First to Guess, Last to Know

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By Karen Pittman

There are moments when all your youth work training fails you. I just had one.

My son is one of the most wonderfully bright, witty, head-on-straight people I know. Of my three children, he’s the one I lecture the least. Not surprisingly, he’s the one I talk to the most.

My son is also gay.

This does not come as a surprise. There were the stereotypical signals that often scare parents. Tim wore skirts at age 2, crocheted at 4, cooked at 6, hated team sports and refused to wear pants with belt loops or shoes with strings until sixth grade. By seventh grade he was doing his own laundry because he was dissatisfied with the quality of our folding. All of this was circumstantial, albeit not definitive, evidence.

Then came the eighth-grade crush on his best friend; the 10th grade trial at having a girlfriend, followed by a year of group dating; the inevitable questions from our gay or lesbian friends about whether Tim had figured it out yet; and the painful and painfully short discussion he and I had in the backyard, prompted by one friend’s urging that I let him know I was available to talk. He wasn’t. So I waited.

Waiting got hard when it was clear that his close group of friends knew.

The waiting ended a few weeks ago. But not the way that I thought it would. No heart-to-hearts, no hugs. No chance to play the liberal understanding parent role I had been rehearsing. Just a flat statement from my husband one evening delivered between “dinner will be at 8” and “you’ve got three messages”: “Tim told me he’s gay. He told me to tell you, but he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

A few days later, we learned the reason behind the announcement. Tim, in his efforts to get things wrapped up, had done an interview for the school newspaper. The faculty adviser wouldn’t let it run until Tim told us.

So, the school knows. All of his friends’ parents know. All of our relatives know. As best we can tell, everyone is fine with it. But Tim and I have yet to have a direct conversation about his sexual preference.

We will one day, when he’s ready. For now, we’ve just gone from quiet guessing to quiet knowing. As I assure his sisters and myself that Tim’s “know don’t talk” policy is normal at this stage, the youth worker in me kicks
back in.

Argument No. 1: What’s to talk about, especially if you think people already suspect? Why have people tell you that they’ve known for years something that you’re just figuring out? You just want to set the record straight and move on.

Argument No. 2: The story, as Tim points out in his interview, isn’t all that clear yet. There’s a long path from knowing you’re not completely straight to deciding what you are. The “Q” in GLBTQ is a developmental prerogative.

What does this have to do with youth work? Point one. Sometimes adults, even well-trained ones, feel the need to talk about a young person’s issues more than the young person does. Point two: Sometimes adults who force kids to talk may inadvertently cause harm.

I’m glad the faculty advisor insisted that Tim tell us. But he did so at some risk. He didn’t know Tim, he didn’t talk with Tim directly, he didn’t follow up to find out how the conversation went. This, of course, is a lot to ask of a teacher who hasn’t been trained as a youth worker and may not know where to send us if we actually needed assistance. This is a great reason to follow Great Britain’s lead and put youth workers in schools.

And Tim is glad I’ve written this column. His comment:

“She’s right. I guess my point is, there’s nothing to say, so why say anything? Let this roll over, and save the sit-down, heart-to-heart conversations for problems with substance abuse. And remember, kids always tell the inconsequential people first … because they’re inconsequential.”

Karen Pittman serves on Youth Today’s board of directors and is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. Contact: