The Incident: my son was bullied for having gay parents

Guest post by Paige Schilt

The following post originally appeared on The Bilerico Project, “the web’s largest LGBTQ group blog with dozens of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and genderqueer contributors.” — Stephanie

Photo by Uncle Saiful, used under Creative Commons license.

A few months back, I wrote that my son had never been bullied at his Texas public school. Perhaps it was inevitable, given that Waylon is in third grade now, but a week or two later there was an incident.

The story unfolded over dinner at our favorite neighborhood Texmex restaurant. Waylon was well into his second bean and cheese taco when he broached the subject. “Mom, B– said that being gay is bad.”

B– is a familiar character in our dinner table conversations. He’s an older kid who attends Waylon’s after-school program. He has a prime position in the elementary school social hierarchy because his parents allow him to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Every day after school, B– captivates the children of our hippy dippy neighborhood with his encyclopedic knowledge of military weaponry.

“What did you do when he said that?” I was trying to keep my voice calm. I was thinking do not freak out, do not freak out, do not let him see that you are kind of freaking out.

“I said, ‘My parents are gay.'”

Oh my god, he’s like a lamb to the slaughter!! What callous idiots taught our son to be so trusting and forthright?

“What did he say?” my wife, Katy, asked. She was using her professional therapist voice.

“He said that must be why I look like his dog when I smile.”

I’m not going to lie; I wanted to track B– down and shake him ’til his eyes rattled. Then I wanted to drag Katy in the next room and chew her out for convincing me to have a kid in the first place.

But somewhere, in the little part of my mind that wasn’t indulging in violent retributive fantasies or wallowing in guilt, I felt a tiny glimmer of hope that Waylon was willing to confide in his parents.

Instead, I said, “How did that make you feel?”

Which sounds like a stupid thing to say. But somewhere, in the little part of my mind that wasn’t indulging in violent retributive fantasies or wallowing in guilt, I felt a tiny glimmer of hope that Waylon was willing to confide in his parents. I knew this wouldn’t be the last incident, and I needed to convince him that I could handle the truth.

“I don’t know,” Waylon said, looking kind of vague. “Bad, I guess…”

“Well, I feel really mad,” I said. My voice was calibrated to convey approximately 10% of my actual rage. “It’s not okay for him to say that.” I felt I was walking a tightrope, trying to help him identify his feelings without turning the whole conversation into the Seething Mom Show.

“Do I need to kick his ass?” Katy asked.

Waylon looked shocked. “I’m just kidding,” she said. “Sort of.” He smiled. I could tell he was glad that his mom had his back against a bully, even though he knew it was a fantasy.

Katy is a former bully herself, a gender nonconforming kid who kept people from messing with her by being the meanest, toughest kid on the playground. I emerged from a momentary reverie to hear her explaining about bullies, how they lash out because they’re scared, how B– was probably parroting his parents, repeating some version of the messages he’d received about himself.

Waylon was absolutely clear that he did not want us to intervene directly with B–. He wanted to see if he could handle the situation on his own before he risked antagonizing a powerful older kid.

The next morning, I was on the phone with the director of the after-school program. I didn’t violate Waylon’s trust; I didn’t tell her the name of the kid or any identifying characteristics, but I did let her know what had been said.

The director promised to respond with a generic lesson about name-calling and respect. I suggested that a unit on family diversity might be more effective, and she made some vague placating noises. I sent her a link to a research-tested curriculum about different kinds of families. I’m sure she and her colleagues had a good laugh about that one.

No one, not even the most progressive teacher, seems quite sure what they are allowed to say to public school children about the gays.

This is, after all, Texas public school. No one, not even the most progressive teacher, seems quite sure what they are allowed to say to public school children about the gays. Last year, I asked if our school could print the district’s nondiscrimination clause — which includes sexual orientation — in the school handbook. The principal deftly suggested that the school might run a statement in support of the nondiscrimination policy without actually printing the inflammatory words.

The next evening, when I picked Waylon up from aftercare, the head teacher approached me. He’d heard the details of the incident from his supervisor, and he wanted to assure me that they had a plan to respond.

“Yeah, we’ve got a whole bunch of worksheets for them. You’re probably going to hear Waylon complain about how boring it is for the next couple of days.”

Apparently, that’s our response to bias in Texas — bore the victim.

I was angry all over again. I coldly suggested that there might be a problem if he could predict in advance that his lesson would be mind-numbingly dull. It’s not, I explained, inherently boring material. Difference is actually pretty juicy.

But I knew I was barking up the wrong tree. The aftercare program is staffed by college students, and it takes training to facilitate the kind of conversation that these kids needed to have. It requires the freedom to acknowledge and describe all kinds of differences and the intense feelings they engender. I didn’t have much hope that kind of freedom was going to blossom from a worksheet.

I felt like a self-indulgent jerk who had saddled her child with the burden of a weird family.

