The prolific Amanda Gillooly, shown with her nephew and niece at Pittsburgh Zoo, takes on the "elephant in the room" while vacationing with her family.
“Monsters are real, and so are ghosts. They live inside us and sometimes they win.” – Stephen King
“A child understands fear and the hurt and hate it brings.” – Epictetus
By Amanda Gillooly
I boast that I’m the Greatest Aunt in the World, but truth be told, I have the Coolest Nephew in the Galaxy.
We’ve been BFF since the beginning, and as he’s gotten older I’ve discovered that our bond is directly attributed to two things: a goofy sense of humor and shameless curiosity.
Although Nicholas’ running commentary about life in general has provided richness too broad in scope to mention here, it’s always been his questions that have impressed me – both as his aunt, and as Amanda Gillooly, wordsmith for hire (freelance reporter).
For a little guy, he's always had depth, and he usually chooses to swim into the deep end of the conversational pool when we make the short trip from my home to his.
Once he asked me, “Aunt Mandy, why do some people want to be mean and grumpy all the time? I like to laugh and have fun.” Another time he asked, “Um, Aunt Mandy, who thinks this rocks?” when the radio station played one of that summer’s cookie-cutter pop singles.
I wasn’t prepared for him to dive into that pool as we were wading out into the Atlantic Ocean during our recent family vacation – but there we were, freshly covered with SPF 75 sunscreen and ready to play in the waves when he abruptly jumpstarted a heart-to-heart.
Just as we got out to the point where the water lapped up to my shins (his waist) Nicholas said (eyebrows scrunched together like they always are when he’s super serious): “Aunt Mandy, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. What’s a fag?”
While I’ve had almost seven years to practice my aunting poker face - I've always hated the mildly surprised, mildly amused facial expressions adults gave me as a child when I started to ask uncomfortable questions because they always came off as patronizing - but it failed me.
I must have gaped a little bit, because Nicholas stood there with eyes wide for the few seconds it took for me to compose myself.
I know my explanation wasn’t perfect. He’s almost 7, and I tried to tow the line between what he needs to know and what he should know. But I didn’t want to belittle his intelligence or the question with a blow-off response.
Yes, it has been brought to my attention that I could have rightly explained that a fag was either: A.) A bundle of sticks or B.) a British term for a cigarette. But neither of those explanations would have helped to improve anybody’s perspective.
But I can tell you the first thing I told him was also the absolute truth: “I’m glad you asked me, babydoll.”
And I was.
I’m especially thankful for the opportunity to explain a few things to him given the recent spate of young people committing suicide after their peers tormented them for being gay.
And then just yesterday, CNN and other news organizations reported on the hate-filled speech of New York gubernatorial candidate and esteemed homophobe Carl Paladino.
He spewed some rhetoric about children, explaining he didn’t want them to be “brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option. It isn’t.”
Although Paladino, a Republican, showed some restraint in rewording his prepared statement, he further extrapolated his position about gays in copies of it that were handed out to reporters.
“There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual,” Paladino opined in that statement. “That’s not how God created us.”
…which brings me back to my “Wonder Years” moment with Nicholas.
I took a deep breath and a long pause and told Nicholas that “fag” is an offensive word some people call gay dudes. I told him that another word he might have heard is “homosexual” and that neither that, nor “gay” is a “bad word.”
After he told me he understood "fag" was on the Bad Word List, I explained that a gay person is a dude who likes to date other dudes, or a girl who likes to date other girls. And I told him that it could sound a little weird to him because he might now know anybody like that, but to trust me: They are just other kinds of normal people.
I explained that there are all kinds of bad stuff people call other people – words for being black or Irish or Jewish, and that I never wanted him to use any of them.
Then I told him my theory: That some people are so afraid of stuff that’s different that they don’t know what else to do but hate it, and that maybe the people who call gay men “fags” just don’t have enough friends.
And I told about watching Steelers games with my college BFF Ean Gensler and also making chicken noodle soup for my former ailing roommate, Derek Parker. I told him he hasn’t heard rocking until he listens to some of the tunes my pal Jayson Brooks belts out (but to see him live, you'll have to travel to Spain where his tour is now). In short, he learned some things about three of the most fabulous gay men I know.
For his part, Nicholas took the information in quickly, and nodded his head to let me know my explanation was palatable.
Then he went running wildly into the waves, giving a decent karate chop and yelling, “I don’t want a piece of you – I want the whole thing.” What can he say? He digs Adam Sandler movies.
Clearly, the exchange at the moment was more profound for me than him. But I hope the answer helps him understand that “the gays” are just like anybody else – potential friends.
If he can understand that at his age, he won’t be a Paladino when he’s an old man, right?