Jerry (not his real name) is an unapologetic Hollywood liberal. He drives a Prius and supports Barack Obama. He's as open-minded about homosexuality as a fortyish heterosexual Little League dad can be. In fact, as someone who's responsible for the day-to-day operations of some of TV's biggest comedies, Jerry might as well be the mayor of Gayberry. "If I'm on a set and there are no gay people, I actually get worried," he says.
Geoff (not his real name) is the same way. A history professor and author in New York City, he is surrounded by a veritable gay army—his editor, his literary agent, his closest confidants ("Gay, gay, way gay," he says)—and that's the way the happily married 42-year-old father, whose idea of heaven is courtside Knicks seats, likes it.
But while Jerry, Geoff, and other progressive dads of their generation are more than happy to down margaritas and watch Project Runway with gay friends, they're not so comfortable with the idea of their own offspring going the way of Dumbledore. And only on the condition of anonymity will they elaborate on why, exactly.
"That," Geoff says after a pained sigh, "would be tricky." He explains that it was worrisome enough when his 6-year-old son watched the Hannah Montana movie recently "with a little too much glee." Jerry too has reckoned with the issue. When his son, now 8, was 3, "he made us buy him a princess costume for Halloween. I thought, Oh, shit. Here we go. But then we went to his friend Joshy's house, and Joshy said, 'You can't dress up as a girl.' At which point my kid threw Joshy to the ground. I thought, Okay, we're gonna be fine."
If you're a father, chances are you've had a similarly conflicted inner dialogue. No matter how enlightened you are (or think you are), when it comes down to it, you don't want your kid to be gay. You may chuckle when little Leo dons butterfly wings and plays tea party for the third day in a row(hey, it's just a little gender blurring), but you're really thinking, No, God, no. This all gets especially complicated when you move in social circles where homophobia is considered as inconceivable as pedophilia, and where parents throw coming-out parties for grade-school boys to show how tolerant they are (this is actually happening in places like Berkeley, California). Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker in San Francisco, has heard of at least a couple of these events. "Parents have had a variety of celebrations," she says. "And this is another way to mark a rite of passage."
Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, who runs the Gender and Sexuality Development Psychosocial Programs at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., frequently sees patients as young as 2 or 3 setting off the gaydar of their parents and teachers, and says it's always a cause for alarm, or at least confusion, for the parents. "They like to appear cool and relaxed about gender issues," he adds. "But deep down they're not acknowledging what they really want, which is for their kids to be 'normal' members of society."
Menvielle's program publishes a guide to help parents distinguish between, say, boys who are merely curious about Mommy's high heels and those who are bound for the Yellow Brick Road. Behavior associated with gender nonconformity is usually first noticed in children between the ages of 2 and 4. Boys may show an interest in women's clothing, avoid rough-and-tumble play, or actually express the desire to be girls or claim they really are girls. "The key is a pattern over time," Menvielle says. "But what happens sometimes is parents see their son pretending to have long hair and they immediately jump to conclusions."
The fact is, parents—dads especially, even those who cry at weddings and like to make soufflés—take pride when their kids follow culturally ingrained gender roles. When the kids don't, things feel weird. As Ron, a 37-year-old postdoctoral student at UCLA with two sons under 5, says, "It really makes me happy to see my 4-year-old decked out in Texas Longhorns gear. But I gotta tell you, when my wife took him to a 'fairy hunt' recently and he came home talking about all the fairies he saw, I was more than a little uncomfortable." And that's coming from a man who worked at an art gallery for four years and has never voted Republican.
It may sound like liberal-dad hypocrisy, but guys like Ron say it's their hyperawareness of gay culture that makes them so fear the idea of their kids being homosexual in the first place. "You see the news; you see movies like Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don't Cry," Ron says. "You think, It would be a hell of a lot easier if my kid turned out not to be gay."
But so what if he did? "I think parents overestimate the miserable life their children will have if they're gay," says Ritch C. Savin-Williams, the director of Cornell's Sex & Gender Lab. "We've seen incredible, progressive changes in terms of gender and sexual diversity in the last 20 years. I think what parents are really worried about is that having a gay child will somehow reflect poorly on their parenting."
Having collected coming-out stories for nearly two decades, Savin-Williams has made one especially interesting discovery: Parents who say they're open to the idea of homosexuality are often the most difficult for a child to come out to. "Perhaps they make a distinction between your kid and mine," he says. "It's nice for other people's children to be gay or to have gay friends, but one's own child is a different story. Indeed, some of the young people say religiously conservative parents respond the best, because of the value of family. But it's the progressive, holier-than-thou parents who often can't cope."
In the end, whether you embrace the "Go ahead and wear glitter, son" attitude or sigh to yourself when your 6-year-old boy braids Barbie's hair, it probably matters more to you and your sense of who you are than it does to your kid. In his book The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, Robert Leleux writes about his mother's over-the-top enthusiasm for his boyhood interest in show tunes, boas, and Barbra Streisand movies. "To my mother, the idea of having a gay son seemed Cecil Beaton-y and glamorous," Leleux says. "And guess what? I became the gayest kid in America."
Psychotherapist Don Clark, who's spent 30 years counseling gay clients and families in San Francisco, says, "In my experience, most kids have a sense as early as 4 or 5 of whether they're gay or not, and by 7 or 8 that identity is there. Some will tell you it was always there. The trick for parents isn't monitoring whether their kids are gay or not but just letting them be who they are." Besides, if you're as open-minded as you believe you are, you'll be okay with it either way.