It was 1971 and I was ten years old the first time I ever heard a derogatory term used for someone who was homosexual. I didn’t even know what the word ‘homosexual’ meant.
A group of us girls were talking at indoor recess one day in the fifth grade and Mary Walker Norfleet, the girl who moved from North Carolina the summer before, was telling this long tale about a fight she’d had with her younger sister that morning. She had been so angry that she had called her sister a name.
“You homo!” Mary Walker let out, in her finest southern accent. An accent that only a girl who actually went by the name ‘Mary Walker’ could deliver.
It was funny and everyone laughed.
I wondered at the time if they laughed because they knew what she meant, or if they were just laughing at the way she was telling the story, like I was.
Because I had no idea what ‘homo’ meant.
So I went home and asked my mother.
She told me that ‘homo’ was a shortened term for a homosexual. She also proceeded to tell me that she’d heard about people like that in an abnormal psychology class she’d had back in the early 1940s at the University of North Texas.
That she’d never heard of anything like that before that class.
That those people were sick.
She had no idea what kind of message she was sending. A message that she had no intention of sending to her ten year old daughter who would grow up to be one of ‘those people.’
That statement made it impossible for me to tell her years later when I was discovering feelings of attraction toward other girls. The expression of disgust on her face made it very clear that she disapproved. In my mother’s effort to teach me what she believed to be right – that homosexuality was against God’s will – she also planted the belief that anyone who experienced those feelings was to be shunned at all cost. That those feelings were shameful.
I’ve never been someone’s mother. I’ve never felt the responsibility of teaching a child right from wrong, but it must be an incredibly difficult job – such a delicate balance – of guiding a life. The enormous responsibility of teaching what we believe to be the right way to live, while at the same time creating an atmosphere in which a child feels safe to share anything.
An atmosphere of empowering grace and love.
In other words, how does a parent say, I don’t believe this is right for you, but if you find yourself there, I’m not about to abandon you.
Because the truth is, when my mother discovered that her own daughter experienced feelings of attraction toward other women, she never turned away from me. She never changed the way she related to me. She never loved me any less.
But what if she’d never made that statement? What if she’d known something more accurate, more loving to say? What if I’d grown up believing that those feelings were something I could tell her?
Instead of keeping them hidden, living in shame all those years.
And having to process a lot of misinformation by myself at such a young age.
Now I’m no authority in child psychology. I don’t claim to know anything about raising a child, or about having developmentally appropriate conversations with children, but what if, instead, my mother had explained it this way:
- What if the expression on her face had never changed?
- What if she hadn’t acted nervous in talking to me about anything of a sexual nature?
- What if, instead, she’d talked about how hurtful it is to be called names, like she often did with other derogatory terms I reported hearing at school?
- What if she had explained to me that in the same way that most people have boyfriends or girlfriends who are the opposite sex, that someone who is homosexual is attracted to a person of the same sex?
She could even have gone on to explain to me that she believed that was not how God wanted us to live, but that He also would never want us to make fun of someone, even if we disagree with certain aspects of a person’s life.
Because God loves us no matter what.
Oh, the conversations that could have come from that – the questions that could have been addressed. But she didn’t know. Often we still don’t know how to create a safe place within families to have difficult conversations. It’s critical, though, that we begin to learn – so that there’s nothing we can’t talk about.
Because it’s growing up in silence that’s causing our children the most harm.