*Disclaimer: I’m not Catholic. I’m Episcopalian, which means my sexual ethics probably don’t match yours. This isn’t really about the question of whether gay marriage is right or wrong. It’s about how kids interpret what adults say.*
If you’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird – if you haven’t, stop reading this and get to the library – you may recall how the other kids would call Scout a “nigger-lover.” Some of these kids were country/hick, what you might call “trailer trash.” Most of them, however, were kids of fine upstanding church members who lived in town. Their parents may have been like my grandmama, who was patronizingly racist but would never have said nigger; that was low-class. They might have picked up the word from their classmates, but they picked up the sentiment from adults.
Kids are tribal, and so are adults. The only difference is that kids haven’t learned to be hypocrites. They say what pops into their minds, regardless of social niceties. Sometimes it’s innocent remarks about poop, but sometimes it mirrors our prejudice. Most young kids, even those from abusive homes, idolize their parents, so whatever is considered good/acceptable/normal at home is what they will themselves aspire to. This can be wonderful; it’s why households with books produce children who read and finish school, or why it’s vital to have authentic faith yourself if you want to pass it down. However, it also means that your kid takes your family as the plumb-line for who to include in their tribe.
Due to the financial help of my grandmama, I went to private Christian school from kindergarten through 12th grade. Unlike my classmates, I lived in a majority-black, urban neighborhood with prostitution, open drug use, violence, police raids, all-night drunken parties, etc. I wore second-hand clothes and applied Scotch tape and glue when my shoes fell apart. Simply put, I didn’t make the cut for my school’s social tribe.
“But this is different,” you might say. “This isn’t about poverty or race or clothing; it’s about sexual morality. I’m defending the long-standing tradition of marriage.”
That might indeed be what you’re trying to do. However, I doubt that the parents of my classmates looked down on off-brands. Maybe they quoted Ronald Reagan about welfare queens, or told their kids never to go east or south of a certain line in the sand, that those are “bad neighborhoods.” Maybe they commented on the evening news by saying “Well what do you expect, another shooting downtown.” They thought they were defending the “traditional” family: the one that doesn’t get divorced, doesn’t have baby daddies, doesn’t live in public housing, doesn’t need food stamps, doesn’t have single moms working at Burger King. They wanted the best for their kids, and for them to live moral lives without pre-marital sex and drugs.
The other objection is that it’s gay people who are idolized, and Christians who are persecuted. Here’s the thing: just because the government says something is so, that changes nothing about the culture. Little Rock did not magically recover from racism after the schools were integrated by the National Guard. It’s easy to think that America is totally liberal and pro-gay marriage if you spend too much time online, but the real world is not Tumbler.
Let me tell you about two friends of mine, a lesbian couple in northern Virginia. This couple has two kids, born of a previous heterosexual marriage, and both of these kids have been bullied because their moms are lesbians. One day the youngest came crying off the bus, where she had been harassed for having two moms and no dad (she does have a dad who’s involved in her life, but he doesn’t live with them).
They live in a “progressive” community with public schools that rank in the top 5% of the nation. Their neighbors are not backwoods hicks; they are suburban families that enroll their kids in soccer camp. I doubt that those parents fill their kids’ heads with gay slurs. They might remark that the country is going to hell now that “the gays” can marry. On a gentler note, they may be evangelicals or Catholics who explain to their kids that homosexuals cannot really be married, no matter what the government says. Either way, the kids learn that their tribe can only include kids from heterosexual couples, and that the outsiders must be shunned.
Am I saying not to tell your kids what your faith teaches? No, but I am saying to tell them what the entire faith says. The Catholic catechism doesn’t stop by saying “gay sex is bad.” It takes pains to emphasize the humanity of everyone. You can’t just teach your kids that gay marriage is impossible and expect them to pick up on kindness to others from thin air. Kindness to outsiders is thin on the ground; trust me, I know. Kindness and inclusion to those outside of the tribe must be taught, consciously, by parents. Otherwise, a child of gay parents will think of those kids who bullied him on the bus when he hears the word Christianity.