I recently had a realization: society is structured so that all the men teach all the boys how to be men (and all women teach all the girls how to be women). Maybe this was obvious to everyone else, but for me it was being a dad that provided this “a-ha” moment. I recognized that the way I interact with my kids has been influenced by a lot more men than just my dad. There were my uncles, my brothers, my cousins and hundreds of other men.
Literally almost every man with whom I came into contact as a boy influenced the man I was going to become. I’m not talking about mentoring. Because mentors tend to be good role models, who help you develop. I’m talking about the everyday lessons about manhood I picked up.
My dad taught me how to be a responsible adult by always providing for his family. But so did my best friend’s deadbeat dad, who didn’t pay his child support. My friend Anne’s dad provided me one example of how to deal with kids by embracing and encouraging every single child in our neighborhood; as did our mutual neighbor, who constantly demeaned and belittled his own three children.
All these guys, all the extremes they represented, subconsciously helped me determine the man I wanted to be. All of them in one way or another were a type of father to me.
Then it dawned on me: none of them, not one of them, taught me how to be a gay man. I’m not talking about sexually. That, well, that comes naturally. But being a gay man or a lesbian woman extends well beyond what we do behind closed doors.
I’m not alone in my realization. Over the holidays I was talking with my friend Dan. He’s a 20-year old college student, gay, and a big fan of this column. He’s only out to a handful of people. And he told me he has no idea what it means to be a gay man.
It made me recognize that all of the gay men out there need to start being dads to younger guys like Dan. And no, I am not talking about being their “daddies.”
Yes, the role gay men play in the lives of other males has changed dramatically since I was Dan’s age. But the deck is still stacked against us.
Dan’s struggling with everything from how being gay influences his relationship with God to how open he should be with his family and friends. To me, the questions he’s asking himself prove that in subtle ways, the straight men in his life have influenced him. But where is the gay influence?
Dan’s not alone. There are literally thousands of young gay men and boys, and young lesbian women and girls, who need to learn what it means to be a gay or lesbian adult.
I’ve written in past columns how circumstances related to my boys force me to come out to people I otherwise wouldn’t — teachers, other parents, etc. But I’m also showing their friends and classmates how to be a gay man. And as these kids get older, and sexuality starts to become more defined, consciously or not, those who are gay will be looking to me to show them what’s involved in being a gay man. And every gay man has an opportunity to do the same.
Only other gay men can show these kids what life can hold for them. Whether it’s a long-term, monogamous relationship or a different day/a different dude lifestyle, being open to examination of your life is key. Allowing young people to see you as a rainbow flag-waving, finger-snapping queen or a closeted, face-painted football fan doesn’t matter. What’s important is that they see the entire spectrum of gay men. Let them determine the gay men they want to be after seeing all the choices out there.
No two gay men are exactly alike — not even those Castro Clones. Nor are any two lesbians. And that’s what makes our community so absolutely amazing. Think about it: Liberace and Ricky Martin; baseball player Billy Beane and John Waters; Gertrude Stein and Portia DeGeneres.
When kids see gay people interacting, when they’re allowed to ask questions and receive honest answers, they gain an opportunity to reflect on the person they want to become. And that’s an amazing thing.
I hope I help Dan in discovering the gay man he wants to be. I hope all the other gay men out there will do the same for him and the other boys like him. It’s an amazing opportunity to help our community grow and thrive, and just maybe someone will call you daddy.