brucekluger.com

    USA Today, December 8, 2004

    Noisy debate forgets the kids

    By Bruce Kluger


    The conversation, as related to me by my eight-year-old,
    Bridgette, could have come straight from the script of an
    After-School TV special.

    “My father says God didn’t make gay people,” Bridgette’s
    schoolmate, Ronny, told her one morning before class.

    “That’s wrong,” objected Bridgette, trying to keep her true-
    blue-state liberalism in check. “It’s not nice, either. My
    uncle is gay, and you’d really like him. He’s just the same
    as you and me.”

    “Uh-uh,” said Ronny. “He’s gay. And my father says God
    made Adam and Evenot Adam and Steve.”

    Bridgette measured her next words carefully. Ronny is black, and she didn’t want to
    offend him.

    “Well, didn’t Martin Luther King say we’re all are equal,” she asked, “and that we
    shouldn’t judge other people by things like skin color?”

    “Gay isn’t a color,” Ronny said flatly. End of discussion.

    If there’s one thing for which we can credit Election 2004, it’s the way the rancorous
    squabbling over social issues brought into high relief the legacy we leave our
    children. Kids routinely adopt their parents’ beliefs, and more than once over the
    past year, I watched in fascination as Bridgette’s peer group struggled to
    enunciate—and defend—what they’ve been taught at home.

    Nothing wrong with that. As parents, we spoon-feed our worldviews to our kids,
    believing that we’re doing right. In my house, the gay issue has always been a no-
    brainer. Discrimination of any sort, I tell my girls, is flat-out wrong. And besides, as
    Ronny now knows, my oldest brother is gay.

    Yet Bridgey’s crossfire with her classmate taught me a valuable lesson: that it’s an
    exercise in futility to try to covert the inconvertible; and that, as a dad, I’d be a lot
    less frustrated if I minded to my own kids and minded my own business.

    Easier said than done. After all, how can any of us avert our eyes when those who
    denounce homosexuality “for the sake of our children” are getting it so wrong? How
    can we ignore the fact that, whether the proselytizers like it or not, there are gay
    kids out there who need compassion, not condemnation?

    According to The Trevor Project, a non-profit organization that provides a national
    help line (866-4U-TREVOR) for gay and questioning teenagers, gay teens are
    three times as likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers. Isolated,
    confused and often prone to substance abuse, gay kids are caught in the nastiest
    of binds: harboring secret longings, yet often unable to express them to those
    closest in their lives for fear of abandonment.

    Further tormenting these kids, meanwhile, is the noisy debate currently being
    conducted by the grown-ups in their lives. When a child is contemplating suicide,
    does it really matter if homosexuality is “nature or nurture?” Does the bickering over
    gay marriage begin to cut through their panic? Do they give a damn about a
    Constitutional Amendment?

    Imagine the teenager whose relationship with his buddy has become more
    distracting than rewarding; or the adolescent schoolgirl whose crush on her best
    friend has blossomed in her mind into something she doesn’t understand, but still
    desires. Then picture their reactions when, in a desperate effort to seek guidance
    the only safe way they know howvia the Internetthey log onto websites devoted
    to “family” issues.

    “Homosexuality is only one symptom of fallen humanity,” writes James Dobson of
    Focus on the Family, who defines same-sex attraction among adolescents as a
    “pre-homosexual” disorder. “The only place a person can find healing and
    wholeness is at the foot of the cross.”

    Or on the website for the Traditional Values Coalition (which, for the record, not
    only deplores homosexuality, but also the National Institutes of Health, the Big
    Brothers-Big Sisters organization, Amazon.com, Rosie O’Donnell, Dolly the Sheep,
    and Boston), Rev. Louis Sheldon warns that girls experimenting with bisexuality are
    headed for “a long journey toward being bedridden in an AIDS hospice and
    experiencing a slow, painful death.”

    Or the American Family Association, which skips the Bible-thumping and goes
    straight for the stats. “Homosexual activity is up to three times deadlier than
    smoking,” claims AFA. “As with smoking, homosexual behavior's ‘second hand’
    effects threaten public health….Thus, individuals who engage in homosexual
    behavior threaten not only their own lives, but the lives of the general population.”

    Someone had better alert the Surgeon General.

    “Not surprisingly,” says Jorge Valencia, Executive Director of The Trevor Project,
    “our calls have increased over the last year from 200 per month to 900. These kids
    no longer feel there’s a safe place for them to discuss what they’re feeling inside,
    not in their homes, their communities, or within their religious beliefs. They’re afraid
    to talk to anyone close to them. They’re looking to us to keep them alive day to day.

    “We don’t dwell on whether the child is truly gay or simply experiencing passing
    homosexual impulses,” Valencia adds. “We’re just there for them to talk to. We want
    them to live to be happy and healthy adults, regardless of who they choose to love.”

    A few days after Bridgette’s and Ronny’s face-off, I pulled their teacher aside and
    quietly told him about him. He immediately beamed.

    “Why the smile?” I asked.

    “Because they’re eight years old and they’re working it out," he said, clearly proud
    of his charges. "And they're doing it in a sophisticated way that most grown-ups
    can't manage. It's never okay to be intolerant, but back in my day, straight kids
    threw rocks at the gay kids. Now they’re talking to each other. We’ve come a long
    way.”

    True enough. But given the post-election ascendancy of the religious right, and the
    way the Administration is pumping up the volume on “values,” let’s just hope the
    kids can work it out before it’s too late.