As we walked to the car, I was feeling pretty low. I was ashamed of myself for snapping at the teacher. I felt guilty for being a self-employed writer who sends her son to low-cost after-school care. I felt like a self-indulgent jerk who had saddled her child with the burden of a weird family.

There’s nothing like parenthood for bringing out internalized homophobia.

Luckily, Waylon was in a talkative mood. “Did you see B–?” he asked. “I can’t believe he said I look like his dog!”

“I know,” I said. I stopped and looked him right in the eye. “I’m so sorry that that happened to you. I feel terrible.”

“Wait,” Waylon asked. “Why do you feel terrible?”

“I just think you’re so great, and I feel awful that someone would say something that made you feel bad about yourself.”

“Oh I don’t feel bad about myself,” Waylon said in a Mom-you-are-weird kind of voice. He opened the car door and tossed his backpack inside.

I’ve reviewed this moment many times. Was he feeling pressure to reassure me? Was he repeating something we’d said? Or could he really separate the slur from his own self-image?

When I was a kid, if people picked on me or called me names, I felt shame. I was afraid to tell my parents, because I didn’t want them to know that something was wrong with me. I thought it was my job to keep everyone happy with me at all times, which is probably why I didn’t come out until I was almost 30.

I’d like to believe that Waylon’s experience has been completely different. I hope he knows that the problem isn’t him — or even B–. It’s about whole systems of power and inequality, privilege and oppression, which we try to discuss in everyday words on everyday occasions.

In any case, we’ve lived through the incident, and I’m sure we’ll weather many more.

Mostly, I just hope Waylon keeps talking.

Comments on The Incident: my son was bullied for having gay parents

  1. So well written in so many ways. I love that your son has the ability to talk to you about what happens, so many kids don’t.

    I can only say that as someone who was bullied for who she was, and for who her parents were, it will make you so strong as a family. I have the utmost respect for who my parents were, and how they were there for me especially when I was so unsure of who I was.

    Keep doing what you are doing, you are a great mom and your son obviously knows that already.

  2. Wow. Thank you for this post. I was a really sensitive kid who crumbled when anyone picked on me — and I’m still a pretty sensitive adult, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to help my son deal with bullies better than I did/do. I can only hope that he’s as self-possessed & secure as Waylon by the time he’s in third grade!

  3. Oh, Jeez! Parenting grade-schoolers sure puts you through the wringer. I also hope that my kids will just keep telling me what’s going on, and bouncing back. I was also really fragile, going through grade-school. I keep trying to avoid imposing my own fatalistic feelings about his peer group onto my son, because he seems to think his interactions with his peers are mostly fine–even great! Whereas I want to go to their houses and give em the what-for. Anyway, it sounds like you guys are doing a great job.

  4. Thank you so much. My partner and I are going through this same exact scenario with our 3rd grade boy. We contacted the after school director about the incident and requested that the principal incorporate gay families in the anti-bullying curriculum.

  5. I think it’s great that your son confides in you and is able to openly share with you when things happen. My son is four, and one of my biggest concerns with him is how he’ll handle bullying and dealing with problems as he grows up. Being an only child of ultra-conservative, “blinders-wearing” parents, I remember how hard it was for me growing up, feeling very much alone when it came to issues such as bullying. Even more important to me that my son knows 1. how not to be a bully, and 2. that he can ALWAYS come talk to his daddy or me, about absolutely anything.

    Also, I can totally empathize with you on the lack of diversity and tolerance in our schools. We have the same sort of problems w. public school here in Ga. In fact, I imagine their responses here would probably have been even less proactive.

    I am proud to say that so far, my son is impressively unbothered by differences in people and culture – he knows some families have one mommy or one daddy, some families have two mommies or two daddies, some have one of each, and that the world is full of different cultures and beliefs.

    Anyhow, kudos to you and your wife for raising such a self-confident, aware, obviously very bright child! Best of luck.

  6. I keep on thinking that the reason this kid didn’t feel bad about himself is because B has a totally awesome looking dog! lol. As a matter of fact I’d have probably asked about what said dog looked like during the first conversation. That’s me, deflect, deflect, deflect! But it is amazing to me that kids of this age oftentimes let things just bounce off them. I’m so glad that this young person has such sensitive, smart and caring parents.

    • Yeah, I thought that was going to be the punchline, too. I taught 3rd grade one year and I spent so much time with the class working on how they talked to each other and treated each other. It can be a really brutal year of school.
      Waylon is so lucky to have involved and caring parents. It’s a shame that the school staff isn’t better trained.

  7. my wife and i are dreading the day that a situation like this arises for our family. our kindergartener is so proud and loving of our family and we want to continue to nurture that in him, but we also are wary of the possible bullying or harassment that he might face. we’re trying to be proactive and begin a conversation with his school about family diversity and open communication lines. i’m also working with a dedicated group of educators and community members to start a local GLESEN chapter. we’re hoping that early communication and prevention will work for us. in the meantime, we love and encourage our son to be proud of himself, our family and the differences in this world.

