I sighed; I was tempted to rest my head on the steering wheel of our minivan, but that's hard to do when the car is moving. Remain calm, I told myself.
"Actually, honey, there's no such thing as a fag. It's a mean name that folks call men who love other men, to make them feel bad," I told Allen.
Through the rearview mirror, I could make out his puzzled expression.
"But I love my daddy, and he's a man," he said.
"That's true. But I'm talking about two men who love each other the way Mommy and Daddy do."
"Oh. OK." And he went back to playing his Gameboy.
That's as far as the conversation went on that particular afternoon, but it pops up again periodically. In a society as highly sexualized as this one, many of us find ourselves talking to our children about things we thought we'd have years to discuss. True, I first discussed with my oldest son the basics of sexuality when he was three and a half. Why? Because I was pregnant with his little brother, and Allen asked me how the baby got inside me. But there are few experiences equal to attempting an explanation--in a public place--of why so many magazines have pictures of women on the covers with "just their bras on, Mommy--you can even see their nipples!" I told them that some magazines--and some people--will do anything to get attention, and that showing women's bodies that way was one of them. That answer worked for now, but I know that the questions, prompted by radio, TV, and the kids down the block, will continue to emerge.
I want them to know hugs and kisses and other physical expressions of love are good. I tell them that one day they might marry someone who will make them feel as good as Daddy makes me feel. And I make it a point, whenever I can, not to give that someone a gender; as likely as it seems that they will be heterosexual, I can't know that for sure. Allen or Daniel might come to me in a decade or so, and say, "Mom, I'm gay." I would fear for his safety and peace in a world so hostile to gay people. But more than anything, I'd want to make sure my child was in a relationship that was truly good for him, one in which he was at least as loved as he'd always been at home.
Because I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, and thus part of a religious community that honors and respects love in all its expressions, I try to reflect those qualities when I speak about same-sex partnerships with anyone, not just my kids. Because I am a mother raising two boys in a culture that deeply fears and even hates such relationships, I feel it's especially important for me to help them view gay and lesbian people with respect--while they still care what I think.
This is not an easy thing to do when they are still too young to understand all the permutations of human sexuality. But it will be even harder as they get older and confront the massive religious and societal pressures that will urge them to treat lesbian and gay couples (and their families) as less than human. By speaking to them now, by helping them to know about the different ways human beings love one another, I hope I am inoculating them against such prejudice.
I am lucky--the community we live in and the church my children attend include many gay and lesbian families. Their father and I have had gay and lesbian friends for years, though the majority of them are childless. So Allen and Daniel know gay and lesbian people; they have seen and known children who have two mommies or two daddies, and Allen has begun to learn more of what that means. My sporadic conversations with them thus have the benefit of specific examples to which they can refer.
Those of us called into ministry have the honor to accompany human beings at the best and the worst moments of their lives. I know firsthand of the pain, the sadness, the self-hatred of gay and lesbian young people who cannot find acceptance at home, whose parents have ridiculed them, rejected them, even thrown them out. I know the response of most religious communities is to ignore this tragedy, or to compound it through strict enforcement of their doctrine, or to cause psychological damage by a misguided insistence on "re-education."
Thankfully, I am not part of such a religious body. I am free to affirm every human being's inherent goodness, to support them in their journey toward a full, loving, and rewarding life--and to teach my children to do the same. I can--and do--give the children age-appropriate books about gay and lesbian people. Yes, I could make speeches to them about how wrong it is to deny people basic human rights because of whom they love--something that happens routinely in the United States right now. But I believe my first line of defense in raising my sons to reject homophobia is through the life my husband and I try to live as people of liberal faith. I like to think that ultimately, they will do what they have seen us do. If we are faithful to our own principles, our sons will have something of a road map for this life.