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Op-ed: Ask and Tell as a Family Rule

Op-ed: Ask and Tell as a Family Rule

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I was in the kitchen working on my computer and the kids were playing loudly in the other room. I heard them practicing a show. This one was about a kitten and a volcano. Don't ask. Eliza is always the director. Her younger brother, Jonah, the talent. The shows never really have much of a narrative - no big dance numbers and - OK, I'll say it, they're pretty bad. But cute. Until suddenly I heard Jonah yell "stop it!" and then burst into tears. I hoped they would work it out themselves and did my usual count to 10 before rushing in. I got to seven, eight -- and both kids bounded into the kitchen, Jonah still crying. Eliza was the first to speak:

"Jonah hit me," she declared to the court. I gave her my best: "Really?-This-is-how- you're-gonna-play-it?" look. She glared back defiantly as if to be saying "What? That's my story and I'm sticking to it."

I tried to reason: "If Jonah hit you then why is he crying?" Eliza took a second to process the logic. She wouldn't say a word.

"Eliza," I asked, "what happened? Tell me the truth."

"Nothing," she responded.

"Well. Clearly something happened or Jonah wouldn't be crying."

Jonah was catching his breath between sobs. "Eliza punched me," he panted, "It very hurts."

I looked back at her: "Did you punch him? Be honest. It's important."

She didn't want to answer. I have to admit, I empathized with her predicament. If she told me the truth, she may have gotten into trouble. If she kept her mouth shut, she ran the risk of me punishing her for non-disclosure - or worse, having me jump to wrong conclusions, which could've led to unfair consequences. My impulse was to overlook the whole incident, given the lack of reliable witnesses, and chalk it all up to rough-housing. I continued to look expectantly at my daughter, knowing full well she wouldn't say a word but I needed the time to stall and think about my next move.

Look. Of course I want my kids to always feel like they can be honest. But I also have the responsibility to teach them that violence has consequences. That's why Eliza knew if she admitted to hitting her brother, she'd probably face some punishment. Unless I rewarded her for her honesty by letting the aggressive act slide. But then she could continue to hit her brother whenever she wanted and just run right in to tell me what she did -- drunk with confidence that I'd praise the honesty and ignore the crime.

This is the crux of my dilemma. It's the proverbial rock and hard place. Which is why I decided to turn the whole thing into a more general teaching moment, encouraging them both to get along; not to hit each other; not to tattle; to always be honest; and to read more. Oh, and use Vaseline on their teeth if they ever found themselves contestants in a pageant. And to vote Democrat. And always remember to wipe. And floss.

In the end, I never found out what really happened and I didn't want to know. It dawned on me I'd inadvertently instituted my very own "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Not that I'd ever trivialize the military policy which was far more damaging and shaming and hateful than I'd ever be with my own kids -- unless, you know, they took Sharpies to the leather interior of the car I was trying to sell (Jonah). But even still - the U.S. government was asking its gay service men and women to keep their mouths shut because of who they were, not because they bit, or pinched or pulled the hair of another person. (Unless of course it was foreplay with a person of the same sex.)

While I've always had respect for our men and women in the armed services who sacrifice so much for this country, I never really connected with that particular vocation. I know intellectually the importance of defending the United States, especially now when more and more of the world thinks we have cooties. But on a practical level -- I hate violence. I never liked guns. And fatigues make me look fat.

That being said, I never imagined I'd be living in a country built on the concept of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" where citizens could be denied the inalienable right to serve our country if they so chose. The fact we ever had a debate about whether or not to let "The Gays" into the military is despicable. Granted, I can't imagine why they'd want to... when they could be -- I don't know -- in show business? But there's no question they should be allowed if that's their passion.

It was as recently as 1950 when President Eisenhower instituted a firm policy banning any "self-proclaimed" homosexuals from serving not just in the military, but in civilian agencies as well. And then, years later, for Clinton to offer the compromise of "don't ask, don't tell" as the giant consolation prize it feels like the butter-cream icing on the wedding cake we still haven't been given full freedom to enjoy in most states. OK -- a shout out to New York and Massachusetts and the other states that have legalized gay marriage. And to Obama for repealing "don't ask, don't tell." But it's worth noting how many supporters there still are for a policy with incredible power to discriminate and shame through silence.

Gay men and women have been punished for disclosing the truth about who they really are since the beginning of time. Whether discrimination comes in the form of bullying in school, at work, or in the military -- the message is always the same: who we are is not OK for a lot of people and they'd prefer it if we kept our mouths shut. Back to the closet we should go -- if we knew what was good for us.

I've always felt that "don't ask, don't tell" was far more damaging than even blatant homophobia. At least when a person expressed their intolerance openly, nobody was left making wrong assumptions or living under false pretenses. Don't imply that the act of being open and honest and proud of who we are is -- in and of itself -- a provocation of some consequence. It's not the same as being a child who gets away with a kick to his sister's forehead. Being who we are is not a crime. It's not an "unacceptable risk to the high standards of ... good order and discipline." You know what is? Hate. It's as though the government were saying: "Don't make me come in there and separate you two -- you two cadets who love each other and in doing so make me want to bash your heads in." Don't ask me to hide the truth about who I am, so that you can hide the truth about how much you hate me ...

Eliza and Jonah presented their "show" starring Eliza and her pet kitten, Jonah, who she stuffed into a volcano (a Rubbermaid box) along with some Honey Nut Cheerios so the kitten wouldn't get hungry. It was all in feline fun. But Jonah kept eyeing this infuriating toy broom I wish had never found its way onto a Christmas list. I feared he'd hit her with it. And I'd be forced to encourage them to work it out themselves. But if they couldn't, I'd want them to come clean to me and tell the truth. And I'd have to figure out a way to reward the honesty while deterring future violence. Somehow. I'd figure it out. I guess that's what they call, um, "being a parent." This country could use one of those too.

Dan Bucatinsky is a writer/actor/producer known for writing and starring in the indie film All Over The Guy. With producing partner Lisa Kudrow, he runs Is Or Isn't Entertainment, behind the groundbreaking, cult comedy The Comeback, and is now in production for the third season of acclaimed docu-series Who Do You Think You Are for NBC. Their current project Web Therapy, is a new half-hour version of the award winning web-series exclusively on Showtime (finale 9/21). His upcoming book Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight? from Touchstone Books is due out in 2012 and you can follow Dan on WhoSay and on Twitter @Danbuca.

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