I glanced at my daughter in the rear view mirror and stifled a sigh. Fourth grade—the year of cliques and flirtations, of defining and defining against. This year my daughter and I have had all kinds of interesting conversations, not just about what she sees in her class but about how these issues will be a part of the rest of her life. I had expected some of these issues; I had hoped others would wait a few years.
Ready or not, here I come.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” I asked. “Maybe I can help you understand.”
There in the car, on the way to her golf lesson, Nina related her story. A photographer had come to her elementary school that day to take a picture of each teacher with his or her students. There had been some technical difficulty with the equipment, during which Nina’s classmates began to harangue the photographer—but quietly, amongst themselves. Nina, however, overheard what one group of boys was saying and it upset her. “So I don’t understand what they meant when they said gay, but it wasn’t how we use that word.”
That gave me pause. “How do we use that word?”
Nina looked at me like I’d just asked her where she lived. “You know! Don we now our gay apparel . . .”
My laugh interrupted her fa-la-la-ing.
“What?” Nina asked, seriously perplexed. “You said it meant happy and full of joy.”
“It does,” I said. “But here’s the tricky thing: words change. A word might start out meaning one thing and then, years or decades or centuries later, it can mean something else.” My daughter’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Think about the word awesome,” I said. “What does that mean?”
“Really good. Like, if you like something.”
“Uh-huh. But originally, it was a much more powerful word. It meant something that filled a person with awe. The experience or event was so completely overwhelming that it would leave the person speechless, just stuck in that moment of wonder.”
Now my daughter was laughing—hard. “So the next time we make chocolate chip cookies, instead of saying it’s awesome, I’m just going to freeze at that table and hang my mouth open.” She demonstrated, eyes wide, drool gathering. It was . . . awesome.
She stopped laughing. “So what does gay mean now?”
I waited for a red light to change and considered how best to answer. “Well, when people grow up and they start feeling like they love somebody—love them in a way where they want to be together forever and be a family—well, at that point, most boys feel that way about a girl, and most girls feel that way about a boy. But some people feel that way about someone the same gender as themselves. A boy might fall in love with a boy, and a girl might fall in love with a girl. And today we use the word gay to describe that.”
I felt pretty pleased with myself, but Nina continued to look troubled. “Yeah,” she said, “I still don’t get it. Why is that bad?”
“It’s not,” I said. “Your dad and I believe that some people are just made that way. Maybe someone is born with blue eyes, brown hair, and is gay. Not a big deal. But to some people, it is a very big deal. For them, it is too different. Some people even think it is wrong. And you know what happens then?”
Nina answered quickly, now on the solid ground of previous conversations. “Some people are afraid of different. They decide different is dangerous. That feeling can even turn into hate.”
I pulled into the parking lot and cut the engine, finally able to turn to my daughter face-to-face. And Nina’s face told me she was working through something in her mind.
“So is that why some boys in my class used the word gay to mean stupid? Because some people want to make that word mean something bad? Because they think someone being gay is bad?”
I’m telling you, this child rocks my world.
“Honey, I believe you have just expressed a very grown-up truth. But I want you to know those boys may not realize that truth. They’ve heard grown-ups use the word gay that way, and probably get big laughs from it, and so they are using it. But I hope you would never, ever use the word in that way, just like you would never say That’s so Asian or That’s so retarded to mean something was bad or stupid.”
“I wouldn’t! Never!” She unbuckled her seat belt and opened the back door—my little girl going out into an adult world. Then she turned back to me. “But I might need to explain a few things about differences to those boys in my class.”
Rock on, darling.
Angela Dove is an award-winning columnist and author of the true crime memoir, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder (Penguin Group 2009).