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What, during this awful season of reckoning about sexual harassment and assault, should two gay dads impart to their just-turned teenage daughters about male aggression?
While being gay obviously removes me from the heterosexual framework in which most of these violations took place, it remains true that gay men and straight women share at least one thing: We are both interested in men sexually yet vulnerable to them in ways that cross sexual, cultural, and political boundaries. Recent allegations against powerful men, starting with Harvey Weinstein and then cutting like a dirty scythe through Kevin Spacey, the reptilian Roy Moore, Louis C.K, Al Franken, and even former President George H.W. Bush, are sickening, cascading reminders of what it’s like out there for both gay men (and boys) and for women (and girls), and of the urgency to properly arm our kids.
But how? How to translate this whole mess into terms and, more importantly, actions that actually help my kids? When I reflected on my own experiences with power and abuse as a gay kid, I came up with some insight on power, sexuality, and cruelty that might be a starting place.
Early into my freshman year of high school, I was sitting with a male friend in the cafeteria. I have no recollection of what we were saying or doing, but we obviously set off some gaydar in the seniors at the next table. Two of the young women (they must have been 18, or almost) from the mixed-gender group sashayed over to us, sat in our laps, and began mock-flirting. How long did this harassment go on? How much attention from other students did it draw? I don’t know; all I remember was the pressing need to die on the spot. That awful moment of high school hell ended only when we assumed liquid form and oozed under the door.
Later that same afternoon, one of the guys who’d been sitting at the Table of Degradation saw me at my locker and asked me what I’d thought of his friends. Having grown a bit of spine over the course of the day, I muttered something suitably nasty, perhaps questioning their mental fitness. The outraged interlocutor then showcased his ability to use the word “faggot” in a sentence and stormed away. The earlier harassment had just been validated by someone who understood the high school pecking order, which ran in a straight line down from straight male senior through young women before hitting bottom—freshman faggots. I’d just been given a clear, unambiguous primer on power.
To be sure, the sexual harassment of women—including lesbians—by men is one particularly egregious, actionable instance of the power imbalance. The extreme case of rape is often about physical power, but as these stories—including mine—all underscore, power comes in all kinds of crosscutting forms, relating to status, access, and economics. How else could an invalid, nonagenarian ex-president allegedly get away with squeezing women’s butts without their consent? How else could two young women harass two younger high school males?
The task, then, is to empower our kids in a comprehensive way, to get them to think about power and how its abused as well as to recognize when they’re being taken advantage of and to do something about it, no matter the context in which the behavior arises and whoever the transgressor might be—male or female, straight or queer.
Our effort will involve talking about their agency and autonomy (if, with kids, not in those exact terms) over their own bodies, of course, but that’s thoroughly inadequate on its own. We also need to encourage them to come forward when they’re not being treated appropriately. We hope they’ll talk to us, but they also need other adult figures to turn to when necessary. I could have used some grown-up perspective in trying to deal with the humiliation I felt those many years ago, but I, as many young queer kids do, felt that there was nowhere to go. Parents were out of the question. Had social media been around at that time, it might have been a good resource for me. But it’s not an unalloyed good. For girls especially, evidence is pouring in that social media leads to depression and anxiety. So encouraging their connection to flesh-and-blood people who can offer an outside perspective on the situation is important.
Participation in athletics can be valuable in this way. One of our kids is in an after-school running program for girls that emphasizes the “whole person,” embedding the exercise in a broader initiative that talks to them about their bodies, social and peer issues, and their goals. Our other daughter is a high-level swimmer who looks invincible in her tech suit and whose confidence is buoyed every time she executes a great race. She’s lucky enough to have a great coach committed to more than just getting the kids to the next competitive level and teammates—male and female—who train together and respect each other. Their healthy connections are in evidence at every meet and during every practice.
We can also show them positive examples of power in action. I recall the feelings of connectedness, visibility, and strength that lifted me whenever some public figure came out. From Elton John to Martina Navratilova, these announcements progressively showed me the way to live a life out loud. Our kids have their own models. Wonder Woman was a great fantasy the whole family loved, and then Gal Gadot showed a different kind of power by insisting that the film’s producer, Brett Ratner, be shown the door before she’d star in a sequel. He was. (Ratner stands accused of sexual misconduct against women, too.)
The recent film Battle of the Sexes was a different kind of power in action: The Billie Jean King–Bobby Riggs tennis match is the cinematic climax, but King’s victory on the court stands more as an exclamation point at the end of a long paragraph detailing her dogged and largely successful effort to get the sport’s male power brokers to take women seriously. Today, they get equal prize money at all four of the tournaments making up the Grand Slam of tennis, and King’s name is attached to the National Tennis Center, site of the U.S. Open. A very visible lesbian, she’s got well-earned power no one’s going to mess with.
The sexual mistreatment and degradation of women and girls has been a long nightmare from which we’re finally, belatedly waking up. For both sexes, there’s tremendous, and potentially transformative, power in going public with these stories, even years later. Gay and straight parents of both girls and boys need to contribute to a cultural shift that reduces the chances our kids will ever find themselves in such an awful situation and that gives them the power to do something if the unthinkable happens.