Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

My (Gay) Brother’s Keeper

Posted By on August 28, 2010

Dear Ari:

My brother is gay and has lived with the same man for 15 years. I have three kids, all girls who dearly love their uncle. My brother is especially close to my oldest. The other day my oldest, who is 11, asked, “Why does Uncle Scottie live with Uncle Tony?” I explained that sometimes people live together because they like each other and enjoy each others’ company. When would it be appropriate to explain my brother’s relationship? I wouldn’t want to do anything that would compromise my daughter’s relationship with her uncle. Thanks.
—Ryan W.

Dear Ryan:

It is encouraging to see heterosexual families grappling with issues related to the inclusion of their LGBT family members. Obviously, you care about your brother and have, in many ways, accepted his relationship and his partner into your extended family. As I am sure you know, LGBT siblings are often pushed out of their extended families, and their relationships with their nieces and nephews can be severely stymied.

It is not surprising that your daughter is beginning to ask about the nature of your brother’s family; at her age she would be very sensitive to the meaning of interpersonal relationships as she tries to understand the world around her. I am sure that her younger siblings are just as curious, although they may not yet have the language to formulate their questions.

I cannot help but wonder why you hesitated to simply say, “Uncle Scottie and Uncle Tony are partners—they are each other’s love, just like mommy and me.”

It’s important to examine why we struggle with naming the nature of the relationships (boyfriends, lovers, partners, spouses, husbands, etc.). What are the fears that arise, if we say words like love when thinking about gay couples and families? Explore carefully what your concerns are in telling your daughter about your brother’s family, and why you have not given her the language to understand the nature of their relationship, so that you are aware of your own internalized concerns. Our children can only name things once we give them the words.

Despite the rhetoric of anti-gay politicians, our children are not born into the world with a pre-conceived notion of what is a “normal” family. Like children all over the world, living in different cultures, tribes, nations, and societies, they learn what is “right” and socially acceptable by witnessing the world around them. They may notice what is common, as well as what is unusual, but we, as parents are the ones who help them make sense of this in a non-judgmental way that respects human diversity.

The reason that your daughter asked the question is because she noticed that something was “different” about Uncle Scottie’s family, and needed to have that acknowledged as well as normalized.

Explain to your daughter that Uncle Scottie and Uncle Tony are a family, that they are partners who love each other and have decided to build a life together; this will give her a frame of understanding that relationship. She will be able to file it, so to speak, under the heading of “families,” “lovers,” “partners.” If she then comments, as she is likely to, asking whether this makes them gay, the answer should be a simple, “Yes.” The words, “gay” and “lesbian” are words that children these days hear around them often and although they may have heard it used in a derogatory way in the school yard, it should not be flinched away from in our responses.

If she has been exposed to homophobic ideologies, she may have many questions about homosexuality being a sickness or a sin, reflecting her concern for an uncle who she adores. Again, these questions can be answered directly, emphasizing the values and morals of your family, for example: “We believe that Uncle Scottie and Uncle Tony love each other and that love is always a good thing.” “We think being gay is a completely normal and healthy way to be, and many people do love, marry and settle down with members of their own sex.” Remember, you will be modeling your acceptance of gay relationships for them, and they are very sensitive to subtleties of your expressions, eye contact, and body language.

One way to avoid these awkward teaching moments, is to discuss these ideas with your children from a much younger age. Do not wait until they are 11 and able to formulate a question. From the time they are toddlers, explain that there are all kinds of families, that some people love men and some people love women. As they get older, you can explain to them more about prejudice and bias, and oppression regarding issues of sexual identity, as well as race and ethnicity, in the world around us. The only reason that knowledge of her uncles’ sexual orientation would “compromise her relationship with him” would be if she has internalized society’s homophobia. The best way to ensure that this does not happen is through your modeling of your acceptance of your brother and combating outside bias by educating her about diversity, oppression, and tolerance.