We lie to children all the time. From the invention of Santa Claus to the theory that you'll go blind if you don't eat carrots, it is a social norm to lie to kids in order to protect them and their best interests. Kids are innocent creatures until corrupted. We want to promote the good and important things about life so as to steer their moral compass in the right direction, enabling them to have every opportunity to become happy, healthy, well-balanced human beings.
So what about homosexuality? Where do we stand on telling children why Adam and Steve are holding hands? Is there an appropriate age that something like this should be discussed or is it better for the child to discover of their own accord? Even though children become aware of heterosexual relationships early on, is the whole concept of homosexuality just too jarring to even refer to? It is an interesting question especially given how liminal the whole idea of homosexuality is right now, in that it has certainly become more acceptable but is still rejected.
I work in a photo studio in the heart of Dublin City as a copywriter. From my relatively uncomfortable office chair and behind a very generic looking computer screen, I witnessed a rather thought-provoking scene that fully ignited this question in my mind for the first time in my 25 homosexual years.
We were doing a kidswear shoot, so the small studio was teaming with a variety of little munchkins, each accompanied by a gaggle of pageant moms, delighting in the prospect of their daughter getting a makeover from the team we had hired in. All proceeded as usual until one little girl, who was no older than eight, was raised into the unconscionably high make-up chair we had set up by the window. The groomer- a soft-spoken, well-mannered man in his early-to-mid thirties, got to work immediately and was both impeccably professional and friendly. Just as he was sorting out her tangle of hair, the girl absentmindedly asked if he had a wife. I think it needs to be clarified that it was not a pointed question in any sense and was by no means asked with any sort of malice from the girl. It was a normal, mundane question, but you could immediately see the panic cross the groomer's face.
He was gay. I ascertained this earlier when he was speaking to my manager and mentioned his partner. This small fact had suddenly turned a run of the mill question on its head, loading it with a plethora of perceived issues. I could palpably sense the stress of the situation as potential answers swirled in the groomer's mind, each that would kindle impending scenarios. He was clearly struggling to find the response that would essentially cause the least amount of 'damage.'
Ultimately, he decided to lie, saying that he did indeed have a wife and was even prompted for a name from the inquisitive child. And so the tale spiralled for a few minutes as he falsified information to placate the barrage of questions, clearly uneasy with the track the little conversation had taken. After, he looked over at me as if to apologise (I guess I just have resting gay face) and tried to explain his actions in a light-hearted way, as if he had done something wrong or disrespectful, and I guess to a certain extent he had. He could have very easily just said no, he didn't have a wife and not elaborate, but something compelled him.
Perhaps he wanted to put the child at ease, make her think he was 'normal' for all intents and purposes, after all, he needed her cooperation for the day so he could make the necessary adjustments to her hair and make-up for the shoot. Maybe he was struggling with his conscious, not wanting to disrespect his partner by disregarding his existence entirely but knew intrinsically how burdened his response could be if he told the full truth to the young girl. Or perhaps the child's parents caused the terror, not wanting to in some way circumnavigate their wishes that their daughter be brought up in a specific way. In all honesty it could have been a litany of things that made him lie, but there is no escaping the fact that it was a sad moment. A moment of failure and unease, a moment when I began to look at myself as being different again, when I saw myself as society sees me, something that isn't completely right.
Of course I don't blame the groomer even in the slightest. It is a terribly awkward situation to be in for a number of reasons as no one answer was really safe, for want of a better word. While it would have been nice to see the conversation just flow as normal, when you're gay, sometimes this is still impossible. Our society, though vastly improved, still treats homosexuality as something to be considered, and as a result there are no hard and fast rules to follow in situations like this. While being gay isn't illegal in this country anymore, outside of defined 'gay spaces', it is still not the same as being straight. It is not equal, and not until the groomer is able to say 'no, but I do have a husband' without having to instinctively check the situation, do I believe that the 'issue' has fundamentally changed.
Had the groomer been straight (or single for that matter) the conversation would be deemed normal and forgotten about almost as soon as it had been uttered. But when a gay person is asked such an innocent question it immediately becomes complicated. We lie to children all the time to protect them, and that's understandable but this isolated scene just made me feel uneasy. If we take children to be pure and good creatures, then where does that place homosexuality on this scale? It is a chilling realisation. We're still hiding, albeit not all the time and not in all situations, but hiding nonetheless. If even an out gay man has to hesitate when talking to a child about the person he loves, then there is fundamentally an issue. He was out and had no need to conceal himself, but nonetheless felt compelled to lie to the child about who he was. Just as Panti Bliss said in her Noble Call speech, it simply feels like another case of having to check yourself.
In all truth, I often even forget that I am gay and it's a blessing. I go to work and nothing is said to explicitly remind me. I go home and kiss my boyfriend and it feels normal. I ring my family and we share our news. I socialise with my friends and feel just like them. Because in all truth, I am. But it's moments like this. Small, seemingly insignificant events that can easily be brushed off in seconds that reconfirm that I am, in fact, not, in this society's eyes. I am the other. I am the person you have to consider. I am the person who has to lie.