This morning, in response to a story on NPR, Ruby asked me what “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means. Never one to shy away from an opportunity to explain extraordinarily complicated issues to a young child, I dove right in…
First I started by explaining that the people in the army and navy don’t have as many rights as we do. For example, if I wanted to quit my job, I could do that any time I wanted. But people in the military aren’t allowed to quit. And if my boss told me that I had to move to Kansas, I could just say no. But in the military, if your boss tells you to move to Kansas, you have to do it. Ruby asked why people weren’t allowed to quit, and I said it’s because sometimes people in the military have to do really difficult things, and that too many people would want to quit. “Couldn’t they let just one person quit?” she asked.
Okay, now that we’ve established that people in the military have fewer rights I started explaining about love. I said there are some people who love other people who are the same sex as them. I said my friend Justin at work is married to a man and he only loves men. And I told her that I only love women. I asked her what kind of people she thought she would love, and she said she’d want to marry a man — not surprising given her age, gender, and that I was in the car with her. 🙂
Then I gave her some examples of people she knows who love both men and women — maybe that’s the kind of person she is? And she immediately said that *that* is how she is. She loves both.
Note that through all of this I wasn’t using any labels: no “gay”, “straight”, “bisexual”, “homosexual”. Those are shortcuts that are handy when talking with adults, but I think they’re too rigid to use when introducing this kind of a concept to a child — especially when I’m framing the conversation in terms of the individuals you love.
Okay, next step was to talk about where love comes from. I told Ruby: “love isn’t something you choose. It comes from deep inside you and it just makes you love someone. Do you think you could choose to not love Mama?” She said no, of course. “And do you remember when you started to love Mama? No, it was just there and it happened without you thinking about it. You didn’t choose it — it just happened”.
Moving on, I told her that some people don’t like it when a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. I told her it makes them feel weird or uncomfortable or angry, or that it isn’t something they’re used to. And I told her that older people are more likely to feel this way, and that people in charge of the military are older and so they think a man loving a man is strange and don’t like it.
Finally, tying everything together, I explained that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means that if you’re in the military, it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, as long as it’s a secret. But if they find out about it, then they’ll fire you. And that’s bad because the people who are getting fired really love their jobs.
I told Ruby that all of my friends and just about everybody I know thinks that it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, and that we think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a bad idea. But there are people in other parts of the country who disagree, and sometimes it takes a long time for the country to change. I said sometimes, this country changes too slowly.
“But Papa,” she said, “it just changed to fall yesterday!”