Once some information about the behaviours associated with being gay are cleared up, and people's attitudes towards people who are gay are explored, then maybe its time to ask your child, "And what do you think about all this?" In my experience, you're not likely to get much more than a shrug or "None of my business." Some kids may go "Ick" and tell you what they've heard on the playground or in someone's home about people who are gay. In my books, such dialogue is exactly what I want. At least now I know what's on the child's mind. Prejudices can't be addressed unless we know what they are. I for one am happier with those who speak their mind than those who harbour their intolerance with stealth. No matter what happens, Rowling has given us a conversation starter.
T. Scott, Canada: How do you explain to your kids why there is still a lot of intolerance and fear regarding homosexuality? How do you explain what are some of the root causes of these negative emotions some people have? How do you answer the simple questions, why do some people think being a homosexual is wrong or bad? How come you say it's normal when others say it isn't?
Michael Ungar: Hi! These are excellent questions. And they would need pages to answer. I have to confess, I have no easy answer to such profound questions. But I think we effectively talk about these things more by doing that telling. I don't honestly think I could explain to my kids why there is intolerance for another's sexual preferences except to talk vaguely about fear, and the mechanics of society, that people like to make those who are different into 'others' who then can be excluded, making us, the in crowd, feel that much more powerful, self-assured. We can think we're right. I understand this as being about power, control and privilege. None of which is going to help with a 10 year old. Though that same ten-year-old is likely to understand the actions of a bully on the playground and what it means to put others down so that an individual can feel powerful. That's closer to home. That's a story they can understand.
So…do something different. Show your child what tolerance means. Not just for people who are LGBT, but for all people. Attend a gay pride parade; take your child travelling to places where people look different, eat different foods, listen to different music. Invite into your home an foreign exchange student. In my experience, tolerance in one area (say for racial differences) breeds tolerance across the board. It is a lot easier to talk about how people feel excluded when you are among people who are excluded, than in the comfort of your own home (assuming you are of the 'majority').
If you yourself are part of the minority, then here again there is the opportunity to show rather than tell. Help your child decode the prejudice you or he/she experiences. Observe it. Talk about it. Wonder aloud why someone would treat another person so meanly. Ask the child to speculate on an answer. It's easier to talk about a verbal slur when it is heard first hand than to read a newspaper article and jumpstart a conversation, though at least that jumpstart is a good first step.
Thanks for the questions!
David Langan, North Vancouver: I find a lot of parents inextricably link the 'sex talk' with the 'what's gay' talk (as did the article). Can these be treated as two talks?
Michael Ungar: Hi David. I find the two talks do sort of link. The tough part I find in my work and at home is not to put into the sex talk an overtly heterosexist bias. By that I mean, if I have the sex talk and assume I'm talking to a child who is 100% bona fide heterosexual, then I have likely excluded from our discussion lots of feelings he/she is having that don't fit. I'm inclined to be a little more neutral, recognizing that even heterosexually oriented young people can experience intense relationships with their peers and wonder over their sexual orientation. I think the kids can handle this double conversation. If I'm explaining sexual relationships, then why not talk about intense and loving feelings for "another person", man or woman. I can talk about commitment, to a man or woman. I can talk about masturbation, oral sex, and petting, without necessarily identifying the gender of the partner. Let's face it, there is very little about our sexuality, when explored in its full range, that has to do with the biological aspects of procreation.