Today I had a playground conversation with the mom of a schoolmate of my 10-year-old son. She confided that her son had been sent to the principal for using the word (whispered) "gay." She told me in hushed tones, "You hear it everywhere. You can't turn on the TV without gay and lesbian being pushed in your face."
She was clearly upset. I was upset, too.
I grew up in a small town, the daughter of a gay man in the days before Modern Family and Ellen gave a face to homosexuality in our culture. I loved my family, and as most kids do, I wanted to share stories of vacations, birthdays, to simply talk about my life with my friends. I learned quickly and painfully it was a mistake to reveal my true self in front of the "wrong" kids. Attending school was like walking through a minefield of slurs and degradation. I was humiliated and shamed, and worst of all, the teachers turned a blind eye. No one stood up for me, and I was too embarrassed and ashamed to tell my parents. I survived by hanging onto a vision of the future, when I would prove them all wrong, and fight for others like me.
Until I was at least 20, I had to screen the friends I told about my family, fearing rejection and harassment. The comments by my schoolmates, sometimes even my friends, were ignorant, bigoted and downright disgusting—and oh, how they hurt. I wish I had been brave enough then to stand up to each one of those attacks, but as a kid, I couldn't admit how badly they stung, how they made me want to disappear and wish for a do-over in life.
I grew up with a loving and supportive family. Once my dad met his life partner, my family life was complete; we loved, grew and thrived together in this nontraditional but beautiful family. Our only problem was living in a culture where hate and bigotry were acceptable, so that sharing this joy was almost impossible without fear of repercussion.
Thankfully, our country has progressed, and many now believe, as I do, that being gay is not a choice, that family is not just by blood, and that no one should have to suffer because of his or her sexual orientation. For the past seven years I have lived in this progressive community I have seen gay families embraced. It almost made me forget that oppression still exists. That is, until the discrimination amendment was placed on our ballot.
North Carolina lawmakers are using their bully pulpit in a calculated maneuver to excite their electoral base. If this amendment passes, it will trumpet the message that it is acceptable in North Carolina to treat gays and lesbians as less than fully human, sanctioning the bullying and oppression of them and their second-class families.
Our gay and lesbian youth and families deal with this emotional chaos every day when society legitimizes oppression. They could stand up, shake it off, and move on when a bully starts harassing them, calling them or their family crude names. Or they could crumble, want to disappear and wish for a different life, internalizing the hatred they experience. It is the kind of hopelessness you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. More than 4,000 children a year commit suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How many of them were bullied or harassed due to factors they couldn't control?
Back on the playground, I told the mother that I love my gay parents and my children love their gay grandparents. I told her that when a kid says "gay" in school in a derogatory way, he is hurting some children more than he knows. Who will be the next victim to be harassed and bullied? She was clearly taken aback, and looked dismayed, so I didn't say any more.
If I could go back to that playground, I would tell her that kids are never too young to learn about love and tolerance. They should learn the words "gay" and "lesbian" at an early age, not as words to be embarrassed about, kept secret or used carelessly to wound others. Finding that one person to love and to share life with is something extraordinary, no matter if it is a man or a woman. If all children were taught these simple truths, we could save countless children from suicide due to an unthinking cruelty. We could create a culture where all of our children are allowed to celebrate their families without consequences.
It's up to you. On May 8, we have a chance to set just one example of tolerance for our children. I ask you as a mother, as a daughter, and as a friend to join me in voting against writing hatred and discrimination into our constitution.
Kate Fellman lives in Durham.