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Speculation about whether the gunman at Pulse in Orlando was in the closet or not has led to a host of conversations, not least about the harm done to the gay children of homophobic parents. Easily available research indicates that children who feel rejected by their parents are more likely to get into trouble in school, have fewer friends and not be motivated academically.
Unsurprisingly, gay teenagers considering coming out react to the stress of possibly being stigmatised in public and/or disowned at home (or in some cases, subjected to “cures” theological, ideological and otherwise) in many ways. Studies show higher rates of suicide, depression, drug and alcohol abuse than their straight contemporaries.
While we still battle basic gender equality in binary terms and debate sex education in schools in India, we need to add talking about homosexuality with our children to the to-do list.
I’m grateful for the privilege of being a member of a social community that is pretty open-minded about most things, including homosexuality. There was always that stylish uncle who would cackle and flap his wrists with my mother when he met her, or a flamboyant hairdresser who loudly commented about how handsome my father was (rendering him fuschia-by-flattery under his handlebar moustache), the sombre aunties who both wore their hair short and lived together into their dotage, or the beautiful boy who came to church in a dress.
In my late teens, my then boyfriend’s (now husband) closest friend, E, came out to him. E and I had made an instant connection — over several things like literature, peanut butter and crackers, and country music. I would never have speculated about his sexuality, it didn’t matter to any of us really. But with that out of the way, our friendship would extend into the decades to come — he and his partner of two decades becoming “honorary aunts” to my children.
When I decided to write this piece, I asked my children what they thought about gay people. “How do you mean?” the 14-year-old asked. “Like… what do you think?” I fumbled. “What’s there to think?” she said, her 10-year-old sister piping in with an impatient, “Some people love another gender, some people love their own gender, what’s the big deal?!”
It’s no big deal to children growing up in an open environment. When I was very young, a couple’s son, K, a tall, gorgeous teenager, walked in late to a big party of close friends and family. He said he had had nothing to wear, so he had fashioned a toga out of one of his mother’s bedspreads and here he was, ta-daah…
In that very tight circle, everyone acknowledged that was K’s coming out moment. The reactions were not perfect. Overall, there was genuine, warm acceptance with, perhaps, some pockets of well-restrained surprise. I imagine that sort of gracious reaction would not have been universal for the ethnicity of the group or for that matter even the times. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 may have predated this incident by only a few years. And outside of a small, enlightened minority, social attitudes to homosexuality were still informed by disgust and accusations of deviance evoked by religious texts, ignorant proselytisation about “the natural order of things”, or just plain old lack of life experience.
Outside the positive peer pressure of K’s social circle, weeks later, a particularly indelicate middle-aged man used a colloquial Indian term for transgender. However, in retrospect, the word did not sound aggressive or derogatory, merely an embarrassed, gauche admission of his own naiveté and discomfort. Nearly 40 years later, it marks a time before language and terminology were recognised for their role in minority rights activism, identity politics and social evolution.
With gay rights, the terminology is evolving every day. But you don’t need fancy terminology if you’re speaking to your kids about homosexuality. Unless you’re telling them what words are absolutely taboo (and the history behind those awful words, if you’re up to the Google search). Then you just use all the other tools that come in handy when talking about gender or sex ed; humour, science, the straight-face parent voice, stories and reactions to media.
It’s no big deal, it isn’t. Except for one small thing. Unlike with general sex ed, where you can share your beliefs and practices, here you’ll have to ruffle through your own inhibitions or ideas about homosexuality to check for half-facts or biases posing as opinion. You may have some inexplicable fears. You may wonder how you would react if your child is gay.
I asked E. A friend of his had a son, let’s call him C, who loved Barbies and wearing girl’s clothes. The parents had absolutely no problem with it, but were concerned about how C’s friends would react. The mum noticed C would hide his Barbies when his pals came over to play. On the other hand, C’s very Punjabi grandparents were very Punjabi grandparent about their grandson, indulging his tastes, including buying him a Disney Princess outfit he’d coveted, on a trip abroad. “But my friend didn’t make up her mind that her son was gay and she was quite right not to,” says E. With familial support and a mind of his own, she felt he’d be okay. After all, “His survival skills were intact – like, putting away the Barbies — and he had quite a personality,” he says.
E has counselled several gay children and their parents: “As parents, you have to deal with your fears about how your children will be treated without trying to suppress his identity. You have to have faith in them. Many manage their changing identities quite well and parents need to let them get on with it, while letting the child know, discreetly — without becoming too embarrassingly supportive — that whatever they decide, it’s going to be fine!”
C is a pre-teen now and is over the Barbie and dressing-up stage. “But if he comes out as gay, his mother won’t be freaked out, and hopefully, he won’t either,” says E.
The timeline of flip-flopping about Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code moved closer to modern times on February 2 this year. At the Queer Azadi, there was a record turnout and we watched as parents accompanied their children, straight and gay, shouting slogans for equal rights for all.
It helps if some of your best friends are gay. I’ve heard people shrug, “But we don’t know any gay people” and I’d hazard a “You don’t know any ‘out’ people.” There is debate about censuses that seek to pinpoint sexuality demographics (one problem is that anonymous surveys, unsurprisingly, yield higher percentages of respondents identifying as non-binary) but the common acquiescence is that it’s about 10 per cent of the population.
So talk to your kids about homosexuality. There are a number of books, including those by South Asian authors. E says they’re sort of boring but Kevin Keller, the gay kid in Archie Comics is good for the kids to read. And for us adults, there is much intelligent, intuitive writing about transgender children that introduces the concept of the gender spectrum (A The New Yorker piece titled, About A Boy is excellent). There are viral videos of children of gay parents and gay children of straight parents talking peanut butter and crackers and other things quotidian.
As you will see, it really should be absolutely no big deal.
Genesia Alves is a writer and mother to three children