When I was nineteen, my father was the faculty sponsor for the Gay and Lesbian Students’ Association at Rice University in Houston. They had to have a faculty sponsor in order to be recognized by the university, but no one would sponsor them. My dad was glad to do it. In the first year of the association, the students took their group yearbook photo with bags over their heads. They were afraid their parents, or worse, potential employers, would find out.
We were driving along I-45 one afternoon. I was home from college for the summer and dad was telling me about the group. “I don’t have anything against gay people,” I said, “but I sure wouldn’t want one teaching any kid of mine.”
There was a pause. “Why not?”
“It’s just weird,” I said. “I wouldn’t want them, you know, teaching gay values to my son.”
“What are gay values?”
“You know, men having sex with other men. I’m not good with that.”
“How are people’s private sex lives ‘values’?” he asked. “And how does one teach sexual preference? Is that what your heterosexual teachers taught you?”
I remember getting really angry. “Look, dad, I’m glad you’re sticking up for these kids, but I don’t want them teaching my kids, all right? I just don’t!”
I have thought about that conversation for a long time, and about all the bigotry and prejudice it contained. Why such an emotional reaction? And why was the first objection I raised related to my own children, children I didn’t even have and in fact never even planned to have?
For years, long after my opinion on the subject changed, I chalked it down to homophobia. I had been raised in the racist and bigoted hell hole of the deep South, and had absorbed some of its worst prejudices while thankfully not absorbing others.
Then someone made the comment that there really isn’t such a thing as homophobia. People who perpetrate violence and intolerance against gays aren’t in truth afraid of homosexuals, they are afraid of the homosexuality impulse within themselves and the terrible emotional dissonance — not to mention religious, familial, and personal repercussions — that could result from openly expressing that impulse.
It is a common joke among cyclists that, for men at least, the hobby is a kind of apotheosis of gay behavior. We shave our legs, dress up in our skin-tight underwear, endlessly obsess about kit colors and designs, and spend 15, 20, or 30 hours a week nuzzled up against the sweaty asses of other men. With the exception of football, soccer, basketball, hockey, swimming, accounting, church, Islam, corporate boardrooms, courts of law, prison, and life, nothing could possibly be gayer.
It is also common knowledge that some of us are gay or lesbian, and the only distinction seems to be that some are open and down with it, and some are not. And of course there are many in our ranks who have gay or lesbian kids. It is in this context that a cyclist friend made the announcement on Facebook a couple of days ago that her child was transgender.
“Announcement” is the wrong word, of course. It is a cold, authoritarian, imperial word, warmer than “edict,” but not by much. What those parents did was not announce, but embrace. For an old person, for a young person, for any person to be denied the love and acceptance of a parent as a result of simply being who they were made to be is as terrible a thing as its opposite is wonderful and beautiful: being given the unconditional love of a parent regardless of the emotions and attractions that swirl around inside you.
These parents, people who are high profile in the admittedly minor world of cycling, publicly celebrated their child with the kind of acceptance and love that we unfortunately still desperately need in a world where non-heterosexuality still finds itself the object of bigotry and hatred. And in that public celebration, they gave their child the ultimate gift.
What was even more astonishing about these parents and their public embrace was the effect that it had on me. I thought keenly about that conversation with my own father more than thirty years ago, and about how his acceptance of his students was also an acceptance of me, regardless of the form of my sexuality. Even though I am married to a woman and am a lover of women, my father’s attitude let me know that if within myself, attraction to men was also part of me then it would be accepted without questioning or judgment or anything else.
And when you think about it, how else can you describe the camaraderie and masculine pleasure that a man gets from cycling other than as “attraction to men”? And why should I be ashamed of it? As the two parents mentioned above reminded me, and as my own father obliquely suggested so many years ago, I shouldn’t.
And I hope you aren’t, either.
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