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  • Writer's pictureChris Tompkins

Messages from the Playground: How to Address Homophobia and Bullying

Updated: May 12, 2020

“Uncle Chris, is she your girlfriend?” Suddenly I was a teen again. I felt like I did before I was out of the closet and someone would bring up the word “gay.” I could feel the hair on my neck rise, the color burn into my cheeks and the knot in my stomach. How is it that I, who have been out of the closet for 10 years, who’s life is dedicated to LGBT advocacy work, an individual who mentors gay youth and prides himself on visibility, who was in fact visiting Arizona to give a workshop at the EQAZ’s Equality and Justice Conference, have a six year old nephew who doesn’t know his uncle is gay?

I have five nieces and nephews and I absolutely love them all. I sometimes go through kid withdrawals and often joke that I need a “kid fix.” I recently got a “kid fix” in January. I didn’t make it home for the holidays, so while in Arizona my mom had everyone over that I would normally see during Christmas. I even had a childhood friend over, my best friend growing up, Alyssa. Alyssa was pregnant with her second child, which seems to reflect the current trend back home because I feel like everyone I know is having kids. She’s also apparently my nephew’s gay uncle’s girlfriend.

Kids really do say the darndest things because what occurred to me later that night after everyone left was what wasn’t being communicated. Something felt uncomfortably wrong. If my sister’s six year old son was in the dark, did that mean my brother’s kids were as well? What about my cousin’s kids or my friend’s kids? I decided to investigate to find out more.

I began asking around to see why Aaron didn’t know or if he did, why did he ask if Alyssa was my girlfriend. The common theme in all the answers I got had to do with a feeling of discomfort around addressing the conversation. The parents I spoke with didn’t feel like their child was old enough to have the conversation or that they would understand.

This confused me because I remember being a kid and I remember knowing that I was gay even as a young child. In fact, I was the same age as my nephew Aaron when I knew I was gay. Studies show that by age 2 or 3, children start to develop a sense of being male or female, otherwise known as gender identity. By age 3-5, most kids have developed a strong sense of being a boy or a girl and begin to purposefully explore their bodies. Not to say they know what sex is or what being gay or straight is, but they have a sense of their sexuality. As one report I read says, “This is the age (3-5) that children will learn important sexual attitudes from their parents.” Around ages 6-10, kids are especially interested in things like, pregnancy and gender roles and ask questions like, “where do babies come from?” or “is that your girlfriend?” This is also the age where their friends, family, and outside world begin to influence sexual attitudes, these can be seen as what I call the “messages from the playground.”

Messages from the playground are the subconscious beliefs we ALL pick up from our childhood about what it means to be a boy, a girl, to be gay or straight, to be black, to be white, etc. We all have them. They formulate our belief system and it’s our belief systems that control the way we operate our lives.

My cousin, who just celebrated her son’s second birthday, is a proud mom. She and 20 of her high school friends have monthly playdates where they all get together, hang out, and watch their kids play. She recently posted a picture on Facebook of all the moms with their kids and I got to thinking, those moms absolutely love their children. Each one of those women was beaming with joy at being a mom. I would venture to say that each one of those moms would do anything for their kid and only wants the absolute best for them and their life. I also thought, statistically speaking, at least one or two of those kids are gay. Studies show that anywhere from 2-10% of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. This does not take into account people who aren’t out of the closet or don’t identify as being gay. There’s also the “1 in 10” theory that some still refer to, the idea that 1 in 10 people identify as having same sex attraction.

I got to thinking how many of those moms have considered the possibility that their child is gay. I’m not saying those moms are homophobic, what I am addressing, though, is the fact we do live in a heteronormative society. You are assumed straight upon birth, which creates the closet experience.

The dictionary’s definition of a term called benign neglect is “an attitude or policy of ignoring an often delicate or undesirable situation that one is held to be responsible for dealing with.” Benign neglect was a policy proposed in 1969 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Nixon’s Urban Affairs Advisor. During which, Moynihan sent the President a memo many view as controversial, suggesting, “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’”

I went to a lecture last summer where they suggested that benign neglect and racism in the US is directly correlated to such recent events as the death of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Just because something is benign doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. Not communicating something communicates something.

My sister not having a conversation with her kids about her gay brother communicates something. I say that from a loving place for my sister and for the other mothers I’ve talked to. I never recall anyone in my family ever saying, “Chris, being gay is wrong and you will go to hell.” But it’s something that I picked up from my surroundings, what wasn’t being communicated, the benign neglect, which formulated MY messages from the playground – the subconscious beliefs I had about what it meant to be gay; the internalized homophobia I developed in my childhood.

