Gary Dietz, with lessons in love and intergenerational hand-holding.
A while back my teenage son and I were holding hands as we slowly and carefully walked down a well-worn trail. This particular section had many roots sticking out of the ground. A group of older teens walking faster than us caught up from behind. Just before and as they passed, I heard some snickering from alpha teen. I took a deep breath—not because I feared violence, but rather to prep to ignore or otherwise mask comments about my son’s unusual gait or an under-the-breath “retard”-related comment.
Instead, as they passed, I could have sworn I heard alpha teen make a very quiet, anti-gay slur. It was uttered quietly enough that he would have plausible deniability. Or maybe I didn’t really hear what I thought I heard. But if I misheard, wouldn’t my brain have filled in with the word “retard” and not a gay slur?
Did that kid actually think my son was my boyfriend? Or was he just seeing either or both of us as weak because we were holding hands?
I’m long past the point where I reflexively engage people who have just uttered stupid comments in the direction of me or my son, who experiences intellectual and physical disabilities. Sometimes I do engage, but only when engagement has a chance of being effective and when it seems safe to do so. This case met neither condition.
What I do reflect on because of incidents like this is my own experience as a straight man, as a father, and as a father of a child that experiences a profound disability. Alpha teen gave me much to reflect on:
- The surprise of being the target of gay slur when I was actually expecting another disparaging comment
- Why I even have to prepare myself for the likelihood of a slur to be uttered at all on a simple hike with my son
- My disappointment with a group of teens barely older than my son
- My disappointment in a culture where the emotional bond of two males holding hands is generally valued only in limited, specific cases and is more likely than not viewed as weak or homosexual or both.
Why is it that in American society when we see two males holding hands, the most common reflexive reaction is one of homosexuality? Why is it that when we see two Arabic men holding hands, or two older Caucasian men holding hands, or an adult white male and an almost adult disabled child holding hands so many of think “gay” before we think almost anything else?
If it was a woman holding hands with a child, male or female, we assume she is the mother. (Unless of course the race of the mother and child is different, but that’s another essay altogether.) When it is a man holding hands, the first emotional assumption is too often anything other than “that’s his father.”
We continued our hike. It was our time together that calmed us both and allowed us to hold hands and hug and be together with minimal interruptions from our own behavioral challenges. I wasn’t angry with alpha teen and his crew. I just hoped they were lucky enough to have a father or father-figure to hug them and hold their hands with as much care and love as I provide my son.
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Photo: timparkinson / flickr