December 4, 2010

Brothers and Sisters, Part 1

My brother has always been a lively shadow of me. He’s goofy, fun, and adorable all on his own, but he constantly feels the need to do and say everything that I do. I suppose that’s how younger siblings are; they look up to you as if you’re some sort of super-human, prepared for everything without a single weakness or chunk of kryptonite to bring you down.

Younger siblings always want to be like Big Brother or Big Sister, and hey, what’s wrong with that? It might be the single joy in my life that I have a cuter, miniature male version of myself. He walks awkwardly like me, talks excitedly like me, smiles goofily like me, laughs at the same stupid things that I do. He can’t dance, hates flying insects, and loves to draw. He works hard, always looks to impress—always looking for approval.

The extent of his hero-worship is a bit extreme, however. Sometimes I find him eating foods he doesn’t like just because I like them. I see him choosing that character on Super Smash Bros. Brawl that he can’t play with to save his life, just because I mentioned liking that character. Before, he was an extreme imitator. He would’ve worn my clothes if he could’ve—worn my shoes that are far too large for him, and my jeans that are far too long for him.

My parents understand how my brother places me on a pedestal. When I came out to them, everything they said that night seemed confused and contradictory, but the one thing they did make clear was that my little brother was “not to see it” and by “it” they meant anything relating to homosexuality. I suppose they already had their silly fears for their son, who was 8 at the time.

He’s a small kid and a bit effeminate. What is there to expect from a boy who has grown up with two older sisters? There have been instances of school bullying when kids accused him of being gay (what do 3rd graders know about that? Really?) and even while playing with cousins the accusation has come up. I’m sure, after finding out that I was (well, what I told them was) bisexual that they thought I had somehow been affecting him. It’s such a simple fear, to have not one, but two queer children.

I didn’t really know how to go about shaping my brother in regards to this topic. I didn’t know how to go about telling him “it isn’t a bad thing” in a way that wasn’t telling him “Yes, mimic me! Desire the same sex.” I know he’s far too young to even be thinking about that, but what do I know about male development? Things that happen to us in our youth shape us into young adults. I tried to remain neutral whenever the topic arose, but I realize my neutrality may have come off as disapproving.

I don’t really have to worry about him wondering about my opinions now. I don’t see him as often as before and my weekend visits home are brief and infrequent, but I do know he wonders about it. He’s met my androgynous friends, met my exes and past potential girlfriends, and he’s seen the two lesbians with their son at church. He’s asked me “Why does she look like a boy?” and “Why does he have two moms?” and “Mommy says you’re gay; are you?” It’s difficult, because deep down I would give anything for him to be heterosexual. I know it’s far too early to be thinking that, and it really isn’t my problem but something inside is telling me to keep the possibilities away from him until he’s old enough to really think about it. It almost feels like I’m trying to protect him from it, which is stupid, because homosexuality isn’t something people need to be protected from (and with that being said, I reiterate that the previous statement about me wanting him to be heterosexual is merely a personal wish and that it isn't founded upon any sort of disdain for the queer community and that I know that it is his decision to make in the future).

I suppose I feel like my young, impressionable brother needs to be kept away from all sexual possibilities until he’s old enough to understand them. I don’t want to force him into any more of my opinions unknowingly. For now, I’ll continue to remain neutral to his questions—practically ignore him and change the topic if the questions continue to come. If I do somehow end up in a relationship, regardless of the sex of my partner, when my brother meets that person, s/he will only be a friend. I will not promote heterosexual or homosexual relationships in the presence of my brother. And, once I think he’s old enough, I’ll let him know about my own sexuality if he’s still curious and if he hasn’t figured it out on his own.

I love my brother dearly and without a doubt more than anyone else on this planet, and I know he loves me unconditionally. I can only hope that as he grows as a person he’ll be strong enough to develop his own opinions without the influence of others taking too much precedence over his own thoughts and beliefs. I won’t allow myself to force my opinions on him (however wonderful they are). I refuse to force my opinions on any young person I interact with and I will end this post with this scenario that happened not too long ago:

Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I work with/tutor kids from local elementary schools. It just so happened one Wednesday I was wearing my purple Love=Love shirt for LGBTQ Spirit Day over a long-sleeved shirt. When I arrived at the classroom I was wearing a jacket but it was notably hotter in the classroom and I decided to take it off. Without a moment’s hesitation I also removed my Love=Love shirt. Following my rule of not forcing opinions on children (who, in my opinion certainly aren’t old enough to comprehend and make decisions about things such as sexuality) I brought myself to the question of whether or not I needed to really do so. There are a number of reasons I thought of as to why I needed to do so, but there were also a number of reasons as to why I didn’t need to. Here I open up the post to your opinions. Perhaps you’ll address the same questions I ask myself when I spend time with my little brother.


