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Parents of a Girl and a Boy

Dear Mom—

I was out for drinks the other night with some friends, all parents of tweenage girls, and the topic of conversation drifted towards talk of the eating issues (and accompanying bullying) that our daughters face.  I am concerned for Isabella (and all these beautiful young women) and know that she will undoubtedly encounter her share of struggles as she grows up in a world that has such a narrow definition of what it means to be a beautiful woman.

As I sat there listening, empathizing, and worrying, I couldn’t help thinking that our boys face issues all their own, but I rarely hear them discussed in conversation with other parents or getting much play in the media.  Still, in 2014 no less, young men are presented with a narrow idea of what it means to be a man.  Any parent who has set foot in a Toys R Us or shopped for clothes at Target knows that the majority of products marketed for boys—from t-shirts to pajamas, bed sheets to iPhone apps, magazines, and books—are related to sports, competition or violence. For good measure we allow a side helping of superheroes, trucks and trains, and space travel.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with boys following an interest in any of these things, the trucks, the superheroes, the sports. Certainly there are boys who don’t want to wear Skylanders pajamas or play with Nerf guns, and there are parents who don’t fall into the trap of only supplying those kinds of toys and apparel for their boys. However, what bothers me is that this division still exists between boy toys and girl toys, boy colors and girl colors, boy activities and girl activities. And unfortunately, if boys don’t take much of an interest in the boy things, it marks them as different, which I think is a code word for girly.  Of course the next stop after that is being called a fag.

I don’t blame you or dad for encouraging me to participate in sports as a kid.  As I mentioned earlier in the week, I turned out okay and am pretty well adjusted.  If anything, I recognize how challenging it is as a parent to buck these societal trends and ingrained stereotypes.  Patrick and I are caught in the thick of it as we try to parent Jordan and Isabella, and most of the time it feels like our failures far outweigh our successes.

I don’t think we have ever purchased Jordan a doll, a toy that related to cooking or sewing, or anything that was pink. Instead, we steadily encouraged his love of trains and Legos, and have been desperate to find a sport for him that he likes. The irony is not lost on me that he seems to not be so fond of competitive team sports (what’s that they say about apples falling not far from trees?).   Isabella has not escaped the gender role stereotypes; I’m sure there are lots of Seattle moms who cringe when their daughters come to play at our house because of the big pile of Barbie dolls upstairs.

One of the benefits of having a household led by two men is that our kids see men doing all the work, the lawn-mowing and appliance repair, and the cooking, cleaning and laundry. Patrick and I have the chores we have taken on (I’m on laundry and Patrick does grocery shopping) but it comes from a place of liking those chores (or perhaps hating them less) rather than having to do them because they fit an expected role.

I saw you and Dad doing this, at least to some extent, when I was young.  Did you feel hemmed in by gender roles? As the first woman in your family who worked full time outside of the home, I often wonder how you managed to negotiate a world that was different from the one your mother lived in.

As parents, you did encourage me to do sports and to fit with that particular gender expectation, but you and dad also both went out of your way to meet me where I was and encourage my other interests.  You volunteered for every play I was in during high school, and spent hours backstage helping with make-up and costumes.  The excitement and support I got from you and dad both at the end of a show (or a piano recital) was immense and validating.

I recognize that Dad had to push himself out of his comfort zone on numerous occasions. I have a vivid memory of a particularly warm and sunny Saturday afternoon when Dad was asking me to come outside and play catch in the backyard. I wanted to stay inside instead, eager to practice the new-found skill I was cultivating at making tissue flowers.  Although he was less than pleased, Dad came into the kitchen, pulled up a chair, and asked me to teach him how to make one.

Almost 40 years later, I am frustrated that as a society we are not farther along.  Although there have been palpable changes, I wish that the gender role expectations were less rigid and less powerful than they are for my kids. However, I’m going to use you and dad as my role models, and do what I can to parent the kids I have in front of me, trying to validate and cultivate their unique interests and personalities. We try to present our kids with a wide variety of choices, sending Jordan to gymnastics classes as well as soccer, not forcing Isabella to wear dresses when she doesn’t want to, and encouraging both of them to join us in the kitchen to cook and bake.

Your actions as parents let me know that I was loved and that my interests were worthy and valid.  Gender stereotypes are not going anywhere soon, and that is one of the things that makes parenting today as difficult as it was for you and Dad.  Patrick and I push forward, hoping to raise children who feel loved, respected and cherished for who they are and whatever they pursue, and feel like they have many, many options in front of them, despite what society may tell them.

Love, Christopher

Figure Skates, Barbies, and the High School Musical

Dear Mom,

When I was a kid I never owned a pair of hockey skates.  While Mark was out on the rink, I was silently wishing that we couldn’t be home with a warm cup of hot cocoa making cookies.  I hated having to play Little League, and at birthday parties and play dates (well, we never called them that back in the 1900s!) I was much more likely to join the girls and their Barbie dolls than the boys tossing a football.  I was consistently a target during middle school dodge ball games in gym class, and barely made it through two years on the high school swim team. I hated sports.  I liked cooking, and my pet bunny rabbit, and being a part of the musicals at St. Joe’s and Mt. St. Mary’s.

