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December 9, 2009

Family ties

How do you know if animals in the ocean are boys or girls? What is a mind? Why is the top of your hair dark when the rest of it is blond?

These are just a few of the billions of questions my nieces ask in a typical day. At 4 and 5 years old, they do not miss an opportunity to get information, to soak up ideas and interpret them at every available moment. They learn from everything. While they are developing and keeping the rest of us on our toes, they are also learning from the regular, day-to-day reactions of the people around them — their “normal.”

As Auntie Pum Pum, I spend time with my nieces doing “crazy, gay things” like having lunch, coloring, playing hide-and-seek, and reading. They love my live-in girlfriend, who visits with them and comes to family events. There is no need for us to try to explain our sexual orientation outright — not because we want to hide it, but because we treat it as acceptable and routine. As my sister, who has a degree in psychology, puts it, “It’s only a big deal if you make it into a big deal.” So I may seem obsessed with all things gay as an LGBT columnist, but as an aunt, I take my cues from my young nieces. It’s “Don’t Ask, I’m Telling” versus “I’ll wait until they ask and then tell them only the answer to their question, and in a way that doesn’t make me look like a freak.”

Is Pig Pig a boy or a girl?

The topic of my female-centric household hadn’t come up at all until last week, when my youngest niece asked about the gender of Pig Pig, my girlfriend’s Chihuahua. Pig Pig is a girl. My little niece deduced, “That means everyone in Auntie Pum Pum’s family is a girl.” (In this case, family was defined by who lives with me.) And that was that. That was all she needed to know. There was no coming-out scene, no sit-down talk about what a big lesbian I am, or how being gay is not contagious. Nobody brought up Stonewall or Rupaul. I didn’t ask them if they knew what the sexual movement meant for the ’70s, or what Ellen had to go through before Portia. My sister, her husband, my girlfriend and I looked at our beloved munchkins and tried to act like we were normal.

There is nothing I have to intentionally do to persuade my nieces that being gay is OK except to just be gay. I don’t have to actively impress upon them that, even though I am different in some way, I still love them. I just have to love them. And that, to them, is normal.

Believe me, I haven’t always had it so “Family Ties.” At times, growing up was painful and heartbreaking. I have seen my share of confusion and anger in people who had to learn, as adults, to accept people who weren’t like them. My parents didn’t have it easy, either. But I think our pasts have helped us understand that, especially in their developmental years, the kids are everything. Children are clean slates, and if we can spare them the pain of intolerance, if we can help them accept the differences in other people, then the past can help make their lives better. To have my nieces see my lifestyle as normal benefits everyone involved.

It seems to be a lot easier for children to understand concepts like “a boy can love a boy and a girl can love a girl,” or a couple can consist of two people of different color, because they don’t have the complicated filters that adults have. We, the adults, are the ones who have the hang-ups about issues like sexuality and normality. We are the ones who grew up with homophobia, or no role models, or Meredith Baxter being straight.

I know lesbians and gays who are like me, who have always wanted to be open about their sexuality and have it not be a big deal. And we are finally seeing that positively change. While I didn’t exactly come out to my nieces, I did open the closet door. And, until one of them asks what Auntie Pum Pum is doing in a closet, I don’t feel the need to make a big deal of jumping out.