Taking on “That’s So Gay!”
A Sunday night. Three boys ages eight and under wrestling with one another as their father prepares dinner on the grill off our kitchen and I fold the never-ending pile of laundry on the dining room table. It’s a very typical Sunday night–and I pause to relish a pattern we are seeing more and more frequently. I call it “extreme bonding.” We’re not sure why it happens–perhaps it’s the boys having been together for two whole days, maybe it’s Monday morning looming; but every Sunday night all three boys play and play happily and hard with one another.
That is, until something happens. Usually it’s a perceived transgression of sorts; and last Sunday it was Edgar’s. I still don’t know precisely what it was that Edgar did during the course of their spirited romp, but Oscar extricated himself, dusted off, and bellowed at his brother, “That was so gay!”
I was just a foot-and-a-half away, watching my sons and doing what mothers of three boys often do during these roughhousing sessions, holding my breath–as though depriving myself of oxygen would magically keep everyone safe–when my deeply sensitive, fiercely intelligent eight-year-old son uttered a series of words that took away what little breath I had remaining.
This isn’t the first time, of course, Oscar had uttered something with which I was less than thrilled. There have been plenty of instances. But this was different. These words weren’t merely sassy or mildly off-color; and they required not a quick reprimand but a detailed, heartfelt explanation–an explanation without judgment and, because it was for Oscar, one that was logical.
I told him he was not but that I wanted to talk with him and we needed a quiet place to do so.
As I ascended the stairs I thought about what I wanted to say, wishing on some level that I had rehearsed this a bit in my mind before this moment but trusting that together we would find our way through his words, words he couldn’t even begin to contemplate the significance of.
I knew it would not suffice to simply say to my son, “Using that expression to describe your dislike of something is not acceptable and we expect never to hear it again.” I had to explain why it wasn’t acceptable. And to do that, there was a lot of other territory we needed to negotiate.
And so we did.
I talked. He listened. He asked questions. I answered them. And we cried. We cried for people we know and love and those we have never met who have had to suffer for being themselves and for loving those they love. And we cried for human nature’s propensity to take that which it doesn’t understand and turn it in to hateful, hurtful language.
Oscar then looked down at his knees and shook his head and asked me how I know so much.
I cupped his chin in my hand and turned his eyes to mine and told him earnestly, “There is so much more I wish I knew. But I promise you I’m doing the best I can.”
And with that we just sat. I knew we needed to sink into this moment and let the magnitude of it sink into us.
I can say with conviction Oscar will never use those words in that context ever again. And it will be a choice he makes because he understands why.