Harvey Milk Day at the Middle School
A notice came home from my boys’ school that in honor of Harvey Milk Day, the afterschool program would be hosting a workshop for the kids about LGBTQ Activism. I was so pleased! Yes, yes, yes! The notice was carefully worded that all students would need a signed permission slip to participate due to the sensitive nature of the topic. There was a check box to say YES and another to say NO. I, of course, marked YES for both of my kids. I wondered how many parents would check each box. Yesterday, as I turned in the permission slip I told the afterschool administrator how awesome it was to have this for the students. She agreed, but then broke the bad news; it’s only for the older grades, 6th-8th. They made an error in sending it home with everybody. I was a little disappointed, but still really grateful that this optional workshop was taking place. Besides, for my kids, it would be preaching to the choir.
I had taken my older son along during the Prop 8 protests in San Francisco. How many 8 year olds get to participate in a civil rights march? I was very clear in telling him what we were marching for, that people were being denied a right, that they were being judged and hated by our own government and that it is our responsibility as free people to stand up to that. I did not want him to just parrot my beliefs. I was careful to tell him the history of the fight for civil rights as we marched down Market Street.
I told him, that while I identify as heterosexual, I am against rights being restricted to those who identify as homosexual, bi-sexual and trans. I defined what those labels meant in terms of “liking”. Hetero is when you like the opposite sex, homo is when you like the same sex, bi is when you like both sexes and trans is when a person likes their self better when they get to be a different sex (that one was harder since there are so many variations, but I think he got the basic idea.) I gave him examples of our loved ones who are gay and lesbian: an aunt, a cousin, a best friend, a favorite teacher.
I remember the first conversation I had with my dad about “gay people,” I was in middle school and my friend Walter was very very gay. Both of us 13, we had crushes on the same boys, swooning on the soccer field together as the “hot boys” scored goals. After school we would sing along to his Madonna collection, cliche I know, but totally true. And Friday nights we would sneak out to the all ages ‘Goth’ club- with Walter wearing more eye makeup than me. But I was sad for Walter because he was so horribly teased at school. It was his daily mission to be as invisible as possible. In fact, the reason I even brought up Walter to my dad was that I got suspended from school for 3 days for fighting. I had to explain to my father that it was a noble fight. That my semi-violent outburst was totally justified.
A group of girls had ganged up on Walter, teasing him ruthlessly for wearing a shirt from Express. Again, I know, so cliche, but this was a long time ago, before there even was a men’s Express. When I walked up to them in the hallway they were trying to pull the shirt off of him to see the tag. About 5 girls and one humiliated Walter. Where were the teachers? I jumped into the center of their circle, assuming a teacher would show up soon. The girls stopped touching him, but the taunting got worse. No teacher arrived, and so, I took matters into my own hands. I popped the mouthiest, meanest, most vile hater right in the mouth. The next most obnoxious ended up head first in a nearby locker. And, of course, THAT is when the teachers showed.
My parents reacted very differently. My mom was thrilled. “That’s the right thing to do,” she said, “Who do they think they are? Good for you.” My dad, however did not like that I so easily identified Walter as homosexual. “You’re just kids, you’re not supposed to be sexual yet, let alone know about being homosexual.” What? How did that make sense at all? “Not know?” I said, “I know that I like boys, why wouldn’t Walter know that too?” My dad got all uncomfortable, like we were discussing something dirty, “Maybe you shouldn’t hang out with him, if he’s going to get you in trouble.” My 13 year old bullshit meter went off: “Look, dad, he’s not having sex with anyone yet, just like I’m not, so don’t be gross!” And that is when the conversation ended. Abruptly.
Years later I realized that my dad wouldn’t get beyond the fetishization of homosexuality as a deviant behavior. And really, in his mind, he doesn’t have to. He is the epitome of the protected class to me: A straight white male. He believes that women’s sexuality exists to please men and that homosexuality is a rejection of normalcy. Gay people don’t want partnership, a spouse and kids, that’s why they are gay! Women don’t have sexual desires of their own, they just need a man to take care of them! He’s not politically active, he’s never spoken hatefully to a person, he’s never spent the energy to willfully discriminate. Yet, because I know him so well, I see his misogyny and homophobia.
In being a mom, my dad’s privileged apathy is not something I want to pass on.This is the pressure I feel in raising my own white males (if either or both are straight, which remains to be seen.) By my actions, I am raising activists. It may totally backfire; I live in fear of “Alex P. Keaton syndrome” but at least I am giving it a try. I told the boys that Harvey Milk was assassinated just like MLK, for the same reasons. I tell them that we can’t forget a person like Milk anymore than we can a person like MLK. It’s our job to remember and to fight.