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For Too Many Straight, Cisgender Parents, Queer Is Their Worst Fear

Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels

Millions of parents still think children hearing "gay" or "LGBTQ" will "convert" them. Why does that unlikely outcome terrify them to the core?

News feeds have recently been flooded with stories about homophobic initiatives being passed under the guise of parental rights. Even my hometown of Ridgeland, Miss., has refused to fund a public library because there were complaints about queer children's books. What are parents so afraid might happen if their child reads the Black queer memoir All Boys Aren't Blue by George Johnson or sings a choral piece from the musical Considering Matthew Shepard commemorating the queer victim of a hate crime? History tells us that they aren't concerned about more arguments around the dinner table or decreased church attendance. They are scared their child will turn gay.

Several decades ago, people were not so embarrassed to say this. "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot reproduce. Therefore, they must recruit others." This was a quote from Anita Bryant, a well-known singer who started the Save Our Children campaign to overturn a 1977 nondiscrimination ordinance in Florida. Not long before that, in the 1960s, Florida created the Johns Committee, which worked to rid queer college professors and public-school teachers from their posts due to fear of influencing children. Now, 60 years later, Florida has remembered that it is afraid of queer educators. The Florida legislature passed House Bill 1557, or the "don't say gay" bill, which prevents educators from discussing topics of sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom in many circumstances. In a speech ahead of this vote, Florida Sen. Ileana Garcia lamented how her young son put on a dress and heels after spending time around his transgender relative. She went on to wrongly claim that transgender individuals often commit suicide because of dissatisfaction with their transition, despite a wealth of research to the contrary.

Clifford Losky, an LGBTQ+ rights advocate and law professor at the University of Utah, discussed this fear in his article "Fear of the Queer Child." He says parents fear that indoctrination in schools, learning from queer role models, and public approval for queer individuals will lead to more queer children. LGBTQ+ rights activists fight back against these claims, saying that children's gender and sexual orientation are set long before any of these influences would matter. Despite their best intentions, activists are required to humor the perspective of those who disapprove of queerness. Too often their counterarguments come out sounding like "I know it's bad, but it's not contagious."

To better fight these claims, we must get at the underlying motivation. If other people are not making their children queer, the nearest alternative is that parents are to blame. Dr. Irving Bieber, a prominent psychoanalyst and author of Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytical Study of Male Homosexuals, would agree with this. He said that domineering mothers promoted same-sex attraction and that "a constructive, supportive, warmly related father precludes the possibility of a homosexual son." Growing up gay in the South, you realize that parental shame supersedes any actual concern about a child's well-being. It does not matter that Dr. Bieber's theories are unfounded garbage or that children's orientation and gender identity have little to do with the current political climate. Many parents of queer children will continue to think, Something I did made my child gay, and now everyone will think I am a bad parent.

The jury is still out on to what degree queerness is determined by "nature versus nurture," but I tend to steer clear of these discussions. Genetic research affirming the "born this way" claim or looking for a "gay gene" is always presented with the same urgency as those looking for the explanation to some pathologic process. And for what? The conclusion "If I was born that way, then it's OK to be gay" generates the contrapositive that "It's not OK to be gay if I wasn't born that way." The argument we should be making is that parents and their queer children have nothing to be ashamed of.

So when I look at the libraries in my hometown and listen to the parents claiming that reading My Two Moms and Me by Michael Joosten will turn their child gay, my only argument is "And then what?" Will you cease caring for them? Will you kick them out of your house because you are embarrassed that your neighbors will judge you unfairly? Will you make them feel so ashamed that they end their life? My only argument as a gay man who never had queer books to read growing up or role models or openly queer teachers: "Would that really be so bad if they were gay?"

Sean Patterson is a third-year Yale psychiatry resident and LGBTQ+ rights advocate born and raised in Mississippi.

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