My son C.J. lay in my arms all night. He cried until a restless sleep found him, then he whimpered rhythmically. If I moved away, he moved toward me so that our cheeks were touching.
He hadn’t slept in bed with me since he was six months old. He turned 11 on February 1. A week later, Allie, his “school best friend” broke his heart.
“My family doesn’t hang out with gay people, so I’m not going to hang out with you anymore,” she told him as they walked together after school.
C.J. didn’t say anything. He was in shock and confused. The feeling of his heart breaking for the first time rendered him speechless.
We’ve known Allie’s family casually for nine years, in the way you know a family when you raise children together in the suburbs. C.J. has gone to school with Allie for half his life. She’s always known that he’s a gender creative boy who like “girl things.” It turns out, while Allie and her family had apparently been (at least somewhat) okay with C.J.’s gender creativity, they aren’t okay if he’s gay.
“How was school?” I asked C.J. when he got in the car that afternoon.
“Fine,” he said. I could tell that nothing in his world was fine.
We drove for a few minutes in silence until his pain came pouring out. It was too much for me to catch.
“She just said it. She said her family doesn’t hang out with gay people, so she can’t hang out with me. She says I’m the only gay person she knows, and she doesn’t want to know me. She says that all of our friends will be her friends now because she is more popular than I am,” he sobbed, with his head in hands. Tears dripped out from between his little fingers that were dirty from playing handball on the blacktop.
At this point in his life, C.J. doesn’t talk much about his sexual orientation. He’s not yet a romantic or sexual being; he’s an 11-year old boy with lots of time to figure out who he is attracted to while having our unconditional love and support. When he does talk about it, sometimes he says he’s gay. Sometimes he says he’s half gay and half bisexual. Sometimes he says, “I’m just me!”
Whatever his future sexuality, that day homophobia turned my son into devastation personified.
Like all LGBTQ and gender expansive people, C.J. has learned to live life ignoring the stares, snickers and snide comments of strangers. He can brush off invasive questions and critiquing quips from classmates with a certain amount of ease. But, facing hostility from one of the most important people in his life – one of his best friends – was something he’d never had to deal with. It put a gash in his heart that may never heal completely.
I focused on driving even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to pull over and crawl into the back seat to comfort him. When we arrived home, Matt, my husband, was working in the garage and could tell right away that something was wrong.
C.J. was all tears and unanswerable questions.
“Are Allie’s parents homophobic?”
“Do they hate gay people?”
“Do they hate me?”
“If people are friends with me, can they still be popular?”
“Who will I sit with at lunch?”
“Who will I play with at recess?”
“Why do people hate people for something they can’t change?”
My gut reaction was the desire to lash out. I wanted to send Allie’s mom questioning texts. I wanted to point out Allie’s flaws to C.J. and return the birthday present she handed him with a smile a few days earlier. I wanted to erase all the play dates they’d had and the crafts they’d made. I wanted to delete the pictures they took with Santa at Christmas time.
I knew I wasn’t thinking rationally with my brain; I was feeling with my heart. I reminded myself of the lesson we teach both of our sons: we can’t let hate breed hate. That’s easier said than done.
C.J. doesn’t feel shame about liking makeup or thinking boys are cute. Allie had seen more of that this school year. A few months ago, she was the first person outside of our family who C.J. told he might be gay. She was a little uncomfortable, but their friendship carried on. After the movie Wonder came out, they discovered they both had a crush on the male costar. Allie thought it was weird, but also totally understandable because the boy was so cute.
I guess there had only been little hints of gay up until just before the big breakup. Then, Allie got in trouble when her parents caught her reading my blog about raising a gender creative child on her iPad. Days later, she attended C.J.’s birthday party and there were gay people among the partygoers. During the party, C.J. randomly told her that he couldn’t wait for OC Pride (our local Pride) and that she should go because Pride is so much fun.
Either Allie decided she was too uncomfortable with C.J.’s non-heteronormative identity to be friends with him or her parents made the decision for her, because the next day their friendship was over — but C.J.’s physical and emotional pain had just begun.
