That’s So Gay

4:10 pm Essays

It was a flip remark, the kind 10-year-olds toss out as easily as Frisbees. “That’s so gay,” said my nephew, a blue-eyed kid I nicknamed Charlie Brown after his good nature and moon face.

He used the word as a slur to describe a movie he hated. He likened it to something awful, like visits to the dentist or measles on the Fourth of July. The casual jibe made me cringe.

If a member of my own family was so insensitive, I thought, then how could I expect the regular Joes to treat homosexuals as anything but disease-ridden pariah? My family, you see, includes a lesbian — my 45-year-old sister.

I pointed that out to my nephew, reminded him he knew someone gay, was related to someone gay. How, I asked, could the aunt who bought him the new skateboard he so coveted be likened to something he hated? He didn’t have an answer. Just a shrug. I wondered if I’d gotten through.

My sister came out when my nephew was 2. So he’d grown up knowing she was gay, knowing her live-in girlfriend — who also spoiled him rotten every chance she got. No one in the family ever whispered about my big sister Maryann, or tried to cover up the facts of her life.

In the same breath we talked about her relationship with Michelle, we talked about something their work with the homeless, their behind-the-scenes politicking, the house they were renovating from the studs up.

My sister declared herself a lesbian after 17 years of marriage and two kids. It was not a casual lifestyle change. She gave our parents a choice: either accept her and Michelle into the family, or say good-bye. Michelle gave her parents the same ultimatum.

My folks invited the pair to Christmas dinner. Michelle’s mother hasn’t spoken to her since.

After such exposure, I guess I expected more from my nephew. But he is, after all, only 10. He’s subject daily to the pressures of coming adolescence, to the playground taunts of peers whose only exposure to gays comes through movie or TV stereotypes — limp-wristed swishers or ice-pick wielding psychopaths.

I was reminded of his remarks when I read about the people who harassed a group of lesbians after the Gay Rights March on Washington. The women were taunted in a subway after they were recognized as participants in the “Dyke March.”

Others who were harassed, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, included a group in a bus who were threatened at gunpoint by a man in a passing car, and a Tampa, Fla., activist whose mobile home was torched.

This attitude is everywhere. In Texas, American Airlines had to apologize to a Dallas gay organization after it learned a flight crew asked the blankets and pillows be replaced on a jetliner that had taken gay activists home from the march. The airline called the incident “outrageous, objectionable and unfortunate” — after it changed the pillows.

Neither my sister nor Michelle attended the march, which attracted 200,000 from around the country. They were busy that day with a fundraiser, trying to rustle up money for a home built by and for the needy.

I don’t usually think of my big sister as a lesbian. I use other labels: activist, hard worker, caring mom. Having lived in San Francisco as well as a college community populated by numerous gays and lesbians, I’ve been lulled into believing most people accept gays the way I do — for what they do, not for who they do it with.

I’m brought back to reality much too often. Especially when I hear my nephew say things like “that movie was really gay.” When I was a kid that word meant happy.

Today, hearing it used that way, makes me sad.

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