Fresh Off the Boat was the answer to our family viewing prayers. It was a rare show we could watch as a family with our 13-year-old son that didn't involve superheroes or cartoon characters. It was funny, with enough Asian-centric humor and middle-school shenanigans to be instantly relatable to the two Asian-Americans in the family. My husband (the non-Asian) and I also thought it would be a good launching-off point in discussing race with Ben, who's adopted from Vietnam. What we didn't expect was to be having another kind of conversation altogether.
The three of us are sitting on the couch, the remnants of roast chicken and potatoes on the TV trays in front of us, watching television (in our household, this is what we call "quality time"). We have DVR'd the most recent episode of FOB, the one where the mother, Jessica, has her ex-boyfriend come to visit. She doesn't understand why her husband, Louis, isn't jealous, but for the viewer, the answer is pretty obvious. The ex-boyfriend is played by the fabulous Rex Lee, best known for his role as Lloyd, the gay assistant to Jeremy Piven on Entourage, and he sashays his way onto FOB with the same flamboyant panache he had on HBO. Even better, his behavior isn't the joke; the humor lies in the fact that Jessica doesn't have a clue about his orientation. Her gaydar is almost as broken as Michele Bachmann's.
During the commercial break, Ben, sprawled on the couch, turns to me and says, "So, why isn't the dad jealous?"
I stop my fast-forwarding. "You really don't know?"
"Is it because he's married?"
"He has a girlfriend?"
"Definitely no. Just watch. You'll see."
We keep watching, but, hand to God, he doesn't see. At all. It's not until Louis says, "Jessica, he's gay," that Ben gets it, but even then he doesn't know how they knew. Can this be possible? He's got two gay dads, ones who, if not in La Cage aux Folles territory, definitely skew closer to Modern Family than Brokeback Mountain. How could he not spot the gay? Have we taught him nothing?
"Did you ever notice," I say, wading into trickier waters, "how some guys are more ... expressive ... in how they talk, or move?" I mention a few male friends we know who are the Jack side of the Will & Grace spectrum.
He immediately bristles. "But that's stereotyping!" he accuses us, indignant.
My heart grew three sizes that day.
"Yes, yes, of course..." I assure him, but I'm at a loss for what to say next. Ben doesn't have gaydar. Does he need gaydar? In my youth I did -- how else could I have connected to that hidden world within the world, the one whose inhabitants beckoned with the subtlest or grandest of gestures? -- but Ben, who I am pretty sure is straight, couldn't care less who's a 'mo; after all, his parents are gay, and what could be more boring than that? To him, "expressive" behavior is more an indication of personality than sexuality. My husband and I may see ourselves in Modern Family's Cam and Mitch, but Ben is just as likely to peg us as a Phil.
I'd like to think it's a generational trend. Maybe kids his age, especially in our left coast liberal utopia, where gay parents are almost as ubiquitous as Real Housewives, don't have a need to label. In their YouTube world of fluid sexuality, maybe typing someone as gay or straight is becoming an outdated concept, like DVR-ing TV shows instead of just streaming them. Wouldn't that be grand?
I know it's not likely. It's more probable that Ben is just at a sweet (blind) spot in his march toward adulthood, a time when the lofty barriers against prejudice that we've tried to erect around him are still standing, before the real world, in the form of some racist video game or the latest prison comedy, topples them irreparably. It's going to happen someday, and perhaps a little discernment is not a bad thing for him to learn. But I'm in no hurry to get him there.
The episode ends with Jessica drinking alone at a bar occupied solely by women, oblivious. "It's a lesbian bar," I whisper to Ben.
His eyes light up. "That's why all the women buy her drinks!" he says.
JAMES SIE is a Los Angeles-based voice-over artist and author whose first novel, Still Life Los Angeles, comes out in August via St. Martin's Press.