Why Gay Parents Should Share Gay Culture With Their Children

A boy carries a flag during the New York City Pride March on June 26.

Eric Thayer/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.

Is gay culture dead or dying, as so many seem to think? Consider this:

On the 12-foot-high east wall of our kitchen sit nine symmetrically arranged, framed posters from old sheet music. Long-dead celebrities and utterly forgotten songs are the order of the day: Ever heard of  “Ritzi Mitzi,” “Little Girl,” or “Running Between the Rain-Drops” (where even the hyphen bespeaks the song’s ancient provenance)? Your eye will soon be drawn to the center square, where “Nevertheless” (from the musical Three Little Words) depicts a high-kicking Vera-Ellen dancing alongside a perfectly balanced Fred Astaire. Not since Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares has a center square been so gay.

David, my husband, had put these posters up some years ago, and I never thought much of them—until a recent conversation with some neighbors about how assimilated we were. Raising kids and hanging out in our West Philadelphia community with their parents, it seemed we had bored the gay away, settling comfortably into our comfortably progressive middle-class trappings. But then one of them said: “You have show tunes on your kitchen wall.” Until then, neither David nor I had really considered the seepage of our backgrounds—which are markedly different from each other’s—into our not-quite-post-gay lives. Once that sentence had been spoken, though, I started thinking about the small ways that our lives, and our parenting, have differed from those of our straight friends—because there really still is something we can call “gay culture.”

Take clothes shopping. As many readers will know, children’s clothing (and games, and accessories, and … everything) are starkly divided by gender. Thaw out June Cleaver, and she’ll notice little difference from the 1950s in the sharp division between what boys and girls are expected to wear. But we couldn’t care less whether our twin daughters want to don sparkles, overalls, or some ill-advised mash-up of supposedly male-female clothing.

That’s also true of some of our more enlightened straight friends, of course. But maybe our particular view comes with another dimension. Well-meaning relatives bought piles of princess dresses for our twin girls when they were young. By the end of the second evening of playing in the impractical frocks, the two slumped, tired figures reminded me of drag queens on their last legs. But all clothing, and all decisions about our appearance, is a kind of drag anyway. As J. Bryan Lowder put it, writing on the importance of drag in gay culture here at Slate: “The thing about this game is that once you’ve played it long enough, you realize that all self-presentation is a kind of performance—a mask that may or must be put on or taken off—and you further realize that everyone around you … is really in drag.”

Sometimes, the girls have got to be in roles they’d rather not have to play. Even then, understanding that it’s all just a performance can help them deal with a situation. Their role as flower girls at a relative’s wedding last year required them to wear white dresses, and the only way to get one of them to do that was to emphasize that the dress was just what she was wearing for a short time, for a special occasion, at the request of a cousin she really liked—not an announcement of her abiding fashion preference. It turned out OK, perhaps in part because she got to wear gym shorts under the dress.

Does it help that our family film society has screened Some Like it Hot, Hairspray, and—just this past weekend—Victor/Victoria? Or that I went to a Day of the Dead charity event dressed as the impossibly obscure Night Girl in zombie form? While my D-list superhero performance, replete with early 1960s bouffant hair-do, supplied only embarrassment for our tweens, the movies provide a good chance for discussing the complexity of gender and desire—mercifully, without turning the affair into a graduate seminar. Victor/Victoria, in particular, is one of the cleverest excavations of these issues since the gender double-backflip of Twelfth Night. (Yes, I’ve “drag”-ged them to that head-spinner, too.) The conceit of a woman—Julie Andrews, of all people—playing a man, playing a woman, and the vertigo it induces in leading man James Garner and in the audience, holds up well more than 30 years later.

Before starting Victor/Victoria, we explained to them, on a very basic level, the culture of drag performance and compared the film to the “drag as survival” motif of Some Like it Hot. We’ve already talked a little bit about trans issues, too, and I guess our hope is that they’ll come to understand the rich range of human expression, and, following Shakespeare, thereby “open [them]selves up to creative empathy.” Without this kind of normalizing exposure to various classic facets of gay culture, the task would be harder.

Does any of this have relevance to the bigger question raised up top: Whither gay culture? I hope so. We’re showing them this stuff in part just because we like it, but also because they should understand that the culture is tied to LGBTQ history, and that both have roots in oppression and transgression. Similarly, gay culture—though repudiated by the ever-increasing number of assimilationists—will likely survive in some form, so the girls might as well be fluent. In part because it’s fun, and also because it really has seeped into the dominant culture, to the extent that John Travolta can do drag without issue in the hugely popular Hairspray. It’s a two-way street.

Familiarity with gay culture also helps teach critical thinking, in that it offers a deep reminder of our difficult history and encourages a sharp cultural critique of dominant family structures that still too often get a pass. That’s why the post-marriage-equality trend of discarding alternative family forms, such as domestic partnerships, is a very big mistake. Formal equality is no excuse for failing to continually rethink what actual families—broadly defined—need.

As of now, our kids are going to have to be peer educators (though certainly not the only ones), because, as far as I can tell, they’re not going to learn any of this in school. Although California just made news by approving a statewide, comprehensive LGBTQ history and social science curriculum, that big blue state is an outlier. The most recent high-school American History curriculum I could find (ending in 2014) here in Philadelphia omitted any mention of LGBTQ history from the litany of rights movements (which included those for women, African Americans, and Native Americans), and a student in nearby suburb who’s just finished the course confirmed for me that the phrase “LGBTQ” never passed the instructor’s lips.

To be fair, our domestic references to, and presentations of, what might be called “gay culture” only occasionally occupy center stage; most of the time, they’re just ambient. Usually, it’s about homework, swim practice, and piano. (Well, OK, ballroom dancing and musical theater for one of our kids, too.) And of course our version of “gay culture” is one among many; it varies across every identity, and every family. A lesbian couple would likely teach very different lessons, on average.

Yet I like to think that the kids are getting something good out of our experience as two people who have lived out of the mainstream—even if, most of the time, gay doesn’t come before dad in their minds.