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Advice to the Tongue-Tied

Published Feb 1, 2010

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How have your New Year's resolutions been coming along?  Has Planet Fitness seen your face lately?  Are those Snackwell cookies and protein powder shakes gathering dust already?  Along with the exercise bike?  Yeah, me too...

You may recall that in last month's column, I'd resolved to be more outspoken on behalf of GLBT folks in general, and my gay loved one in particular.  It remains to be seen how successful I am at this, ultimately, but I do pledge to report back honestly on my progress (if not my weight).  In the process, I'd thought that it would be helpful to think of specific responses to situations that might arise.  I hope to have these phrases or approaches "in my pocket," to be pulled out when I get flustered or am otherwise speechless.  Perhaps some of these will help you, too.

Someone drops the "f-bomb" or the "q-bomb."  If someone already knows me and my situation, I've had luck with the phrase "please know we're on sensitive ground here."  This is a good way to alert the person that your rabbit ears are up, and that what they're saying, even if in jest, isn't necessarily being taken that way.  If I don't know the person, or I know they don't know my situation, my plan is simpler: "please don't use that language around me."  (Hopefully I haven't just been swearing myself!)

"Why do they have to be in my face about it?"  As we know, this is really a stand-in for, "why do I have to acknowledge that this person is gay at all?"  My response here is, "I think he/she/they are doing the same things that straight people in love do."  I might even make an allusion to my kids' high school, if someone is interested in what straight people do in public.

"You know it's against God's law."  This one is worthy of an entire column.  Now, some folks will say, with good reason, "I'm not religious at all, and neither is our government, so I don't believe religion should be a reason to discriminate against my child."  That's one answer, but I think the best response for me is "I am a Christian, too, and I just don't believe that.  I've studied those passages, and I don't agree with the way you're reading them."  Anybody who has gone to Bible Study, much less seminary, actually knows that there can be multiple ways of understanding the Bible, and many meanings and interpretations of the same passage.  The Bible belongs to us just as much as anybody; why should we let people beat our kids in the head with it?  I think it's critical here to stick up for ourselves and not concede the entire field of religion to the most prejudiced among us.

"Marriage is for a man and a woman."  Again, this is fertile ground for a future column (if not a book), but a good response can be the humorous one: "What, you don't want gay people to suffer too?"  I think I have to go with the "funny" answer here, primarily because I feel so passionately about marriage, and view the other side's arguments as such utter guff.  If I really get going on it, the police will wind up getting involved.

My father-in-law, God rest his soul, was a New York City politician.  In that capacity, he heard an awful lot of controversial, contentious, and just plain weird stuff.  Because some response was required, he used to say, in an extremely mild tone of voice, "Is that so."  This is a good answer when you know the person is never, ever, going to agree with you, but you can't bear the thought of appearing to agree with them.  An example of when this response might be called for is when a straight person (usually an adolescent male) says, "well, I'm fine with so-and-so being gay, as long as they don't make a pass at me!"  Although my tendency would be to snap back, "you wish," this is a good time for the beige response.

If you're interested in this topic beyond this column, Setting Them Straight, by Betty Berzon, outlines a multitude of potential responses to homophobia.  The book is probably out of print now (it came out in 1996), but it contains much interesting food for thought.  My copy is in the PFLAG library, so email me if you want to borrow it.  Or come to a chapter meeting (hint, hint)....

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Jane Ferrall lives in Guilford, CT, where she and her husband of 20 years, Bill, enjoy their family of four children. Among her other interests and volunteer work, Jane was a founding member and is the moderator of the Greater New Haven/Shoreline chapter of PFLAG.

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