How Can Gay Parents Explain Orlando to Their Kids?

Scene from a candlelight vigil in Sydney for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

Daniel Munoz/Getty Images

Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

I’ve been a regular contributor to Slate for years, but an introduction seems in order. This will be the first in a series of monthly columns I’ll be writing on one type of parenting: ostensibly, gay parenting, but more accurately, just my own up-and-down efforts at the task. Tolstoy’s opening line in Anna Karenina is famous but wrong—all families, not just the unhappy ones—are unique. So while the pieces will run each month in this Outward blog, any broader lessons that might be drawn for LGBTQ families—let alone other families—will be some combination of luck and the (soon-to-be-legion) readers’ own connections to whatever I happen to be discussing.

Today’s column is written with a sense of emergency. The baffling massacre in Orlando has insinuated itself into me in unexpected dimensions, and caused me to ask all kinds of questions that, amazingly, I’d managed to sidestep until now. What do I say to my 11-year-old twin daughters about violence against LGBTQ people? What can I do differently, if anything, to keep them safe when the toll of violence is made so clear? How do I balance talking about uncertainty with the need to reassure them? And, perhaps most troubling, how do I deal with this fact: My fear for my children is bound up in my fears for myself, usually safely stowed in the overhead compartment but subject to falling out when I encounter unexpected turbulence. (I should add here that I don’t have to create or answer these questions on my own; I have a level-headed husband who’s been just as involved in working through this mess.)

My kids have been lucky so far. They haven’t had to deal with any of the bullying and collateral trauma that their fathers did, and, in our progressive Philadelphia community, our family structure hasn’t caused them any problems, either. So figuring out what to say to them about violence against LGBTQ people is quite different from, say, the anguishing task Ta-Nehisi Coates set for himself in Between the World and Me. Though he recognizes the generational changes that complicate understanding his son’s experience, his eloquent, heartbreaking account of the thousand natural shocks to which African American bodies are heir is their shared, lived reality.

Our kids, by contrast, are usually safe—to the extent that any kids are safe, at least. That makes explaining anti-LGBTQ violence a different kind of challenge. They’ve had infrequent, and mostly painless, reminders of the stubborn fact that their family is different. Here’s a memorable example:

Scene: Coffee shop, circa 2010. An early Saturday morning. Me, alone with the kids.

Waitress: “Oh, is it mom’s day to sleep in?”

Kids, age 6 [in chorus]: “We don’t have a mom. We have two dads.”

Waitress, not missing a beat: “Wow, you’re lucky! I don’t even have one dad, and you have two!”

See? Kind of a positive experience.

So when Orlando happened, we were starting from zero. Our kids have no experience with fear or rejection of their family. They’re much less at risk, it seems, than we were as children. (I mostly avoided being bullied, but only through a series of baroque stratagems, the creating and sustaining of which imposed their own costs.) But we needed to talk about the incident, especially since we were taking them to a vigil to mourn and mark the event, collectively.

We found ourselves explaining how and why some madman would even want to harm gay people. A simple script seemed sensible: Most people, as you know, treat gay people the same way they treat everyone else. A few people still don’t like gays, though. And a very, very tiny number of people, with serious mental health problems, do crazy, horrible things like what happened over the weekend in Orlando. (From what I understand, the daily CNN news report the kids consume in school discussed the massacre on Monday, but, incredibly, the teacher didn’t follow up the harrowing broadcast in any way.) We opted for reassurance over nuance.

This little talk didn’t upset them at all. We offered a question-and-answer session, but they didn’t need to hear more. At least in our part of the world, the Orlando tragedy is just too foreign, too abstract for them. One of them did suggest taking away the guns, a solution as obvious to an 11-year-old as it is crazy to imagine actually happening.

As it turned out, the easy part of the evening had just ended.

We arrived at the vigil with our next-door neighbors, a straight family also with two girls. And right away, I understood the paradox of peril that had been clawing at the side of my head since a Facebook “encounter” the day before. On Sunday, a lesbian mother and friend posted that, in the wake of Orlando, she wasn’t going to the Philly Pride event “just in case.” I pushed back, in that rote American way, that this is how the terrorists win, blah blah blah. She sensibly replied that she wasn’t going to put her young daughter at risk; I abjectly apologized and backed off, and that was that.

… Until we made a right turn around the front of City Hall and instantly became part of the multitude. I’ve been to mass gatherings of the tribe before, including the 1993 March on Washington, a security-free event that attracted as many as 1 million people. I’d never given the slightest thought to the possibility of violence, but last night felt different. The event was staged in a large open space in front of City Hall without the slightest impediment to any potential terrorist. As I looked around at the thousands of folks—of every known sexual orientation, gender identity, and ethnicity—I was temporarily seized by the fear that something awful might be about to happen.

I had marched my children right into danger.

At this point, it was impossible to separate the fear I had for their safety from my fears for my husband and myself, and that’s a painful thing to acknowledge. As members of the LGBT community, we’re more or less used to being at risk even though we sometimes allow ourselves the illusion of thinking the worst is behind us. And as I found myself standing there with my suddenly, dramatically vulnerable family, I could only hope that I’d be able to figure out some way to deal with, to balance, two inescapable realities. There’s my often-submerged fear for my own safety—which goes back to childhood, but is daily reinforced by political attacks and astonishing religious hatred (not just from “radical Islamists”), and tied to the long, sad history of serious violence against the community, even in our supposedly safe spaces. And there’s every parent’s prime directive—to keep our children safe—and how we manage that while teaching them, while exposing them to what the world puts out there.

Every decision will be contingent. In the end, I forced the rational part of my brain to pummel the reptile into submission: The Orlando murderer was a crazy lone wolf. The odds of something bad happening here were tiny. I don’t want to raise two hothouse flowers.

Once I was able to do that, I could experience the vigil as a sad, defiant, somehow beautiful event. “Say Their Names,” read one simple placard. On the reverse, the author had written each victim’s name, squeaking them all out with a plain, thick, black marker. He moved through the crowd, perhaps trying to make sure that everyone would see the (mostly Latino) names of these lately dancing, joyful men and women.

At that point, I knew I had made the right choice by showing up, by connecting myself—and my children—with the tribe.

Read more from Slate on the Orlando nightclub shooting.