Sally Kohn is an essayist and a CNN political commentator.
I live in the liberal bubble of Park Slope, Brooklyn, where no yuppie would ever admit to wanting their kid to be anything in particular, other than happy. But more often than not, we define happiness as some variation on our own lives, or at least the lives of our expectations. If we went to college, we want our kids to go to college. If we like sports, we want our kids to like sports. If we vote Democrat, of course we want our kids to vote Democrat.
I’m gay. And I want my kid to be gay, too.
Many of my straight friends, even the most liberal, see this logic as warped. It’s one thing for them to admit that they would prefer their kids to be straight, something they’ll only begrudgingly confess. But wanting my daughter to be a lesbian? I might as well say I want her to grow up to be lactose intolerant.
“Don’t you want her to be happy?” one friend asked. Perhaps he just meant that it’s easier to be straight in a homophobic culture. But this attitude complies with, even reinforces, that culture in the first place. A less-charitable interpretation is that he thinks being straight is superior. When I was a teenager, my father cautioned me against marrying a black person. “I’m just trying to protect you,” he said. But it was impossible to know whether he meant to insulate me from the world’s bias or implicitly rationalize his own.
The idea that no one would choose to be gay is widely held — even in the gay rights movement. In the early ’90s, partly as a response to the destructive notion that gay people could be changed, activists pressed the idea of sexuality as a fixed, innate state. Scientists even tried to prove that there’s a “gay gene.” These concepts about sexual orientation helped justify the case for legal protections. The idea that folks are “born gay” became not only the theme of a Lady Gaga song, but the implicit rationale for gay rights.
“I wouldn’t even choose for myself to be gay,” a friend once told me. It was a sad admission, because she was.
Once upon a time, of course, “gay” meant “happy.” But eventually, the synonyms grew apart. Gay became an unfortunate, even pitiable status. When the gay liberation activist Franklin Kameny launched a simple effort in 1968 to proclaim that “gay is good,” it was because, at the time, it very much wasn’t. Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a form of mental illness. And while gay-positive culture has flourished since, our aspirations haven’t kept pace. It’s more widely acceptable to be gay in America today, but that’s not the same as being desirable. In my house, though, it is.
Here you might expect me to say something about how, if my daughter were gay, she would undoubtedly face challenges and hurdles she wouldn’t encounter if she were straight. Maybe. And maybe if I weren’t an upper-middle-class white lesbian living in a liberal city, I’d have such worries. But no matter what, I’d want my child to be herself. If I lived in, say, North Carolina, with an adopted son from Morocco, I’d like to think I would encourage him to be Muslim, if that’s what he chose. I’d do this even though his life would probably be easier if he didn’t. It’s also easier to succeed as a dentist than an artist. But if my daughter wants to be an artist, I’ll encourage her all the way — and work to destroy any barriers along her path, not put them up myself.
Plus, I’ve never for a single second regretted being gay, nor saw it as anything other than an asset and a gift. My parents were ridiculously supportive from Day One, and I had a great community of friends and mentors who made me feel unconditionally accepted. By the time my daughter comes of age, she’ll have even more of a support network, including two moms, for crying out loud.
More than that, though, being gay opened my eyes to the world around me. Learning that not every gay person had it as good as I did helped me realize that a lot of people in general didn’t have it as good as I did. I wouldn’t be a politically engaged human being, let alone an activist, writer and TV personality, if I weren’t gay.
If my daughter is gay, I don’t worry about her having a hard life. But I do worry about people expecting her to have a hard life — helping to perpetuate discrimination that might otherwise fade more quickly. I want my daughter to know that being gay is equally desirable to being straight. The problem is not the idea that homosexuality could be a choice but the idea that heterosexuality should be compulsory. In my house it’s plainly, evidently not. We’ve bought every picture book featuring gay families, even the not-very-good ones, and we have most of the nontraditional-gender-role books as well — about the princess who likes to fight dragons and the boy who likes to wear dresses.
When my daughter plays house with her stuffed koala bears as the mom and dad, we gently remind her that they could be a dad and dad. Sometimes she changes her narrative. Sometimes she doesn’t. It’s her choice.
All I ultimately care about is that she has the choice and that whatever choice she makes is enthusiastically embraced and celebrated.
Time will tell, but so far, it doesn’t look like my 6-year-old daughter is gay. In fact, she’s boy crazy. It seems early to me, but I’m trying to be supportive. Recently, she had a crush on an older boy on her school bus. She was acting as any precocious, socially awkward child would, which is to say not very subtle. I confided in a friend who has an older daughter. “She wants to give this kid a card and presents,” I e-mailed. “The other kid is so embarrassed. It’s painful to watch. What do I do?”
My friend wrote back with a slew of helpful advice, ending with a punch to my gut: “Bet it wouldn’t bother you so much if her crush was on a girl.”
She was right. I’m a slightly overbearing pro-gay gay mom. But I’m going to support my daughter, whatever choices she makes.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the American Psychological Association classified homosexuality as a form of mental illness until 1973. It was the American Psychiatric Association.