Three-year-old Jim* leaned over and gave his four-year-old neighbor, Ivan, a big smooch on the lips. "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" yelled Jim's dad, making no effort to hide his distress. The kids didn't seem to notice Dad's outburst, but it's a message that children, especially boys, hear a lot: "Don't be gay."
That message is everywhere. Still, with a little effort and a mildly diverse social circle, I've found that it's way easier to socialize young children against compulsory heterosexuality than to counter other gender norms. Even my kid, who is still not entirely convinced that it's OK for boys to play princess, takes sexual diversity for granted, asking our friend Karen yesterday, "Are you looking for a girlfriend or husband?" Ivan didn't care which it was; he just wanted to know whether she was looking for somebody, and how that search was going. He's always been around same-sex couples; playing with little girls and finding that they always wanted to be the Mommy, too, he'd propose a sensible compromise: "We can be two mommies."
Apparently, all this gets more complicated as kids get older. Girls are pressured into ever more elaborate heterosexual romantic fantasy – which of course can be great fun, a point some readers feared I overlooked in my last post – and boys told much more explicitly not to be "faggots."
Jim's not alone in his lingering lack of concern on this point (though he's unusually generous with the kisses). Ivan and his close friends still walk down the street holding hands - without nervous giggles or bullying disclaimers. I'm sure this won't last forever – but for now, it's certainly sweet.
*Children's names are changed, unless I know their parents won't mind that I'm exploiting them here.