“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” For Children

5 years ago

Following the Boy Scouts of America decision to continue excluding gay people from participating, many parents are venting their frustration with what they describe as the gay community’s assault on one of the last bastions of wholesome tradition – in the eyes of many, an assault on childhood itself: “Why do we have to talk about this? Why can’t you just let kids be kids?”

The Boy Scouts policy is an echo of the military’s now extinct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” applied to children. While the ban is harmful to the individuals affected, the rationale behind it reflects a broader code of silence that some people wish they could enforce universally. (Meanwhile, full grown Eagle Scouts - many of them fathers, some gay but mostly straight, are turning in their honors in protest.)

Image: Chris Lee via ZUMA Press.


I don’t expect people who believe being gay is sick or sinful to understand why it is important, compassionate and wise to explain to children that some women love women and some men love men, or why it is valuable for youth to have strong, openly gay role models in their lives. If somebody hates homosexuality, then it makes sense not to want to talk about it anymore than you want to tell your kids about cancer, toxic waste or the mafia.

But for straight parents who consider themselves to be accepting, the lingering unease that children learn that some people are gay is a problem. When you say that you want to “delay the conversation” until your children are adult enough “to handle it,” be aware of what you are asking your gay friends, family, and loved ones to do. 

You are asking us to go back into the closet. Hiding our sexuality isn’t about not discussing sex. It means hiding our families, not being able to explain why we know that it hurts to be different and that bullies are really just scared, and it undermines our ability to speak authoritatively about why it is best to be honest and truthful. You are asking your gay friends to be less than who we are, at the expense of many of the valuable things we have to offer your child. 

At the same time, when you cringe away from us as an “adult topic,” you give credence to the age-old slurs leveled against gay people that we are indecent, irresponsible, even dangerous to children. The truth is we are nurses, teachers and coaches, proud aunts and uncles who love your children as our own and who would walk through fire to protect your children from harm.

Nobody is suggesting that you tell your kids anything inappropriate – your child doesn’t need to know about any species of figurative birds or bees just yet – but children are perceptive. They pick up on things much sooner than we expect, and more than that, they often understand more deeply than we know. Love doesn’t confuse kids, but adults lying about it does, and that confusion can do a lot of harm.

Some might say that because I am not a parent, I can’t understand the challenges parents face. But while most parents have never been a gay child growing up in a straight world, it is entirely possible that they have a son or daughter who is. 

I was ten years old when I first had an inkling of my feelings for girls (some LGBT people can trace their knowledge back even younger). Part of what scared me was the simultaneous realization that these feelings were something that my parents had never spoken of. 

As I grew older, I learned that these feelings had a name I’d never heard – and I learned that some parents would cast their children out on the streets when they came out. Studies show that forty percent of young homeless people are LGBT, most of whom experienced family rejection. Many parents don’t react this way, of course, but how was I supposed to know? My parents had never said anything to make me believe they’d be different from the horrific stories I’d heard.

That silence taught me to feel shame and self-loathing even when I didn’t know why, and it took a long time to overcome. Many LGBT youth never do completely overcome that internalized homophobia, and some even die of it. How many lives would be spared if kids like me grew up seeing gay couples treated as unremarkable rather than unspeakable?

Even if a child is heterosexual, by raising them in this code of silence we risk passing on antigay prejudice. Nobody wants to believe that their child could become the bully who drives their classmate to suicide, but those cruel kids have parents. Hatred is often taught by accident.

Parents, what are you really afraid of? Is it so hard to say that Aunt Jane and Mary are married because they love each other, or to explain that cousin Jose has two dads? If you are confident in your belief that your gay friends are perfectly normal, your children will hear that and act accordingly. The question is, do you really believe it? Or is your love for your gay friends conditional?

“Hide and seek” is a children’s game, and for the sake of all children it is long past time our society left it behind. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is done.


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