Several years later, after I graduated from high school, I did something that wasn’t widely accepted in my family. I shaved my hair completely off. It was my freshman year in college, and the humid New Jersey heat got to me. I walked into the barber and told him to cut it. He looked at my back-length hair and thought I was crazy. But I needed a change.
After some convincing, he eventually obliged and took the clippers and went for it. That weekend I took the train home, and my first stop was my grandmother’s house. Instead of greeting me with a hug, she greeted me with, “Are you turning into one of those lesbian things?” she asked. It was at that point that I realized I had grown up with some of the most homophobic people I’d ever met.
When I look back on the negative comments and names about gay people I heard as a child, deep down inside I knew that they were wrong. But being a kid and not having a voice about certain subjects, I knew to keep quiet and not disobey those who were older than me. It was like a virus that spread from them to me. I didn’t understand tolerance until I realized my friend had two mothers.
How do parents begin to explain homosexuality to children, especially if they grew up in a home where homophobia was common? According to Carla Rhodes, a psychotherapist based out of Baltimore, it starts with addressing their own issues with homophobia.
“One major obstacle to addressing and lessening the effects of homophobia is that, as in the case of racism, few people will acknowledge their own homophobia. They may feel that being homophobic means being hateful, when it typically reflects attitudes passed down within the family as well as messages from the wider culture,” Rhodes says. “It is imperative that parents examine their own speech and behavior so that they may be better prepared to raise children who are less likely to espouse homophobic ideas.”
Also, Rhodes says, if you’re a parent who isn’t homophobic, one way to teach children is to be consistent in your own actions.
“For parents who have already examined and managed their own homophobia, it’s important to be up-front with children about same-sex intimate relationships. If Uncle Michael brings his male partner to dinner, there is no need to refer to the man as his ‘friend’ if the same doesn’t apply to Aunt Michelle and her male partner,” Rhodes says. “Explain to your children early on [when you decide to have ‘the talk’] that some people love people of the same sex. Ideally, a parent would be comfortable with acknowledging to [his or her] child that she or he may experience such feelings and that it is perfectly natural.”
In my house, I’ve taught my son to be kind to everyone, even when it’s hard. He’s being taught to stand up not only for himself but also for those who are not as strong as he is. The world desperately needs people with more tolerance, acceptance and compassion, and if it’s not taught to children when they’re young, we’re in for one messed-up world in the future.
Yesha Callahan is editor of The Grapevine and a staff writer at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.