CRD and Mark HockeyOkay, so I grew up a stereotype. (Did you really not know I was gay?!) In many ways I still am that sports-avoiding stereotype.  Is that so wrong? Maybe; I struggle just a little with the idea of it. Of course, I am who I am, perfectly happy to be without a Saturday football viewing routine. But, in some ways I wish I were more able to defy the stereotype.

The men in my life while I was growing up—Dad, Mark, our neighbors, my male cousins, most of my friends from St. Rose and St. Joes—liked playing, watching, and talking about sports.  In that way they fit the stereotype of the straight guy. But you are right: I have some fine examples of family members who bust through that stereotype in many ways, not the least of which is how they support me as a gay man.  Mark was the first family member I told I was gay, and was there for me as support when I came out to you and Dad. Only a few months after I came out, Dad sent me articles about gay men who were adopting children, and years later joined you in walking me down the aisle at my wedding.  I see in both of these men the kind of man I want to be and want Jordan to be (regardless of whether he is gay or straight): kind, generous, devoted to family, and someone who contributes equally to the raising of children and the running of a home.

Dale Hansen’s reaction to Michael Sam’s announcement of his sexual orientation definitely brought tears to my eyes (again, not the classic manly reaction, at least according to society’s gender norms).  As you point out, beyond my family there are lots of old and young straight guys out there who are not bigoted, who do not fit the stereotype.  Most of America seems ready for Michael Sam to be out, proud, and playing in the NFL.

I hope that Michael Sam is drafted into the NFL.  My straight male colleagues tell me it is almost a certainty (although they mention that he probably will not get the huge payday he might have had he played it straight).  I hope that his tenure in the NFL is long and storied.  I hope that his bravery inspires the many other closeted players in the NFL to come out, and inspires future draft choices to be open about their sexual orientation.

Whatever happens to him and his NFL career, even his announcement helps to dismantle the old stereotype of what it means to be a gay man.  Many gay men do like—and are really good at—sports. I hope some straight guys will let their appreciation for athletic skill override their bigotry.

But more than that, I hope that we as a society will start to break down gender stereotypes wholesale. Wouldn’t that be great? I think about my own role in this. How do I perpetuate or dismantle stereotypes with my students? How do fay jokes with my friends, gay or straight, reinforce gay stereotypes?  In what ways have I perpetuated gender stereotypes in my parenting of Jordan and Isabella?

I think the lesson from Michael Sam’s announcement, the reaction to it inside and outside of the NFL, and Dale Hansen’s commentary is that while we are at a great place in this journey, there is still more work to be done. But, it’s heartening to see it being done…and so publicly.

Love, Christopher

Old White Guys

Dear Christopher,

Old white guys like the Dallas newscaster, Dale Hansen, can evidence good common sense.  His rant about the criticism Michael Sam, the first out gay player, has endured is right on the money. He pointedly made clear that bigotry is bigotry, even when it makes people uncomfortable. I heard him interviewed on NPR the day after this editorial of his went viral. The interviewer said she was surprised that a Texas sportscaster who also is an old white guy (she said it more diplomatically than that) would express such views.  That comment made me think of the old white guys I know well in our own family.

Stereotypes abound, but here is one: that old white guys who happen to be straight are bigoted. Your dad is a great example to counter that idea. He is a straight man raised on God, Country, Notre Dame, and most especially football, which you know he loves. He played it in high school and he watches it on TV religiously. (Well, Notre Dame games are a religious experience.)  Finding out that his son is gay was not what he wanted or even expected to hear.  Yet, though it was hard for him at first, he never ever once thought of doing anything but loving you.  He is one of your greatest supporters.  And one of gay rights greatest supporters.  He volunteers for AIDS Community services. We go to local fundraisers to support gay organizations in Buffalo.  Yes, he is an old white guy.  A sports guy.  But he has common sense.  Most of all he has love.

Even your old white uncles, when they learned about you, they both said they loved you and supported you.  This is despite their being to the right of Mitt Romney.  Both Rush Limbaugh conservatives.

Your brother Mark has been nothing but supportive from what I have observed over the years.  Of course he is not old, but he is a white guy and a jock. Played sports in high school and college and loves and plays them now.

Then there was your very old grandfather, Pa June, as everyone called him. In my first conversation with Pa after he knew about you, he told me that he was upset we in the family did not know when you were in high school. That really upset him most, that you were so lonely in those high school days.

These folks who talk about discomfort or who talk about gay people in denigrating ways should stop to think about our human family.  They are hurting not only gay people themselves, but also their extended families. No, maybe the old white guys who run the NFL may not be ready for a gay player in the locker room, but I bet lots of other guys, both players and fans, would have the brains to judge players by how they perform, not who they love.  If they don’t then maybe they will learn something new.

Love, Mom