hen we were kids, we learned from Saturday morning cartoons that when an ostrich gets scared it hides its head in the sand. Since then, I’ve also learned that when parents get scared, particularly fathers, they behave like the cartoon ostrich.
Alberto and I have known Franco and his family for more than 12 years and I see them almost every week. I’ve had the pleasure of watching his boy and girl grow from toddlers into teenagers, and the kids have always known that Alberto and I are a couple.
Both their kids are intelligent, charming and beautiful beyond the norm — their son in particular, with his easy, unassuming manner, and always-friendly smile. He is among those rare people with an indefinable quality that makes him shine. At the same time, he has a learning disability and he and his parents have struggled with the inflexibility of the Italian school program, which emphasizes memorization and continual testing.
One evening his mother was helping him study for a sociology test. In discussing human behavior, his teacher had told him that most people were “normal” and therefore homosexuals and homosexuality were not normal. His mother told me he hadn’t liked that definition and asked her if there was another way to explain normal.
The other evening, his father Franco and I were having a beer in his kitchen and discussing the ills and woes of society, as we always do. Suddenly, Franco said, “Mark, you know, I’m sorry to say this but I wouldn’t want any of my kids to be gay.”
Well, it may not have been the most politically correct thing to say, especially to a gay person, but I’ve always preferred honesty to being patronized. I also immediately noticed that he referred to his kids in general terms, without specifying either his son or daughter. Considering his daughter’s recent explosion into the world of boyfriends and overt heterosexuality, it was obvious he wasn’t talking about her. I’ve heard the whispered comments about “suspect” girls, as in “…she’s not very feminine and still doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
This certainly wasn’t the first time a parent had tried to appease their deepest fears about their child by making some non-specific comment to me. I suspected he was fishing for some clue as to whether I thought his son might be gay.
Two thoughts came to mind. First, if he was looking for an oracle, he should go to Delphi. Second, although I did have an opinion about the boy, I was not about to share it, and maybe tag the kid with a label before he even knew what his own sexuality was.
“Franco,” I replied, “When you and I grew up homosexuality was only an insult or a dirty joke. It was never talked about seriously. Whether a kid is gay or not, homosexuality is now part of their world, and they have questions. One thing’s for sure, everything you think you know about being gay is probably wrong.”
Just then his son came into the kitchen to steal some tortilla chips and we immediately changed the topic.
“What time are you going to soccer practice?” his father asked.
“In 10 minutes. I’m just getting ready to go.” And he left the kitchen with a pile of tortilla chips in his hand.
It was time for me to go, too, but as I stood up I leaned in a little closer to Franco and said in a lower tone, “Promise me when they come to you with a question about being gay, you come and ask me first before you tell them something stupid and make a fool of yourself.”
Franco laughed, we clasped hands, kissed each other on the cheek in standard Italian style, and I left.
As I walked out into the rainy night towards my motorbike, I knew that was probably the end of it, and that he would never ask. I thought about the cartoon ostrich that buries its head in the sand.
For an LGBT kid, facing their sexuality is among the hardest and most frightening things they will ever have to do. Most kids face it in isolation and some die trying. Why, I wondered, do so many fathers drop the ball when it’s their critical time to be a hero?
PFLAG is the national association for parents of LGBT people in North America. In Italy, AGEDO offers support and assistance to parents of LGBT people and supports LGBT civil rights and the affirmation of personal identity. Headquartered in Milan, they have offices, phone numbers and contact emails throughout Italy.