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Sunday afternoon, maybe 10 hours after the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre, I went walking in the woods with my friend David and my 2 kids — my 8-year-old daughter and my 6-year-old son. My friend’s dogs were with us — Georgia on the leash walking with David and me and my daughter, and Daisy running ahead with my son. My daughter has a nice rapport with David, and she chattered on with him about pretty much anything. David, knowing I had no internet or TV at my weekend place, told me about Orlando. For the next 45 minutes we covered the basics. I asked as many questions as I could in the few moments my daughter was quiet, and David gave me what information he could before she started on again. As a dad, over the last 2 days as I’ve mourned the dead and considered the impact on our community, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to include my kids in the process.
My husband and I tell our kids that guns are for killing, and we tell our kids that there are people in the world who hate other people, and who can be violent. And we tell them that there are people who don’t think two men should be married like her Papa and Daddy are. But we’ve sort of left it at that. We’ve never had to tell them that there are people who want to kill us — who do kill us — because we’re gay. How could we burden them with that sort of fear?
My job is to keep my daughter safe. It is also to raise her to understand the complications and glories of the world and to have the insight and information to navigate it well. So I have to tell her about danger, and violence, and hatred, even as I endeavor to help her feel safe. That’s always meant telling her that the violence and hate is at a decent distance from her, and us. But Orlando feels too close to pretend that’s true anymore.
While we were in the woods I didn’t want to ask my daughter to stop chatting with David, nor did I initially want her to hear what he and I were trying to discuss. We kept our voices low. I chose my words carefully, and maintained an even temper as David told me what he knew about the disaster. When we got back to David’s house, I left my kids with him and went to pick up my husband so we could all have dinner together. Ten minutes later, with no kids in the room, I went up to my husband, told him something terrible had happened, and burst into tears.
My daughter is not unaware of social trends and media events around her — once while walking to school she asked me if I knew what White Privilege was. Her friend Skye had told given her the phrase after one of the police killings of young black people a few months ago. She goes to the kind of school where a teacher once had his students carry “Black Lives Matter” signs down to Friday singalong.
We’ve never had to tell them that there are people who want to kill us — who do kill us — because we’re gay.
Yesterday morning my husband calmly told my daughter that a mentally ill man brought a gun into a dance hall and shot over 100 people, killing 49. We told her the people he killed were gay people, and that in fact he shot them because they were gay. She took a moment, and her face became dark and fearful, to a degree that my husband started regretting telling her. Then she moved to distance herself, placing an abstract frame around the event to protect herself. She told us “it’s okay to be gay, and wrong to be mean to people who are different.” Yes, we agreed. The basic idea was there, but the emotional impact was simply too great to handle.
There is a temptation to hear news like Sandy Hook, or San Bernardino, or Orlando and think it happened to other people. But when Sandy Hook happened I had kids in elementary school. I have friends who work in Public Health. And the Orlando murders were of members of my community. The emotional impact is inescapable — there is hatred in the world that is getting closer and closer to each of us. We can’t keep distancing ourselves until it’s right outside our door. If I just tell my daughter the facts, and don’t express the emotion that I’m feeling, then the message she’ll get is that these events, all these killings, are elsewhere, something that happen to other people. How will she develop a sense of righteous anger and the necessary will to fight against racism, homophobia, injustice and violence?
So my husband and I have continued to talk about Orlando in front of her, showing her that we’re upset, but still functioning. We have to show her the pain of the tragedy and teach her how to deal with it. We want our children to know about kids and families in war, in refugee camps, in leaky boats and unsafe apartments. But they’re kids, and sometimes the horror is too great for them to comprehend, literally too horrible to handle.
It’s tempting to hope that my kids never experience pain — what parent doesn’t wish this? But I also hope that they develop empathy and compassion, and a will to act in ways that make the world safer and better for others. She’s going to have to feel some pain to get there, and it’s my job to go there with her, to show her what fear and sadness and mourning looks like. To feel the impact of it all and still keep going. So we’ll keep drawing back the protective curtain we’ve hung between her and the big scary world, and hope we do it at the right pace. It hurts every time.
Alex Gardner is the Executive Director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation and a founder of the Dad Fund at the Stonewall Community Foundation.