Internalized homophobia is something that all gay people have to some degree. “To grow up in a society that is overwhelmingly and stiflingly homophobic and to somehow escape unscathed would be miraculous,” says famous drag queen, Panti Bliss, who recently gave a TED talk that’s now gone viral. It’s important to acknowledge because it sheds light on something within the gay community that has to do with shame. If any of us, gay or straight, has any guilt or shame whatsoever, we will subconsciously seek punishment. That could look like many things, but includes and is not limited to, self-deprecating behavior, unhappiness, depression, unhealthy relationships, etc.

Dr. Brene Brown, a shame and vulnerability research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, shows that kids start shutting parts of themselves down around middle school. She refers to 4th and 5th grade as the “creativity slump” because kids begin to compare themselves to each other. Her studies show that shame-prone children are more likely to commit suicide, drop out of school, engage in high risk sexual behavior, and experience increased drug use.

I remember walking home from school in 6th or 7th grade. I was by myself and hadn’t even left the school yard, when I suddenly felt someone walk up behind me and whisper in my ear, “faggot.” I literally froze. I was petrified. The first thing I thought was, “oh my god, people know.” The secret I had worked tirelessly day in and day out at hiding was suddenly acknowledged. If he knew, then others must know as well. I remember feeling so much shame I didn’t even turn around. I just kept walking, pretending I didn’t hear what he said.

Shame is something that all humans experience to some degree. For the gay community, the closet is the place most of us spend the majority of our developmental years in and is a hotbed for shame. Benign neglect is something that perpetuates being in the closet. Not communicating something communicates something. Research shows that shame and addiction are so closely related they don’t know where one starts and the other begins. Shame is also highly correlated with addiction and suicide. The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization I volunteer in, shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times more likely, and questioning youth are three times more likely, to attempt suicide in comparison to their straight peers. And nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt.

I began to think about the young kids who know they’re gay but don’t know what to call it or how to address it, how they have feelings of being different and that something is wrong with them. For a child who feels guilty or as though something is wrong with them, they often isolate and withdraw. It made me think about an episode on Oprah I watched many years ago where she interviewed four convicted child sex offenders. She wanted to understand why pedophiles do what they do and to her discovery, they intentionally and methodically seek out vulnerable children. The children who are away from the group, detached, quiet, otherwise withdrawn.

By talking about shame, we are exposing it and nipping it in the bud. Having uncomfortable conversations with children at a young age doesn’t put them at risk, instead, it does the opposite. It keeps them from risk. Dr. Brown says, “if you put shame in a petri dish, it only needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy it can’t survive. Shame can’t survive being spoken.”

My sister may or may not have a gay child. My cousin or her friends may or may not have gay children. But they might. To apply benign neglect and hope to have the conversation when their child comes out communicates something. It communicates that they’re uncomfortable with the conversation, which implies that it’s different, further perpetuating guilt, shame, and the closet experience.

Finally, why “messages from the playground?” The way I see it, we all played on the same playground. No matter where you’re from or how old you are, there are certain societal messages that we collectively agree with and using something lighthearted while discussing shame is very important if you want to have a conversation that lasts longer than two minutes. In my experience, we hear the words homophobia or internalized homophobia, and we either shut down, change the subject, or deny that we have it.

I’ve since talked to my sister, my brother, and other members of my family about being open with their kids. My five nieces and nephews are now very aware that Alyssa is not my girlfriend. I’ve also been talking to everyone I know about Messages from the Playground. My goal is to create a more open dialogue within the gay community around internalized homophobia and to raise awareness with parents about the possibility they may or may not have a gay child. At the very least, their children will jump rope or play tag with one on the playground. My ultimate goal is to heal homophobia before it begins and prevent bullying before it starts. Because as I recently read, “If we want to end internalized homophobia, we need to first end homophobia. It’s as simple as that.”

My invitation to you is to consider the messages from the playground you have about what it means to be a woman or a man. What about having a gay child? What about race? What about being gay? What about being straight? Think about what beliefs you have and how they impact your life, either positively or negatively. Our beliefs tell our story. By confronting your messages from the playground, you’re bringing them to the light. Once you bring something to the light, it can’t hurt you anymore.

And if the thought has ever crossed your mind of whether or not your child is gay, don’t not talk about it. Not communicating something communicates something. We’re in a time where the argument is no longer around whether or not homosexuality is a choice, the argument is around the choice whether or not to unconditionally support the child you love. As a parent, you have the potential to change the trajectory of your child’s life by being patient, supportive, and vulnerable. There are many resources, professional groups and individuals that are out there. Ask for guidance, follow your heart, and continue being the parent you’re capable of being.

As Bob Proctor says, “Kids are making up their mind, we’ve got to change ours. It’s a lot easier to make up your mind than it is to change it.”

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