  8. I live in Georgia and I hope my future kids will be as open to talking to me as yours is! I also was wondering if anyone knew of any picture books about this specific type of bullying. I know there are lots about gay families, but what about ones about being bullied for having gay parents?

  9. I’m a teacher and teasing about families or sexual orientation is NEVER allowed at my school. It’s handled openly and forthrightly on the spot. We have a very low incidence of bullying incidents to begin with, and I think it’s because we work very hard to establish a welcoming, inclusive culture. I can’t imagine the harm done to kids to allow this sort of behavior to go on. It’s not healthy to encourage in the bullies, and it’s unfair to saddle their targets with that experience.

  10. While I think it is very good and important to teach children about diversity in all its forms, I wish there was some way to make parents learn it as well. You can give kids all the worksheets you want, but how are they supposed to take it to heart when their parents contradict what they are being taught? Unfortunately change has to start within the biased person, and that rarely ever happens. I’m so sorry you had to go through this. I’m sure you know it’s most likely bound to happen again, but from what you shared, it seems like your son has a good head on his shoulders, so kudos to you and your wife for raising him that way!

    • “Change has to start within the biased person”

      There are so many great examples of how true this ISN’T.

      I can’t imagine that all the accepting, inclusive, progressive folks in our world came from accepting, inclusive, progressive parents. There are too many activists who came from violently prejudiced homes to believe that. People can change the world despite their parents, if they are exposed to ideas outside their parents’ paradigm, and if their divergent ideas are supported by other adults. Mostly this means at church and school, as that’s the bulk of most kids’ non-parent adult interaction.

  11. What a great post. I was also really sensitive growing up, and bullied greatly as a result, because the kids saw that it got to me. My mother is also sensitive (apple doesn’t fall far from the tree) and when I would come home and cry and tell her what would happen, she would also cry and get angry. Unfortunately, that developed into me stopping sharing hard things with her by the time I reached middle school, because then I felt like I would have to take care of my own sadness, as well as hers. Our son is only 10 months old now, but I fear that I will react similarly to my mother when he gets bullied some day (and to how your wife reacted, wanting to personally injure any child that hurts him), but I am also trying to prepare myself so that I can be sure to be a resource for him, and not to add my own grief to his process. Crikey — this parenting thing really does rip your heart out, eh?

  12. SO happy to read this. My oldest starts school next year, and being bullied is a huge concern for me. But we (at least I think so) have open communication in our home, so hopefully that will help. I’m actually more concerned about ‘the Santa Claus thing’ than him being harassed for his mom being gay. BUT even in alternative schools you never know.

    Finally, cheers mama! Way to handle the situation with grace and dignity. Your lil one will learn a lot from that alone 😉

  13. “I emerged from a momentary reverie to hear her explaining about bullies, how they lash out because they’re scared,”

    While most people consider this to be true, research into bullying has shown that things are actually more complicated than that.

    Bullies often have average or above average self esteem. They do what they do, because they know they have the power to get away with it. They also tend to lack empathy. This combination leads to people who are confident that what they think/feel is right, and have a difficult time seeing/feeling where others are coming from. Anything they don’t like it bad, and therefore they have the right to say/do whatever they want.

    That isn’t to say that there aren’t bullies out there who act from a place of fear, but they are nowhere near as “common knowledge” would have people believe.

  14. I live in fear of that day. My son is not yet 2 and has two moms. We moved to Minneapolis to a progressive area but I am sure it is unavoidable. Thank you for writing your post. I think I will do better when it happens by reading about your calm response.

  15. It sounds very much like you’re both excellent parents and that your son is going to be just fine. He’s lucky to have you two and you’re lucky to have him. 😀

  16. Oh this struck many a chord within me!

    I am giving a presentation (complete with “inflammatory” district and state policies) on this very topic in front of 150 faculty and staff members at the high school where I teach. I’m also going to have my first child next year. Alone. As a lesbian.

    I’m in Los Angeles, so it’s not the same situation, but I’m still nervous. Even though I’m an activist. Even though I’ve been out and vocal for years. Even though most of my school and administration supports me. So I can’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t have all that. If I didn’t have my family and my friends and my community, where would I be? What will I say or do when a kid, inevitably, says something to my future kid?

    Thank you for posting this and for being so honest. I will remember this when I’m speaking to my colleagues tomorrow and hope that we can keep kids like B– (and their teachers, parents, counselors, etc.) from thinking this is ok. I know my mom still gets upset (furious?) when she hears about discrimination against me, and I’m in my 30s.

    Rock on and think of me at around 1:30 (PDT) on Tuesday because I’ll be thinking of you and Katy and Waylon!

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