Archie Andrews was a favorite comic character of my childhood, but I haven’t thought of him for many years, until last week. The news of Archie’s death, protecting his gay friend from a gunman, made headline news. When I heard the ‘breaking news’, and it did come across as breaking news, I thought it quite silly. The story felt like nothing more than a plan to sell comic books. But this morning Archie’s gay friend became part of my story.
I flew to Albany, New York last night for a one day trip to visit my son who’s working at a camp in the area. Separately, my wife (whom I’m separated from), my father-in-law, and my 9-year-old nephew drove up and met us at the hotel. My son wanted to get a haircut this morning, so before our planned activities, so we all went off to Neil’s Barbershop, and three of us got haircuts. In the car leaving the barbershop, the subject of Archie’s death came up. I think my father-in-law mentioned it. When my 9-year-old nephew asked who was Archie and why had he died, my wife, looking uncomfortable, jumped in to say he was a comic book character who died protecting a friend. My son, who was sitting next to me, gave me a look which I interpreted to mean, don’t say anything. We talked about Archie for another minute or two and then the conversation moved on. No one had used the word ‘gay’ at all.
In light of our discussion about Archie, the memory of another conversation a year earlier with my brother-in-law (my nephew’s father) came back to me. Shortly after my wife and I separated last summer, she asked me to meet individually with her immediate family to make it more comfortable for everyone, and particularly my son, when we were all together in the Fall for different holidays and family events. I thought it a good idea and agreed. My wife had told my brother-in-law that I was gay, but he and I had not spoken about it. So we decided to meet over coffee. I remember going back and forth with him for two weeks about where we would meet. In the end, he made a choice to meet at a Starbucks in a supermarket. It was an odd choice but reflected, I believe, his discomfort with the whole discussion.
In the conversation, my brother-in-law made it very clear that he didn’t want us to tell his children, then 7 and 8, that my wife and I had separated. His primary reason for this request was that his son was very sensitive, and it would upset him terribly. But he also alluded to the fact that homosexuality was something that they didn’t need to know about. He would handle the discussion with his children when he decided and only when they asked. I agreed because I felt it was his children and his choice of how to communicate with them. But the discussion left me uncomfortable. It made me feel like I was keeping a dark, dirty little secret, when what I really wanted to be open about my life and the separation. I also wondered how keeping this from his children would all play out. My nephew still does not know that we’re separated. He thinks I go on a lot of business trips.
What is it that everyone is so uncomfortable with? Gay men and lesbians can legally marry in Maryland, but god forbid a child might hear about the aberration called homosexuality and be permanently damaged. This was the not-so-subtle message I heard this morning from my wife and son, and last year from my brother-in-law. The unspoken implication is that there is something wrong, sick, dangerous about homosexuality that we dare not utter the word in front of an impressionable 9-year-old. I am sure my nephew knows the word gay and knows what it means. Unless he is living in a cave, he really doesn’t need to be protected.
This morning’s conversation makes me simultaneously angry, hurt, and sad. I’m angered by the unchecked homophobia that plays out daily in all sorts of conversations giving children the message that there is something wrong with homosexuality. I’m hurt that my son can’t be proud of me, and simply tell Archie’s story. And I’m sad because this kind of messaging is so hurtful and so ordinary at the same time. It, in effect, pushes who I am as a gay man to the back of the bus, not to be seen or heard from. It shows how deeply my family is in the closet.
In thinking about how to combat this, a conversation with my son is needed. I think the questions he needs to be asked are, Are you proud of me? Are you ok with my being gay? If the answer is yes, then why do you act so uncomfortable at times? You need to look at your own homophobia and your desire to conform. Because you hurt yourself every time you feel uncomfortable with the gay topic and don’t pause and challenge your own thoughts.
I was uncomfortable for many years with being gay, with things people would say in conversations about homosexuality, or when I saw two men walking down the street holding hands. This went on for far too many years. I’ve worked hard to combat my own internalized homophobia and still do. I’ve changed tremendously over the past few years, but I also know I have more changing to do. Now my son needs to do the same.