Guest Blogger

Marriage Equality: What Do We Tell the Kids?

Filed By Guest Blogger | June 22, 2014 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: gay marriage, kids, marriage equality, same-sex marriage, think of the children

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Dominick L. Auci earned his Ph.D. in Pathology from Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and served for many years as Assistant Professor. He has over 40 peer-reviewed publications and currently resides with his husband in Louisville, Kentucky.

An Internet video went viral a few weeks back. In it, a gay couple meets a young boy, perhaps seven or eight years old. The surprised child exclaims that he's never met two husbands before, checks that they both love each other, and then politely excuses himself to go play ping pong.

rings.jpgThe video was a flippant response to plaintive howls from conservative groups in mortal terror of what to tell kids about same-sex couples. I thought to myself, "Well, here's a controversial topic that no one in their right mind would touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole! Why not just leap right in?"

My first question, naturally, was "What's known?" A literature search cross-referencing homosexuality and pediatrics yielded 192 publications. The vast majority dealt primarily with the sexual habits of homeless teens, especially addicts and minorities, usually in the context of HIV. I found no scientific assessment of what typical kids today know about same-sex couples.

The reason isn't hard to imagine.

There is a very natural and desperately human desire to protect children and shield them from all the dangers and unpleasantries of the world. While this has long applied to one's own offspring, its wider application to other people's children is a more modern development.

The realization among professionals that children are not simply miniature adults is astonishingly recent. Children were routinely tried and sentenced as adults, including capital punishment liberally applied.

In big cities around the world, poor and orphaned children were treated little better than vermin. Fabled "orphan trains" transported throngs of New York City's street children cross-country up until the 1930s, when organized foster care programs first began to emerge.

orphan-trains.jpgBefore the advent of antibiotics and immunization, adults had good reasons for shunning children. They carried horrific and little-understood diseases that spread rapidly and wiped out whole communities. Those that didn't carry contagions were just as likely to rob, maim, or murder you themselves; they ran faster and were harder to catch than adults.

The very concept of "childhood" is a construct of the last century. The fields of childhood development, pediatric psychology, and psychiatry are all still in infancy and basic principles remain controversial. While there is general agreement that kids aren't mini-adults, the devil is in the details.

Bitter disagreements abound over issues like the appropriate ages for drinking alcohol, driving cars, religious indoctrination, hunting, and gun ownership. While we don't use them as cannon fodder, sell them into slavery, or force them to work in sweatshops (anymore), the institution of childhood is still very much a work in progress in our society.

Given such an awful track record, a growing awareness of how little is known, and a paucity of adult consensus, perhaps it's not surprising that an extremely uncomfortable uncertainty and anxiety pervades the issue of exactly what to tell kids about gay couples.

The truth is that whatever we tell kids about gay couples, they'll be fine. It is comforting to realize that despite well-intended foibles, willful ignorance, and even despicable cruelty and exploitation, many if not most kids become more or less happy and well-adjusted human beings.

Children are designed to survive adults. They've been doing it for a very long time. They're probably hard-wired to believe most anything we tell them, at least initially, but as they grow, they form their own opinions. That's the pattern of a species that gave up instinct for learned behavior about a million years ago.

A little less than a million years ago, I was a young boy. No matter what my father told me, sports were never my thing. I tried, but I just didn't have the talent. I was never even good at ping pong. My thing was Coney Island -- I went often in summer with a dozen or so other kids who would meet at the local Boys Club of America on Atlantic Avenue.

A white-haired man named Frank would lead the field trip along with his trusty assistant Sal. We'd stroll the boardwalk and I'd usually be munching on a foot-long Nathan's hot dog drowned in sweet onions and sipping a root beer float with chocolate ice cream. I cried when I saw the boardwalk recreated in the movie Men in Black 3 -- it brought back so many memories.

It was there, in the summer of 1968, that I first remember hearing the 'N' word.

coney-island-boardwalk.jpgI don't know what caused the incident, or why the group of white teens was roughing up the younger black kids. I just remember hearing that word screamed over and over again. I asked Frank what it meant, and to this day, I still remember his answer: "It's an ugly word that cruel, ignorant people use to insult Negroes [sic]. Promise me you'll never use it".

In retrospect, that one incident at Coney Island had little effect on my own struggle through racism. Like most kids, I believed what I was told until I became old enough to form my own opinions. What I remember most about the incident on Coney Island is Frank himself, a cheerful retired science teacher from the Bronx filled with compassion, kindness, and a timeless sense of decency.

Another Internet video went viral around the same time as the ping pong one. It was staged in a Vicksburg, Mississippi restaurant. A gay couple showing affection for each other was asked to leave the premises. The vast majority of the diners were happy to see them go, justifying their bigotry with professions of Christian faith and a profound love of Jesus -- all except one young man.

This young man spoke up in the couple's defense. When the camera crews revealed themselves, this kindly soul nearly burst into tears because he "hated to see people treated differently for no good reason." I didn't notice if there were any children in the restaurant.

That video made me angry and then moved me to tears. It also made me realize that whatever folks tell their kids about gay couples, the writing is on the wall on this issue and has been for a very long time. The right and wrong sides of history are clearly defined.

What kids will remember is the kindness, compassion, and decency of their parents, or their judgmental, self-righteous bigotry. What parents tell their kids about gay couples won't change the inevitability of marriage equality. Instead, it will color how their children remember them.

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