  1. Whoa whoa whoa whoa. I totally feel the same way. My little brother is 6 and a half years younger than I am (my two older sisters and I are all 15 months he -really- is the baby), so now he's 15. But throughout our childhood we were by far the closest. He was also very sensitive while growing up, and there were just certain things he did that made me curious. He is still super sensitive and incredibly deep for a 15 year old, but since I've moved across the country, he's gotten much much closer to our next oldest sister.

    I had a huge internal debate about whether or not to tell him I was gay last year. Mostly because he was going great in terms of our family religion and I didn't want to compromise his faith-finding with something that tends to be a deal breaker.

    It ended up being totally heart breaking to me, and perhaps selfishly, I told him and he's been good about it. I just don't want to be the reason he misses out on anything, I guess.

    I don't know if any of that makes sense, but I literally never stop thinking about my kid brother, and a major reason why I want to go home is only for him.

  2. While I understand your concerns, I'm not sure it's the only way to think about it.

    My best friend has a sister who is openly bisexual, and he found out when he was young. I'm not sure when, but certainly before 7. He's straight, but has been in a million activism groups since then, starting early in high school, and is the best ally I've ever known. I'm pretty sure he's more comfortable with my homosexuality than I am.

    Science says there's a benefit to setting up inter-racial playdates between toddlers, and that it can positively affect their perceptions of the world. Perhaps if children are exposed to homosexuality as 'no big thing', a normal part of the spectrum, a normal part of culture, before they're too old to have been fed strict ideas from society, it can be really beneficial.

    That being said, I haven't come out to my younger brother yet. I keep calling him to do it, but he keeps not picking up.

  3. I definitely understand what you're saying and I've had similar internal debates myself. However, I was recently writing about heteronormativity in schools and children's movies, and my thoughts have shifted a bit. You write, "I suppose I feel like my young, impressionable brother needs to be kept away from all sexual possibilities until he’s old enough to understand them." This is a logical feeling, but kids are never kept away from all sexual possibilities - they're bombarded with heteronormative messages from a very young age. There are studies about how parents talk to their kids who are three and younger about love and marriage as between a man and a woman. Another study I looked at noted that 90% of the kids movies they analyzed had "hetero-romantic" references. Other studies have shown that childhood educators sometimes interpret cross-sex friendships between young children as having a romantic nature. I know I remember teachers/parents/family friends teasing me about 'boyfriends' when I was little. By middle school, kids believe they 'must' have or be seeking a relationship with someone of the opposite gender.

    Anyways, you get the point. Kids are not innocent about romantic/sexual stuff. The media and the people around them are generally extremely heteronormative. It's no wonder they bully anyone who doesn't fit the heteronorms. Avoiding discussions about non-heteronormative romance just makes the problem worse. Kids should know that sometimes princesses marry princesses or that some of their friends have two dads - and that those people should be respected just as much as anyone else.

  4. Yeah, I really have to agree with Anon 11:35. You're not shielding your brother from sexuality, you're only shielding him from queer sexuality. Furthermore, while I understand hoping he'll be straight, it's not a decision he'll make later. It's a realization he'll make later. And if he is bisexual or gay-- wouldn't it be much easier for him if he already knew it was no big deal?

    I have two little brothers, one who is three years younger and one who is six years younger, and I know exactly what you mean about hero-worship. The youngest used to like to wear my dresses and my ballet costumes, and paint his nails with my nail polish... and knowing that they would do anything I did, I definitely had a sense of responsibility for them my whole life. I taught them to be feminists, for example.

    And yet, like you, I didn't come out to them when I came out to my parents as a lesbian. The oldest was in the same after-school program as my girlfriend, my gay ex-boyfriend, and I, so he should have figured it out, because we were never subtle. The youngest read my facebook profile last year and emailed me about it. But I never had a conversation and told them, largely because that way if they were in the room my parents had to pretend nothing was wrong, and I really liked being able to pretend nothing was wrong.

    I regret it, though, because one of them did come out as bi, and I feel like if I had been a better crusader for my own sexuality, his coming-out would have been so much easier. So I read your piece, and I'm like, "don't make the same mistake I did!" Make of that what you will.

  5. Oh! The t-shirt question is really good. I think before I came out I used to wear the t-shirt a LOT on campus, as sort of my super subtle way of "coming out" before I was ready to do so verbally. So it's close to my heart. =)

    I might be biased with this, because I'm so heavily invested in the LGBT Center here (which produces the shirts), but I don't see the shirts as something to think twice about. I remember having a conversation with Peg one day, about how I was hesitating to put WOMYN bookmarks in a certain location on campus. She told me, "if they have a problem with it, that's their problem, (and something they need to sort out on their own time), not yours." I really have taken that to heart.

    I know this doesn't completely respond to your question-I don't think there is a right or wrong response, because your comfort level ultimately trumps *anything* that I could say here. But for me, I just try and make sure I recognize the difference between what is homophobia, and what is being respectful of other's opinions and spaces. I know there's a distinct difference, and I'm not sure what the exact specifics of that argument would be. But, just like we wouldn't justify sexism or racism, it's important to call out unjustified fear, or homophobia, when we see it.

  6. Summer: I'm in the same exact boat, and I'm glad I'm not the only person who feels that way. I'm sure, 100%, that my brother will accept me in the long run. We're incredibly close and there is NOTHING that can change that.

    Nicole: You're right, and I have no doubt that my brother would make a great ally. I suppose what I'm really looking for is a way to let my brother know that homosexuality "isn't a big deal" while not allowing him to absorb strong opinions from me (which is hard when he looks up to me with such high regard--he'd still believe in Santa if I even made a offhand comment about waiting for Santa to come on Christmas lol).

    Anonymous 11:35: Correct. That was something I left out (because I was too lazy and didn't have the stylistic skill to add that to my post without ruining transitions and making the post too long; and trust me, did I TRY). I know FOR SURE that my mom, who is tied for first place with my sister for not being accepting in my family, shoves heteronormative ideals down this poor kid's throat on a daily basis. Before I even came out to them they were encouraging him to have a girlfriend, probably from their suspicions of my sexual orientation--please remember I came out to them when he was 8. It's really ridiculous. And as far as media goes, you're extra right and there's nothing I can do about that. However, I'm sure I have infinitely more influence on my brother than the media does. And there is a small chance he's watching anything that's portraying homosexuality as a bad thing, or at all. You know, unless Disney starts an anti-gay campaign or something.

    Lawrence: "Furthermore, while I understand hoping he'll be straight, it's not a decision he'll make later. It's a realization he'll make later."
    True true true; this is what I meant. I'll blame my writing at 4AM and dead-brainedness on that. I probably sat staring at my computer screen for a good 15 minutes trying to think of the word (the simple "realization") before giving up and going to sleep. lol Homosexuality is definitely NOT a choice. And while I see the benefits for his possible future, I don't really see the urgency in telling him now. He's 10 now and I still feel he's too young and telling him would go against my general "wait until someone asks" rule. I feel like I've done enough coming out to my parents anyways. While they were awful the first month or so, they eventually realized that there was nothing they could do about it and it wasn't until 3 or 4 months later that I felt that things were somewhat ok. If anything, if my brother does realize he's gay or bisexaul, he won't have to experience those first 4 months of self-loathing, paranoia, and anxiety. I have gay friends who say that their older siblings coming out definitely made it easier for them by thawing their parents and I think, if anything, I've done that for my brother if he does come to realize he's gay or bi.

    Megan: That's a good way to look at it. I still found the whole ordeal unsettling and I didn't really understand my instinctive nature to remove the shirt. I suppose what was in the forefront of my mind was that I didn't want to get into it with the teacher nor did I want to bother having to explain it to the kids. I was mainly concerned about what the teacher could've said, and perhaps angry parents and administration (which is a possibility).

  7. (cont.)
    Like you said, it boils down to my own personal comfort and I wouldn't have been comfortable having to handle that.

  8. Hey everyone (and Summer, nice meeting a fellow San Diegan this evening!). I hope you all don't mind my commenting on your blog here (which is awesome, by the way), but I'm finding this discussion interesting and couldn't help myself.

    Something came to mind for me when thinking about the topic of sharing one's sexual/romantic orientation with others, especially younger siblings/relatives. A point that really strikes home for me on this topic is the concept that heterosexual couples are afforded the courtesy (to use Dan Savage's terminology)that when people see them as a couple, people don't automatically think of their sexual life; same sex couples are not often afforded this courtesy. This one-dimensional perception of same sex couples seems to have the effect of making some people think that simply being in a same sex relationship is akin to flaunting sexuality (i.e., something that is generally and rightfully private). When both children and adults see a heterosexual couple, I think they can accept them as a couple without thinking of their relationship in sexual terms. Thoughts may include, "They love each other", "They compliment each other so well". These couples are not often defined by outsiders solely according to the sexual component of their relationship. Totally unfair.

    I have had the experience that children are able to do this with same sex couples (as long as the adults in their lives don't tell them otherwise and sometimes in spite of being told homosexuality is wrong). When I was growing up, I spent a decent amount of time visiting a partnered lesbian relative of my family. When I would visit them as a child, I just thought of them as a couple like my mom and dad. Nobody even explained it to me. I was too young to know the word "lesbian" and I didn't give a second thought to it because nobody made it seem like a big deal. I know I am lucky to have had this experience, but it just strikes me that a lot of change may be made by just treating our own relationships this way. I am not trying to advocate one course of action or another, but I don't think kids are born wired to discriminate. It is taught and I think by just being ourselves around the people we love, we can show others that it really is just no big deal.

    I hope that made at least a little sense!


  9. I really enjoyed this, and it hits pretty close to home. It also reminds me of these two posts from forever ago:

    "Boys Don't Kiss Boys"
    “Mommy, can you help me tie my shoes? Oh…and by the way, I’m gay”

    Keep up the great work :) Love the collab, too. Y'all are killing. it. right now.

  10. Yo, Ebony! I also tutor elementary school kids in Durham. The other day, I was reading a book to some of the kids when one of them called the book "gay." I didn't really know what to say and all I could really manage was "Um.. you can't use that word in that way. It's bad," which went right over that first grader's head. The kids looked confused. They looked as if they had never encountered this bad behavior territory. The problem I had with the situation was the fact that I had to be the one to deal with this misunderstanding. You see, this classroom I was tutoring in was redunkulously politically correct. I had read countless books to them about how people of all races, social standings, and genders are equal. I had read them a book about a girl that learns that being black and female doesn't mean she can't play peter pan in the school play. So surely if they're mature enough to learn about racial and gender equality, they can stomach the fact that 10% of the population is a little different, but that's okay and that it's not right to use a word that describes that population's lifestyle as a synonym of stupid.

    Maybe some day I can tell that kid that gay is a word that describes me and not that book.

  11. Keaton, that's a good point to make. Your point: "heterosexual couples are afforded the courtesy (to use Dan Savage's terminology)that when people see them as a couple, people don't automatically think of their sexual life; same sex couples are not often afforded this courtesy" is really something that we should question, because it's true and we should really try to gradually change it. Your experiences with being exposed to the other lifestyles as if they are a part of everyday life (as they should be) at an early age sound like the best way to mold children into being accepting human beings. However, this responsibility seems to rest on the shoulders of the parents.

    Anon 1:02: Ah, that must've been super uncomfortable. I think you approached the situation well, and when you tell a kid they can't say a word a certain way and that it's bad, their first instinct is to ask "why is it bad?" and if they didn't ask you then and there, they either just accepted what you said (which is RARE! lol) or they decided to ask their teacher, or older siblings, or parents. This can have either positive or negative outcomes, dependent upon the opinions of these people they ask, or whether or not they feel it's their place to even address that (in the case of the teacher or sibling).

    That peter pan school play book is amazing, btw. I read it a bunch when I was little. I think the difference between gender and racial issues and homosexuality is indeed the "sex" aspect. (The links Chris posted just before your post pretty much address that thoroughly).