A 'Flamboyant' Taunt by a Fellow Gay Student: How a Mother Can Help
I am a straight suburban mom who is very supportive of my gay teenage son. He's confident in who he is but he's
also vulnerable to hostile comments from those who might find him too "flamboyant." Recently he came home from school upset
because another gay teenager in his school's Gay Straight Alliance expressed distaste for flamboyant gay men "because they
ruin it for the rest of us." To my ears that sounds no different from homophobic comments made by his straight peers. It seems
to me that the gay community should be supportive of any individual's expression of sexuality, as long as it doesn't hurt
anyone. Isn't that what you've been fighting for — the right to be who you are and not be forced into someone else's
norm? –Suburban Mom in N.J.
Yes, Mom, you're absolutely right. For those like you who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, let me start with a
quick history lesson: The drag queens (and others) who fought back against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 are
properly credited with the birth of the modern gay rights movement. To this day the butch lesbians known as Dykes on Bikes put
themselves out there, front and center, in pride parades from New York to San Francisco. These women and men have led the way
in the struggle to earn civil rights for all of us and they deserve our gratitude, but instead they (along with others deemed
too "flamboyant") are often pilloried by those who say "they ruin it for the rest of us."
Where does this attitude come from? There's certainly a dichotomy in our community, with some people valuing assimilation and
others celebrating diversity. The so-called "Brooks Brothers" types have no doubt helped the movement by "normalizing" us
(think Will Truman of "Will & Grace"), but excluding our less conforming sisters and brothers is no way to define ourselves.
It's possible that those who disdain difference and who focus on making gays look "good" (often meaning "straight acting") to
the outside world are revealing their own insecurities. My take on it is that this young man's criticism of your son is a
perfect example of how damaging internalized homophobia can be.
Either way, the comment made to your son was disrespectful, wrong and especially hurtful coming from another gay student.
I asked Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network what she thought about this
situation. "When the pressure comes from a straight person to conform — 'don't be so flamboyant' or 'tone it down'
— it's difficult and dangerous," she said. "Coming from another gay student, it's even more sad and troubling. This
person should be on your side."
Frankly, I'm saddened and troubled that there are "sides" to this at all, but they certainly did emerge when I posted your
question on my Facebook page. One boomer-aged gay man seemed to support the "mainstreamers" when he wrote: "I like my men to
be ... men, you know? That's why I'm gay. I'm not a 'fan' of flamboyant men. And while I don't hide any gay 'traits' I might
express, I also hope I don't come off as flamboyant myself."
But I think the food writer Eric Burkett, in his comments to me, really got to the core of the problem: "When I was a teen, I
was enormously uncomfortable with flamboyant — or as I would have put it then, 'nelly' — gay guys. I was out but
still not entirely comfortable with myself. Peer pressure, societal and family expectations and the entirely unreal
expectations we have of ourselves all conspire to make teenagers the most insecure people on the planet."
So, what's a supportive mom (or dad) to do? I don't know how your son reacted in the moment, but in a perfect world he would
have had a "come to Jesus" talk right then and there — not punishing but enlightening. Even now it's not too late to
craft a response; your son can go back to his classmate and restart the conversation privately, and not combatively. Or you
might e-mail the G.S.A. adviser and get him or her involved. (A G.S.A. is the perfect place to have these honest
conversations, and the group's adviser would probably want to schedule a session on the topic to help foster understanding and
clear the air.)
Your son's critic also needs to be reminded that the real threat is not from outré gays but from rabid opponents of gay rights
— who don't make any sartorial or behavioral distinctions. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, a
conservative evangelical nonprofit, has said point blank: "Same-sex relationships undermine the future generation's
understanding of the fundamental principles of marriage, parenthood and gender." Make no mistake, Mr. Dobson wasn't talking
about those who are effeminate or butch — no gay person gets a free pass or a marriage license. That sobering thought
might help get us all on the same side, united against those who would deny our rights, rather than dividing ourselves.
Oh, and please tell your son how proud you are of him just the way he is.
Originally published in The New York Times, April 2, 2013