People will be offended by this post for a variety of reasons, but I’ve been told that my vulnerability blesses others, so I’m going to ask a taboo question that no father says out loud, hopefully in a way that isn’t hurtful. I have two sons who are very different. My younger son is emphatically a boy. He likes to kick and throw balls. He jumps off of furniture recklessly. He likes to headbutt me. He has the kind of wild, primordial laughter that the book of Job ascribes to a horse on the battlefield. He’s like the Biblical character Esau. My older son is different. He’s more of a Jacob. He’s extremely interested in his own emotions and those of other people. He likes saying, “I love you” to complete strangers. He isn’t interested in kicking or throwing. Instead, he likes dancing and being theatrical. What if he grows up to be gay?
My best friend from high school is gay, so I tend to think that I have a very developed sense of “gay-dar.” When I go to the gym, I often think I can tell the difference between a straight power-career-mom and a lesbian who have the same crew-cut and the same muscle shirt. I presume the same thing about my ability to tell the difference between a straight guy with a melodic, not-Clint-Eastwood-sounding voice and a guy whose manner of speaking and intonations show that he’s gay. I realize that I’m full of nonsense when I have these thoughts. It’s sort of a subconscious thing that I do without really wanting to. And whether it’s wrong or not, the same mental process happens when I look at the way my son walks or throws a ball, or how close he gets to other people when he’s talking to them.
At night, he often picks out a book called Angelina Ballerina as his bedtime story. I have been preparing myself for how to respond if he were to ask me one day about taking ballet classes. I realize that it would be ridiculous for me to say no. But if he did ballet, would that make it inevitable? I’m not putting a value judgment on it; I’m just saying out loud what any other dad would say in his head. He’s going to take gymnastics in the fall. He has an extremely developed sense of balance. He likes to do headstands. He can also do forward and backward somersaults in the pool, which I don’t remember being able to do until I was older. There’s part of me that has wanted to try to “channel” the balance thing into something more “boy-ish” like taekwondo, but he’s already familiar with gymnastics and really enjoys it. We will probably also get him into some kind of theater group because he loves making up stories and acting them out as well as making facial expressions at himself in the bathroom mirror.
Last fall, we tried soccer. I was the coach. Because of a combination of developmental issues, the fact that all the other kids on the team had been playing since they were three, and a lack of interest, my son hated soccer. When I put him in the game, he would stand in the corner of the field and cry. I didn’t want to keep him on the sidelines the whole game, but I didn’t want to make the other parents mad, so I tended to take him out pretty quickly, which I then hated myself for doing. There are few things I have faced in my adult life that more thoroughly ripped my heart out than watching my son cry on that soccer field.
The things that make me wonder about my son’s masculinity are also the things that make him beautiful. Every Saturday night at our contemporary praise service, he worships God with all of his body the whole time. He likes to spin around in circles on one foot (is that ballet?) and then he’ll get down on all fours and try to spin around on his hands (more like break-dancing, which I hate to admit that I’m more comfortable with). I realize that emotional sensitivity doesn’t make you gay or straight, but my older son has very high emotional intelligence. He cares about how other people feel in a way that doesn’t seem age-appropriate (or very manly). Last night when we went to the pool, I forgot his brand-new flippers that he had been looking forward to testing out in the water all day. I told him I was really sorry when he asked me about them and he said, “That’s okay, Dad, I choose not to swim with flippers this time.” He says things like that all the time to reassure me when I make a mistake. He isn’t a brat even when he would have a good case for being one.
I’ll never forget a conversation I overheard once at a concert for a band that “manly men” don’t listen to: Belle & Sebastian. They’re an indie-pop band from the mid-to-late nineties that all the artsy kids listened to in college. The lead singer Stuart Murdoch has a somewhat soft, effeminate sounding voice and sings about melancholic poetic topics like ice skating, girls’ boarding schools, and cardigan sweaters with a small orchestra of musicians backing him up. As I was in line to get a t-shirt, I heard a girl talking to her friend about Murdoch, “You remember how we all thought he was gay? Well it turns out he’s a Christian — that’s all.” For the last 9 years, I have pondered what it means that those two terms were synonymous in that girl’s mind. I wonder if people will say that one day about my son. Maybe he’ll be both. Maybe my intuitions are totally off. Who knows? All I know is I love him very much and I don’t want anyone to ever hurt him.