My niece is coming to visit me next month. My boyfriend is moving in with me next month. Given the unique serendipity of these two occurrences, my sister-in-law, my niece, and I were forced into having what I’m going to refer to as the “Gay Uncle Talk.” My niece is 8 (almost 9). I wish I could have told her I was gay sooner. I just didn’t know how. Or when. But, mainly, I was scared.
The conversation started between my sister-in-law and her daughter. I don’t know all the details of how the concept was brought up but, from what my sister-in-law told me, the conversation was casual. The gist: “Sometimes people fall in love with people who are the same sex. Uncle Alec is one of those people.”
After their conversation, my niece had a lot of questions. Her mom tried to answer as best she could, fielding some questions as things my niece would have to ask me instead. When her mom suggested reading a book to help her understand, my niece said yes. Then, naturally, my sister-in-law turned to me for recommendations. My niece called me on video chat a few hours later.
I was so nervous. Research tells us that children have solidified their biases about other people’s race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability by ages 9 or 10*. My 8-year-old niece was almost to that point. What messages was she getting from home? From school? From the media? I remembered the messages I got growing up in the same town that she lives in now. These were the messages that kept me in the closet until after high school.
From the moment my niece and I started talking, I could tell that she was uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable, too. My nervousness grew. I tried to lead in by asking if she had any questions for me. She was too shy to ask. We got quiet. So then I asked her three questions, to which she gave three one-word answers.
Q1: Are you still coming to visit me in June?
Q2: Did you know that I have a boyfriend?
Q3: My boyfriend lives with me. Is that going to be weird for you?
She said “I know what gay means.” I sighed with relief. But then she surprised me with a curveball: “When did you know you were gay?”
What. A. Question. Even as I type this, I’m marveling at this question. Of all the scenarios that went through my head, this was never something I thought a child would ask—and I’m someone who tries to take children seriously. When did I know I was gay? It felt like such a mature question. So I answered her honestly, telling her that I had crushes on boys and girls when I was young but that it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I knew what felt the most right to me. And that was that. She asked one more question about how two boys have babies, but she didn’t ask anything else. In fact, we moved on almost immediately to talk about everyday things: YouTube videos, puppets, books (she’s reading ALL of Dork Diaries right now). Everything went back to normal. Because nothing had changed. Not really.
It’s amazing how often we forget how much children see, how much they understand, how much they accept. It all starts with exposure. I was reminded of this again when I saw this incredible video of a trans soccer coach coming out to his team. And I’m reminded of it when I scroll through Gays With Kids on Instagram (which, BTW, is my latest obsession). Visibility is so important. So is honesty.
Of course, it’s not all roses. SLJ did an excellent write-up on HRC’s recent report about the rise in bullying of marginalized students. Homophobia still exists. My niece is but one of the children I will have to come out to in my (hopefully) long career as a children’s librarian. There will be bad interactions. But there will also be great interactions that fill my bucket like this one.
How did our conversation end? With the phrase everyone wants to hear when they’ve shared something big: “I love you. I’ll talk to you again soon.”
Here are the books I’m sending my niece to “help her understand.” I’m also planning to include a picture of me and my boyfriend, Shane, to prepare her for her upcoming visit.
What books would you recommend to help young children understand sexuality?
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy
King & King by Linda de Haan & Stern Nijland
Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle by Pija Lindenbaum
*This statistic comes from the work of Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards.