The In-between: Walking The Line
One Friday afternoon in mid-May I pulled up in front of my goddaughter’s elementary school to surprise her. Ever since I moved up to the Bay Area four years ago, she and I hadn’t gotten to spend as much time together as we used to, and lately, she had begun to bring this fact up every time we hung out or spoke on the telephone. Particularly because, as I discussed in last week’s column, she was about to enter her tween years, it was especially important to me that we spent some quality time together, so that we could talk about life and reconnect, just the two of us.
When I stepped inside the elementary school building and asked for her by name, her little head shot up at the sound of my voice, and a big toothy grin overwhelmed her face. She bounded across the room to greet me with a giant hug, and then excitedly tugged on my hand as she led me all over campus on a brief tour of her school. To satisfy the looks of curiosity around us, she introduced me to her friends and classmates as “Cookie,” which was a nickname that she herself had given me back when she was a baby.
Once we were in the car she started telling me about her classmates, one of whom was a little boy that was apparently being teased by everyone about being gay. Although, based on our discussion, it was unclear to me whether this young man had actually come out as queer or was simply assigned the label based on uninformed judgements, I took it as an opportunity to open up a conversation about sexuality. Waiting until she paused for a breath, I casually leaned over and said to her gently, “You know it’s okay to be gay though, right?”
Now, before I go any further, I should probably back up and explain a little bit about my goddaughter’s family background. Her mother, who is a close friend of mine, and her stepfather, whom she calls “Mr. J,” met when my goddaughter was about four years old, and were married approximately one year later. A couple years after that, they had a daughter together, who has since also adopted me as her godmother. With both of these girls, Mr. J has been an amazing parent, showing them equal love and attention, and always encouraging them to be their best, and truest selves.
As part of their parenting, my friend and Mr. J have made the Black church a central part of these girls’ lives, which also reflects the position it has held in both of their own lives growing up as members of the Black community. For many complex historical reasons, the centrality of the church has long been a focal point of belonging within this community, which is partly why views within it surrounding gender and sexuality have often been somewhat on the conservative side.
Although both my friend and her husband promote many progressive views surrounding identity, gender, and Blackness, for Mr. J especially, who is somewhat older than my friend, notions about sexuality have always been a little bit more “traditional.” Notably, this traditionalism has mostly been directed inward, meaning that his expectations surrounding things like behavior have typically centered on his own rather than policing that of others. However, philosophically, I was aware that these expectations might also one day be extended to his children, even though I had not yet had to grapple with this situation in reality.
That afternoon in the car, however, this reality changed. In response to my suggestion that it was okay to be gay, my goddaughter made a rather confused-looking face, and then started asking me questions like “You don’t think it’s weird?” and “You really think it is okay for two guys or two girls to be together?” I could tell she was skeptical but still uncertain about her own beliefs, so I did my best to let her know how important I thought it was to be accepting. After a few minutes of listening to me stumble through the basics (some people like guys, some like girls, some like both and some like neither), she informed me that Mr. J said she had to marry a boy, but that she wasn’t allowed to do so until she was thirty.
Not knowing the context of Mr. J’s statement or whether it was more of an assumption of or an expectation surrounding her sexuality, I suddenly found myself in yet another in-between space, trying to walk a delicate line between the possibility of her parents’ views and what I knew to be my own. What should I say to this young person about her stepfather’s expectations? Was it my place to step in and critique his perspective, or would I just be undermining his authority? Could I tell her that it was not okay to tease anyone about their sexuality, or might that be seen in some way as exceeding my role as godmother? And what if at some point she discovers that she herself is queer? Wouldn’t she then be especially in need of a space she knew was accepting?
Ultimately, I decided to focus this conversation with my goddaughter on only my views on sexuality. Without getting into the specifics or challenging opposing perspectives directly, I simply let her know that there are all different kinds of people in the world and they have all different kinds of beliefs. I told her that I thought it was okay for people to love whoever they love, and that no matter what, I will always love and accept her completely. Honestly, I have no idea if she really heard me or if I did the right thing, and I suspect that most folks out there would probably have done at least some part of that conversation differently. However, my hope is that I at least created an opportunity to keep the conversation going, and that if not with me, with someone else, she will continue to expand her understanding and acceptance of sexuality.