Two Men Kissing: On Normalising Same-Sex Affection for Kids
Angela Savage was shocked when her daughter reacted to a card featuring two men kissing with disgust - despite knowing and accepting the family’s wide circle of gay and lesbian friends. Heterosexual affection is everywhere, but she’d never really witnessed same-sex affection. Angela decided to research how to normalise it in an age-appropriate way … and found it surprisingly difficult.
A family member recently showed me a birthday card featuring graffiti artist Banksy’s stencil image of two English policemen kissing. As my eight-year-old daughter shares my love of street art, I drew her attention to the card.
‘Ooh, yuck!’ she said.
I was mortified by what I saw as an epic parent fail moment, not least of all because the family member in question happens to be gay. I left the room, took a deep breath, and came back to my daughter.
‘You know, I’m really offended by your reaction to that card. We’ve got lots of friends who are gay and lesbian—’ I reeled off a few names of people she knows ‘— and to suggest it’s yuck for them to kiss the people they love is very hurtful.’
Never one to take criticism lying down, my daughter countered with, ‘But Mummy, I’ve never seen this before. I’m just not used to it. That’s all.’
I’ve been reflecting on her words for weeks now. My daughter knows about sexual diversity. I’ve been careful to use inclusive language about sexual preference since she was little. She knows who is gay and lesbian among our friends, and has friends at school who have same-sex parents. She’s also been to some of the finest drag shows in Southeast Asia. Yet somehow all this knowledge and experience doesn’t prevent the ‘ooh yuck’ reaction to the sight of two men kissing. Because she’s never seen it before.
I feel ashamed it’s taken me so long to fully grasp what my LGBTIQ friends have no doubt known forever about the implications of growing up surrounded by popular culture that is overwhelmingly hetero-normative. And I start to wonder how to bridge the gap.
I credit The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and specifically Tim Curry, for putting paid to any ‘ooh yuck’ factor I might have otherwise had at the sight of two men kissing. As transvestite mad scientist Frank-N-Furter in the 1975 film, Curry was so beautiful, so sexy, I could understand both Brad and Janet (not to mention Rocky) wanting to kiss him. I was intrigued, if not besotted, by the film’s depiction of sexual fluidity and erotic fun. I saw it twice in three days.
But I was 15 and my daughter is eight, too young for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, My Beautiful Laundrette, Brokeback Mountain, Maurice or any of the other films I can think of that feature two men kissing. And I figure it will be a long, long time before we see affection between same-sex attracted characters in a Disney movie: even if, as some commentators suggest, Elsa did come out in 2013’s Frozen, it was only to live a cold and lonely existence.
Books designed to teach young children about gay and lesbian relationships tend to focus on parenting — some well-known examples include Heather Has Two Mommies and The Rainbow Cubby House — and the love same-sex parents have for their children, rather than the love between the parents themselves (and even then, such books cause controversy when included in daycare centres and public libraries). My daughter won’t see two men kissing there.
I find scant examples of books with LGBTIQ themes for pre-teens/readers of middle fiction at all. Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel Drama is a rare exception; and a graphic novel offers potential for the visual impact I’m looking for. But again, no kissing.
For help, I turn to Daniel Witthaus, CEO and founder of the National Institute for Challenging Homophobia Education (NICHE).
‘I’m not overly concerned when someone’s initial reaction [to two men kissing] is discomfort, given the current context of how Australia does (or does not) deal with sexual diversity,’ he says. ‘It’s understandable that someone will respond negatively to something they’ve not seen before.’
All the more so when they’re only eight years old, I think to myself.
‘There’s too much emphasis on always having the right response, and too much pressure on parents to solve a whole lot of challenges we face as a society.’
He’s spot on: I realise my reaction to my daughter’s ooh yuck moment was more about demonstrating the ‘right response’, as well as reassuring my gay family member, than it was about engaging with where my daughter is at.
‘I see open discomfort as an educational opportunity, rather than a problem,’ says Daniel who, in 2010, spent 266 days driving around rural, regional and urban Australia challenging homophobia, a journey documented in his book, Beyond Priscilla. ‘In my experience, by using this discomfort as a conversation starter, in the vast majority of cases, the conversation ends up in a very different place from where it started.’
As it happens, my daughter seizes the initiative after that initial discomfort, finding images of girls kissing girls and boys kissing boys in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer graphic novels she and her dad borrow from the library. She shows me the images as she comes across them. Maybe she does this to make me feel better. Maybe she wants to reassure me that she’s starting to get used to this.
Either way, I’m grateful to her for continuing the conversation.