He climbed onto my lap like a small child. I held him and rocked him while thinking, “This is what hate does. This is what the effects of bigotry look like. A mother rocking her fifth grader because neither one knows what to do to ease the pain.”
We sat, sharing tears for nearly an hour with few words said.
“I love you so much” I whispered over and over.
“I know,” he whispered each time.
“If I could take away the pain, I would.” I said.
“I know. But you can’t take away the gay,” he said.
I wished Allie and her parents could witness that moment. Would it prompt them to reconsider their phobias? Would they change their minds? Would they see that my tender-souled boy is a great person to have in their lives? Would they see that I’m teaching my child to love while they’re teaching their child to hate?
C.J.’s pain came in waves, like pain usually does. He’d forget for a moment. He’d tire for a minute. Then he’d remember. The emotions would crest and break.
At times, C.J. was inconsolable. I watched him shivering on the couch and struggling to catch his breath between sobs. This is one of the reasons why some LGBTQ and gender expansive kids kill themselves. This is why some of them sink into depression, turn to drugs, drop out of school and participate in unsafe sexual situations. This is why some mothers with children like mine find their arms empty one day.
I worry that C.J. can’t take this kind of pain and rejection for years on end. He can’t have nights like this multiplied by seven more years of school and an infinite number of classmates who will hate him for who he loves and what he wears.
We got him into the bath, telling him that a good soak would soothe him. Matt lay on the floor next to the bathtub so that C.J. would feel his presence and protection. Matt wiped away his own slow, silent tears when C.J. wasn’t looking.
“You’re not going to be alone, buddy. You’re still going to have friends,” Matt said before listing all of C.J. friends – excluding Allie.
Matt and I didn’t think Allie could persuade all of C.J.’s friends to turn their back on him. Until now, all of his girl friends have always been fiercely loyal and protective. But, she’d planted a seed of fear in our hearts we had never felt before. If Allie, who had once been one of C.J.’s most loyal friends and protectors, could change her view of him seemingly overnight, I worried it might be possible that others could do the same. I suddenly found myself spiraling as I imagined Allie and her parents texting, emailing, facebooking, tweeting, snapchatting and facetiming every family in the school directory to turn them against our son because he might love a boy one day. Gossip and hate spread fast in the suburbs.
I caught myself before the terrifying daydream could unravel any further. Rather than dwelling on worst-case scenarios, Matt and I decided to try to use the experience as a teachable moment. We reminded C.J. to treat others the way he wants to be treated and that the easiest way to rob haters of their power is to act like their actions don’t bother you.
C.J. asked if we could just go to bed and wake up tomorrow. I agreed without hesitation. Sleep is often the answer.
His mention of the next day was a reminder that it would be the first day when he’d have no friends at school, sit by himself at lunch and play by himself at recess. He pictured every day of the rest of his days being spent alone and hated, because Allie’s family doesn’t hang out with gay people, so Allie doesn’t, so no one else will.
“It won’t hurt this bad forever. It’s going to get better. I know that’s hard to believe right now, but I promise,” I said to C.J. in bed. “You have lots of friends. You are amazing and if people don’t see that, they are the ones with the problem, not you. Kids should be lining up to have a unique friend like you.”
The next morning I drove C.J. to school slowly, in no hurry for him to leave the safety of my car.
“I love you. Have a good day,” I said to him, as I do every morning.
I watched him walk away from my car with his head hung low. It felt like my heart was walking off with him.
I drove teary-eyed to work, thinking of the parents of rainbows who felt this pain before me and those who will feel it after me. I thought of the LGBTQ and gender expansive youth who have or will experience C.J.’s pain and rejection without unconditional love and support at home.
When I arrived at work, I looked in the rear-view mirror and wiped my eyes. I took a deep breath and walked into my office, ready to start the countdown to when I found out how C.J.’s day at school went. Who would be friends with C.J.?