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Mommy, what does "gay" mean?

My girls are constantly asking me what words mean. Words that they used to just ignore or whose meaning they got well enough in context, they’re now stopping to inquire about. (Maybe it’s a five-year-old thing.) What does “assume” mean? How about “agitated”? Or “express”?

And then, about a week ago: “What does ‘gay’ mean?”

The song  “Jamaica Farewell” is on a new kids’ CD we have, and it begins: “Down the way, where the nights are gay, and the sun shines daily on the mountain top…”  The girls love it, and sing it constantly. (So constantly that their preschool teacher decided to teach it to the whole class for their graduation ceremony in June.) But it was only after a few weeks of obsession that they stopped to ask about that one particular word.

“It means happy and fun,” I explained. “Festive.”

“It’s sort of an old fashioned word for those things,” Alastair added. “People don’t really use it to mean that much anymore.”

I paused before continuing. Should I tell them the other meaning? Was it somehow irresponsible of me not to? But I decided to do it. It was bound to come up again sooner or later. “It’s also a word people use when they’re talking about men who want to be boyfriends with or marry other men, or women who want to be girlfriends with or marry other women.”

This didn’t phase them in the least. Because all along, we’ve told them that men can love/marry men (Hooray for living in Massachusetts, where it’s legal!), women can love/marry women, etc. Alastair has a song on his first kids’ album called “Two Mommies,” and there are several gay couples at our church. Clio still says she wants to marry one of her favorite (girl) friends.

In other words, we do everything we can to equate gay with OK, acceptable, normal (even if still the exception, not the rule). And it’s the truth, as far as the girls are concerned. We’ve never told them that some people think it’s wrong. And we’ve never had to use the words “gay” or “lesbian” before.

A friend of mine called me yesterday to tell me that she’d had the exact same experience with her five-year-old daughter, who overheard a news story on the radio that used the term “gay. It threw her for a loop, and made her suddenly aware, in a viscerally immediate way, how significant it is when we teach our children the language our society uses to divide people into groups according to their sexuality or their color or other culturally-charged characteristics.

Like me, she felt a certain sadness at having to tell her daughter that there was an actual term for people who love certain kinds of people. Not that gay is a bad word. And not that it’s somehow wrong or offensive to describe people as heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual. (Unless you get into the argument that it’s more of a sliding scale, rather than an absolute. But that’s a whole other ball of wax.)  In any case, it’s no more offensive than it is to describe people as New Yorkers or Bostonians. Or Christians or Jews or Muslims. Or male or female.

But it’s language that our society uses. And probably always will, in one form or another, though the specific words may change.

I can’t keep my girls in a classification-free, we’re-all-just-people-what-does-it-matter? bubble forever. But I guess the hippie-dippy idealist in me (and in people like the friend I mention) sometimes wishes I could. Sometimes I wish we were all in that same bubble.

Has this topic come up with your kids? How have you handled it?

 

DOUBLE TIME, my memoir of parenting twins and battling depression (among other things) is available for pre-order! Order before May 8, and I’ll send you a free signed bookplate. Click for details.

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