I never saw it coming.
I was the adult authority figure for a group of eleven-year-olds but, on this particular morning and in this particular dance session, I was just another participant.1 The teacher was leading a traditional Israeli dance and had our group standing in a circle, holding hands. The boy to my left was often a grudging participant and today was no different. He let go of my hand the moment there was a break in the music, complained to me about hating dancing and maintained a sullen expression throughout the session. I was used to a certain amount of resistance during the dance sessions from the kids, especially the boys, but my patience was starting to wear thin. During one of the breaks in the music, I finally stopped requesting and instructed the boy, somewhat sternly, to give me his hand.
The boy turned to face me. His hands were covered by his sleeves, which he had stretched over his fingers. They remained by his sides but I imagined them balled into fists underneath the fabric. He stared up at me, his face a perfect combination of anger and defiance, and his eyes narrowed ever so slightly as he spoke.
“Aaron, I’m not gay.”
I think I managed to keep my reaction neutral but, honestly, I’m not sure. I know my eyebrows raised sharply but I hope that was it. This felt like a critical teaching moment and I didn’t want to mess it up by overreacting or launching into a tirade about the ridiculousness of believing that an activity like dancing can “turn someone gay.” Also, we were still in the middle of the session and I wasn’t sure who else had heard him. The worst thing would have been for me to make a bigger deal out of this comment and end up embarrassing him in front of his peers. But I also didn’t want to just ignore it.
I took a quick breath and exhaled.
“That has nothing to do with anything right now,” I said in what I hope came across as an even tone. “Now, please give me your hand so we can finish the dance.”
He lifted his arm but did not take his hand out of his sleeve. I took hold of the fabric as a compromise and dropped the subject.
The rest of the session was uneventful. The dance lasted another minute or two before the teacher moved on to other line dances that did not involve physical contact. My mind was still flooded with thoughts and questions, though. Did I handle the moment correctly? I wanted to acknowledge that his comment was significant; it was certainly important for him that I knew he was not gay. But, even so, I did not want to validate any suspicion he might have had about a connection between dancing and homosexuality. Plus, I, myself, am not gay, but why should that even matter? I could have said, “Neither am I,” before asking for his hand again but I didn’t want to give the impression that I agreed with any premise that being gay was a “bad thing.”
There was more to deal with here than just my reaction, though. How had he even come to the conclusion that being gay would be something to be ashamed of? Was it a function of mainstream media continuing to perpetuate stereotypes and biases against anything outside of the heteronormative box? Was his concern a manifestation of anti-LGBT sentiments he had learned from his parents? Does this boy actually think about the way his friends and society will perceive every action takes and worry that someone will think he is gay? For that matter, was he actually ashamed of the idea that someone might consider him to be gay for holding a man’s hand during a group dance or was I projecting that feeling onto him?
I kept grasping for answers to these questions, looking for some logical way to explain the boy’s comment and whatever my next step should be in addressing it. Even if the moment had passed, there had to be some other action I was supposed to take, some other comment I was supposed to make, some other thing for me to do. His comment was short but it was important and disappointing and powerful. As a social worker who specializes in working with children and families, didn’t I have a duty to speak up against these kinds of opinions, to teach young adults how to adjust to their world, to impart the wisdom I’ve gained from life experience? I couldn’t just sit back and allow him to keep thinking… whatever he was thinking. Could I?
In the end, I left the moment alone. I didn’t say anything else about the boy’s comment in the moment and I didn’t try to speak to him in private about it. I told myself that I would have done more if we had a different relationship; if I were his social worker or his counselor or his teacher, I would be in a better position to have that conversation. My thoughts would be more impactful and he would trust me more if I were in a different position. I didn’t think I had the type of emotional capital with him that I would have needed for my words to hold any weight. I decided that I would speak with him more closely if the topic came up again in the future, particularly if I could work it into a larger discussion involving some of his peers. It may not have been the right decision but it’s the decision I ended up with.
Either way, I’m still asking questions.