them otherwise once they’re adults.
Kids are learning machines and they are naturally inquisitive and they will ask questions. So when they do, let’s just answer them honestly. It shouldn’t have to be weird at all.
[some details that are irrelevant to the story (e.g. people’s names) have been changed to protect you from the wrath of my invisible pink unicorn]