Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Loco Parentis, Emphasis On The "Loco"

I have a guilty pleasure to confess: I’ve been watching The L Word on DVD since the summer.

Actually, it’s now more guilty than a pleasure. I thought the first season was promising, but the writing has gone downhill since then as the producers try to cover every issue known to Lesbian, from artificial insemination to breast cancer to repressed memories of childhood abuse to FTM transitioning to Olivia Cruises. I’m now in the middle of the fourth season, on the eve of the DVD release of the fifth, and something interesting has happened, almost a breath of real life.

Shane McCutcheon (still my favorite character, by the way) was reunited at the end of Season Three with her long-lost father, who’d apparently settled down and fathered a son called Shay, now nine or ten years old. But things fell apart, and Shay’s mother deposited the boy literally on Shane’s porch, then disappeared, leaving Shane in loco parentis. Struggling with the responsibility, she enrolled Shay in a public school, where she met hot single mom Paige, whose son Jared befriended Shay. The boys were teased at school by other boys who said they must be gay since their ‘moms’ were gay; Shay and Jared defended their honor with fisticuffs, so Paige and Shane had to have a meeting with the Principal.

Shane was defensive in the scene, Paige confrontative. When the Principal suggested that Shay and Jared apologize to the boys they’d hit, Paige asked why the boys who’d teased them shouldn’t be required to apologize first. This is a public school, the Principal explained evasively, and we have a responsibility to the parents… No, Paige countered, you have a responsibility to make these kids into decent human beings. I don’t know how to talk about that, the Principal said sheepishly but also (was it my imagination?) a bit proudly. Well, then, said Paige, Shane and I will.

We next see them in a classroom with the boys’ classmates, two parents, and a facilitator (the teacher? he reads gay to me) who spews psychobabble about diversity and respect. The other mom in the scene objects to teaching nine-year-olds about the “gay lifestyle,” and from there the scene falls quickly apart, descending into sentimentality. It’s not that sentimentality or respect are bad things in themselves, only that some important opportunities were missed here. As one who has often dealt with such questions speaking to classes and other audiences, I desperately wanted to kibitz.

Our speakers bureau usually supplies panels to college classes, but even there we get some young parents who ask belligerently how they’re supposed to explain today’s greater gay visibility to their five-year-olds. They make it reasonably clear that they expect us to advocate showing their five-year-olds gay porn videos with leather daddies fisting each other, so they’re surprised when we ask them how they explain heterosexuality to their kids. (Do they tell them about lap dances, Reverse Cowgirl, and Pearl Necklaces?) If I were going to explain the existence of gay people to a young child, I’d say that it’s like their mom and dad: most of the time people fall in love with someone of the other sex, but sometimes a man falls in love with another man, or a woman with another woman. The belligerent parents don’t seem to like this answer --it’s not what they were prepared to hear, and it undercuts their prepared outrage – but so far I haven’t heard them offer any kind of rebuttal to it.

Even more important in The L Word’s situation, though, is that the only reason the “lifestyle” came up was because the belligerents’ kids were using homosexuality to tease other kids. I’d ask the belligerent parents in that episode how they thought such teasing could best be prevented: make them take some responsibility for their kids’ attitudes. Why not put them on the defensive for a change? The standard way of dealing with minority kids’ being picked on is education, demystifying the difference to try to get the majority kids to remember that the minority is human too. How well this works in practice, I don’t know – teasing and bullying, from what I can tell, generally have less to do with specific minority traits than with dominance games among kids. I’d also want to ask the Principal what sort of anti-bullying program his nice, upscale public school has.

Years ago, speaking in a dormitory, a panel I was on was asked what we would do, if we managed to become parents, when the Principal at our child’s school called to say that he’d been told that our little Johnny had two moms, or two dads. The questioner had that grim, aggrieved look that so many bigots have when they’re trying to confront us with reality and put us in our place. I asked him why he thought that gay parents wouldn’t already have talked to the Principal and their child’s teacher. He looked utterly surprised: apparently he’d thought that gay parents would just cower at home and hope that nothing too bad would happen. (That would be Shane’s stance, I think, because she hadn’t expected to have this responsibility for a nine-year-old and hadn’t had time to think it through; she’s not much of a thinker anyhow.) I don’t doubt that some gay parents would do exactly that, but not all of them. I told him that I thought becoming parents would have an interesting effect on a lot of gay people who still feel they have no right to exist: you can pick on us, but if you go after our kids, you can expect trouble.

I’ve seen similar questions raised with regard to other minorities. Once there was an online discussion (I’m using “discussion” charitably, of course) of “interracial” marriages and the problems their offspring would have: wouldn’t the kids get picked on? Well, kids always get picked on. It popped into my head to ask why everyone seemed to think that bigotry is a force of nature, and that biracial kids (or monoracial kids, or minority religious kids, or gender-nonconformist kids, or kids of gay parents) are illegal immigrants into American society, so nothing can or should be done to defend them. Being a bigot isn’t something you’re born with, it’s a lifestyle choice, and so (by bigots’ criteria) bigots are fair game for disapproval, harassment, and outright persecution. It’s really long past time for us to be on the defensive against bigotry. I’ve been saying for years that there should be no Safe Space for bigotry; I want a backlash.