Homo What’s the Matter With Kansas?
posted by April 6 at 11:15 AMon
Not much—provided you stay in Lawrence, Kansas, home to the University of Kansas and a pretty liberal, gay-friendly place. For, you know, Kansas.
Queers and Allies, the University of Kansas’ gay group, brought me in as a part of their Pride Week programming. I’m an odd choice for Pride Week . I have a rather famously low opinion of “pride” as currently practiced by the gays. Basically I think we should keep the parade, keep the parties, keep the floats and sex and dykes on bikes, but jettison the idea that being gay and out today is an accomplishment that should fill a person with pride. In the ’60s and ’70s? Sure. Now? Uh… I don’t think so. (I devoted a whole chapter to pride in my book Skipping Toward Gomorrah.)
Four of the guys that run the gay group took me to dinner before the event…
From left to right, Stefan, Ryan, David, and Jonathan.
Going out to dinner with thems that brung ya’ is a contractually obligated aspect of most speaking gigs—and it’s not always a pleasant contractually obligated aspect. Before you stand up and talk for a couple of hours in a lecture hall… you’re forced to sit down in a restaurant and talk for a couple of hours. But Stefan, Ryan, David and Jonathan were gracious enough to talk about themselves while I ate instead of making me talk. We discussed—what else?—their coming out stories. All four came out in high school or immediately after—two in small towns, two in the suburbs—which is more and more common.
Gays and lesbians are coming out younger and younger—lots of folks have pointed that out. I started coming out in high school and was totally out by the time I got to college. But I was exception among gay men at the time. How much so? I was the only out gay guy in the theater department at the University of Illinois. Years later most of the straight guys in my theater department had come out—after graduating from college, which was how most gay guys used to do it.
The most moving part of Stefan, Ryan, David, and Jonathan’s coming out stories, however, were the parts their parents played. With one exception, all four sets of parents were supportive—even if the boys didn’t always realize it. One set of parents oppressed their son by insisting that he, a sophomore at the time, not date a senior—because he was too young to be dating a senior, not because the senior was another boy. Another set of parents strongly disapproved of their son’s boyfriend—because his boyfriend directionless loser with a drug problem. But they’re delighted by his current boyfriend, a guy that’s in school, doesn’t abuse drugs (except tobacco), and has ambitions.
Another set of parents constantly warned their son to “be safe.” It got on his nerves. What he heard his mother saying was, “Gay people are diseased and you’re going to catch something now that you’re gay.” What I heard—as a grown-up gay person and a parent—was, “We know you’re sexually active and we want you to be careful. So be careful.”
That’s better than the old deal parents used to offer gay sons. Back in the bad ol’ days most parents couldn’t deal with idea that their gay sons might be having sex. They didn’t want to meet your boyfriends—and they certainly weren’t going to offer you any advice about your sexual conduct (“be safe”). They were willing to put up with your being out—they wanted to see you but not see it—but on the condition that you spare them from unpleasant mental images. The same parents that pried into every aspect of your straight siblings’ romantic lives—from who they were dating to whether they were sexually active to what kind of birth control they were using—were silent on the subject of their gay children’s romantic lives. They didn’t ask, you didn’t tell—and these were the supportive parents!
Things have changed so radically for the better. Even in Kansas. We obsess about the haters—there were rumors that Fred Phelps was going to show up at my talk in Lawrence, which is only 80 miles from his home base in Topeka—and sometimes forget to mark the slow, steady progress is being made. Increasingly parents with gay children step up and do the right thing. They treat their gay kids like the treat their straight kids—more straight parents are actually parenting their gay kids. They’re meddling, demanding good conduct (“be safe”), setting limits instead of turning a blind eye, expressing their approval or disapproval of certain boyfriends or girlfriends.
When it comes to the difficulties faced by gay youth—substance abuse, violence, depression, sexually transmitted infections—the discussion often goes like this: “What is the gay community going to do about the problems facing gay youth?” Uh… nothing? What can we do? The overwhelming majority of gay youth have straight parents and it’s up to straight parents to do something about the problems that confront their gay kids. Out gay adults living big cities can’t do anything for gay teenagers coming out in high school in Kansas. It’s up to their parents to, well, parent them.
Thank God more and more straight parents of gay children are doing just that.