Recent posts, here and elsewhere, have got me thinking about the use of the word 'gay' as a pejorative.
Nine-year-old Monkeyboy in DC brought a book home a few months ago called Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. It won the Newberry Medal for American Children's Literature in 1928.
He assured me that this wasn't the bad meaning of the word gay in the title, but rather that it meant the story's protagonist had a brightly colored neck.
Aha, thunk I, here's one of those "teachable moments" the early childhood education nabobs are always yammering about.
(Which reminds me, I need to post some time about another "teachable moment" --- the day he and I went to the new Udvar-Hazy Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Annex out near Dulles. I was all set to talk about space shuttles and Concordes and the Spirit of Saint Louis. The first thing I was called upon to explain was "What's that funny symbol on that fighter plane?" It was a swastika.)
I assured him I understood what the "gay" in "Gay-neck" meant and asked him what he meant about the "bad" meaning. He got uncomfortable. He knew it had something to do with sex, and with boys liking other boys, and with Michael Jackson, but he wasn't too sure on the specifics.
He knew for sure that it was an insult to call someone gay, and that gay was sort of an all-purpose word in elementary school circles that means gross or stupid or not cool enough or tough enough.
I started out by telling him that, in our family, it was not o.k. to use gay to mean something bad. I told him it was a word with a specific meaning, that it applied to perfectly normal people who loved each other the way mom and dad love each other, and that to use it to mean something bad was an insult to gay people.
I explained that some men and women fall in love with people of their own gender and that there was nothing wrong with that. I told him that not everyone agreed with us about this, but that gay people faced a lot of discrimination in society and it was part of our job to work against that, just like we marched in D.C. at the Million Mom March for gun control and against the war in Iraq. Just like when dad got arrested in front of the South African Embassy before he was born.
He's already learned about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and the Reform Jewish concept that tikkun olam requires us to be involved in social action.
I told him that he already knew and loved gay people and it would be mean to use this word as a way to call someone something bad.
His eyes had started to glaze over and I was pretty sure he was hearing that "wah-wah-wah" sound adults make in Peanuts cartoons.
Until I got to the point where I told him he already knew and loved people who were gay. All of a sudden it was personal for him and he was riveted.
I asked him to think of relatives of the same gender who lived together. He was stumped for a minute. Then he remembered his learning disabled aunt who, well into middle age, still lives with his grandma. But he knew their relationship wasn't like mom and dad's.
Then the lightbulb went on.
His coolest uncle --- the one who's a veteranarian and has pets like snakes and iguanas, the one who was a navy pilot before he became a veternarian, the one who's even sillier than dad --- lives with his life partner who's just as cool, only in a more understated way. Monkeyboy is nuts about them, for good reason. They're great.
Monkeyboy had never had occasion to wonder about their relationship before. He knows some of my poker buddies who aren't married still have roommates, and until this moment, if he'd ever thought about Uncle L. and Uncle B., he'd probably figured they were the same.
Now he knew different. And, G-d bless him, he understood. I've never heard him use the word gay as a pejorative, and I don't think he does it when I'm not around either. And he's just the sort of kid who would call one of his friends on it too.
At Halloween, on the way to a friend's house for trick-or-treating, I cited the statistic to him about 5 kids dying every year in preventable Halloween collisions with cars. When his group of kids started running out into the street later, I heard my "5 kids die every year" lecture come out of his mouth word-for-word.
I may be putting him in line for some razzing, or worse, if he ever feels moved to criticize a peer's misuse of the word gay, but I've warned him that not everybody feels the way our family does, and that what I expect of him is that he not use the word that way. He need not take up all of my crusades at age 9.
Hell, by the time he's a teenager, I'll probably be playing Michael Gross to his Michael J. Fox in a twisted 2010's version of Family Ties.
I'm sure I'll be just as proud of him then, if a tad vexed.
In the meantime, all of us here in cyberspace are adults, more-or-less. Can we agree that it's not cool to call someone gay as an insult?