The other day, my 5-year-old and I had a Skype session with my grandmother. As we exchanged pleasantries about the week, the weather, and Shmuley’s day school, she projected a number of problematic assumptions upon my child.
“He’s going to be such a heartbreaker,” my grandmother said. I bristled, but pretended to ignore it.
“You’re going to have your hands full when he’s a teenager,” she said. “The girls are going to do anything he asks!” I politely changed the subject.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” my grandmother asked him, and it was there that I drew the line.
“Baba, he’s 5!” I said. “Chill out!”
“What?!” she asks, “I don’t mean anything by it.”
“Then why say it at all?” I asked. Shortly thereafter, Sammy left the room and she offered a retroactively defensive half apology.
“I’m sorry, Adi,” she said, “But I don’t see what the big deal is—it’s almost as if you want him to be gay, or something!”
I rolled that thought around in my brain for a while, thinking through its implications. Did I want my child to be gay? Not necessarily, although I certainly had no negative feelings about the prospect.
But I don’t want my grandmother—or anyone else—to project problematic stereotypes about sexuality onto my 5-year-old child, either.
Now, I am not naive to the realities of what it means to be LGBTQ at this particular moment, given the US President’s plans to roll back LGBTQ rights—to say nothing of the nation itself—back to the stone ages.
And I hope that by the time my son asserts a sexual identity, he will not have to worry about alienation, discrimination or social exclusion. I’m not so naive as to trust this, however. I see where we are as a society. And if I’m being honest: in the current political climate, I worry that our inability to embrace difference is going to kill us all. And I firmly believe that love is the only thing that could possibly save us.
But herein resides the absolutely necessity of parents wholeheartedly embracing their LGBTQ children: these children are at disparate risk of dying.
I am not a member of the LGBTQ community, and I will never have firsthand knowledge of all that this experience brings.
But two of my closest friends from childhood committed suicide on account of lack of familial acceptance of their sexuality. And I think about these beautiful young men, bright-eyed and beautiful and kind, so full of promise and potential, now gone from this earth. At the time of their deaths, I was absolutely gutted, and now, as a parent myself, their deaths haunt me all the more.
And I know that LGBTQ teenagers are at increased risk of bullying, sexual violence, and substance abuse. I know that LGBTQ youth comprise 7% of the teenage population—but due to familial rejection, represent 40% of teenagers who are homeless. I know that LGBTQ youth are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as their straight and cisgender peers, and at least one study found that 25% of transgender youth have made at least one suicide attempt. One in four.
People exist across the spectra of gender and sexuality, and trying to fight this reality is as futile as trying to fight the air. LGBTQ children, like all children, depend on familial acceptance for their well-being and yes, for their very survival. So for me, acceptance is non-negotiable. It’s a question of the value of human life. And this should go without saying, but I value my child’s life.
How would my lost friends’ lives have been different if they had familial acceptance? How would their lives have been different if they’d known that they were unconditionally loved? How would the world be different if every LGBTQ child knew that, understood it implicitly and felt it with every fiber of their beings?
“Well, would you?” my grandmother continued, “I mean, would you mind if he was gay?”
Would I mind? Not at all. I am progressive, it is 2017, and above all else, my child’s putative sexuality is frankly none of my business.
But when we interrogate the question of whether I’d “mind” if my kid is gay, what we don’t recognize is the privilege inherent in the question. We proceed as if one’s sexuality is a choice, as if I could choose to accept or reject my child, and if I chose to deny him, as if that denial would not carry deep and life-altering consequences.
Now for us, this question is largely imagined: we don’t know at this point if Sammy is or will be LGBTQ. But for LGBTQ youth the world over, this is not just an abstraction or hypothetical, a matter of personal preference or choice. For many, parental acceptance is a matter of life and death. My first child died at 5 weeks old; I have already buried one child. It is the understatement of the millennium to say that I am not inclined to do it again. More to the point: I do not think that I would survive doing it again.
“I want him to be a good person, Grammy,” I said. “And as far as I’m concerned, his sexual identity has no bearing on that issue.”
“Well, I agree,” my grandmother conceded. “And if that’s good enough for you, then it’s good enough for me.”
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.