A few weeks ago I read a post over at Rhetorically Speaking about the Daily Mail’s objections to the LGBT History Month currently being introduced in UK schools. The post made me so angry that I couldn’t immediately form a response, although I’ve been mulling my reaction over ever since.
Basically, The Mail implies that LGBT history month is “political correctness gone mad”: totally unnecessary and potentially harmful. The Mail objects to advice given to teachers because the project aims to teach children about sex and gender diversity and about famous gay people from history who’ve made positive contributions to society.
Ok, you might say, but why are you getting so upset about this stupid paper? Well it disturbs me because it taps into my own childhood experiences and I can’t help but see The Daily Mail as a proud representative of the larger assault on LGBTQ children which is still supported by so many people in society. To what assault do you refer? The assault of silence; the assault of denying us our identities and our histories; the assault of refusing to acknowledge everything LGBT history month sets out to acknowledge. The Daily Mail’s bad journalism represents all those “I don’t care if they’re gay as long as they never speak about it” people. It represents everyone who supports the status quo and contributes to the confusion, loneliness, alienation and outright danger still suffered by queer children in our society. It confirms the thinking of all those who think it is better that queer children suffer and perhaps even die than that they should acknowledge the legitimate existence of queer people.
If you’re a straight person reading this, try and imagine what it would have been like to grown up with no positive acknowledgement of your sexuality or sexual identity. LGBT history month certainly won’t solve everything but it’s a start and, for some children, it might provide a lifeline. As queer theorist Michael Warner observes, “Almost all children grow up in families that think of themselves and all their members as heterosexual, and for some children this produces a profound and nameless estrangement a sense of inner secrets and hidden shame” (The Trouble with Normal 8).
There was a lot of good in my childhood, but I well remember the isolation, the nameless estrangement, alienation, depression, confusion and secretiveness which has characterised my own experience. To be sure, some children have nice, liberal parents who sit them down and explain that some people love people of the same-sex and that’s ok. But most of us don’t. Most of us still grow up expected to be straight with our parents afraid of even mentioning other possibilities, in case saying it makes it come true.
The idea that telling children about homosexuality will make them homosexual is one of the most insidious weapons of homophobic discourse. Silence won’t make your gay kids straight, but they probably will be more prone to depression, mental health problems and suicidal tendencies. Something like LGBT History month might have made a big difference to my own life. My upbringing, although non-normative in many respects, was certainly heteronormative. I grew up in a middle-class Roman Catholic family, initially in a rural area, later in a small town. At no point during my childhood was homosexuality mentioned in the home, nor was I made aware that there were any possibilities for desires or identifications outside the framework of heterosexual marriage. I couldn’t put any name to my sense of estrangement until I was about 9 and then it was not a good name. In a moment I still recall vividly, I was watching the film The Color Purple with my mother and at the moment when Shug and Celie kiss, the same moment I was thinking “Ah ha!” my mother exclaimed, “Oh, are they funny ladies?” I don’t know why she was asking me. At that moment I discovered three things: 1) The ladies were not Ha Ha funny 2) There was more going on in the world than they had been letting on 3) I identified with what I was seeing on screen more than with what I had so far understood to be sanctioned by my parents.
If we’d had LGBT history month in school I would have been taught about the existence of lesbians. It took me years to glean more information and often in guilty secret, because queerness is not nurtured or encouraged by even the most liberal of parents. It certainly did not occur to mine to entertain the possibility for one second. ‘Families’ says Gayle Rubin, quite rightly, ‘play a crucial role in enforcing sexual conformity’ (‘Thinking Sex,’ 22). This is not surprising because many families are simply too scared to do anything else. You will often come across arguments in favour of allowing gay people to adopt or have custody of their children on the basis that they won’t bring them up to be gay. Meanwhile, the morality of enforcing heterosexuality and strict gender norms on your children is rarely questioned.
I would ask people considering becoming parents what they would do to nurture an LGBTQ child, by which I also mean to nurture their queerness. Imagine encouraging your 14 year old gay son’s sexuality in the same way you would encourage your 14 your old heterosexual son. Imagine how you would be viewed as a parent! It doesn’t take long to realise in the current social climate it would be difficult and even perilous for parents to positively support their children’s queerness. Some queer theorists have argued that heteronormativity is a field of violence; they are right on many levels. We still have a very long way to go.