This post has taken me a long time to write. I “promised” it to Jennifer and Lisa over a month ago—which was at least over a month after I had initially started it.
For a long time, I was in that awkward place of, “here’s this thing I want to write about—” this thing that is very important to me. But that’s all it remained—a thing at the back of my mind.
A month before graduation, I found work as a social worker (or, as I said to the myriads in shock, ‘a job in my field, thankyouverymuch’). My company works with individuals with intellectual disabilities; I quickly found my “niche” in the autism department.
The description of my job duties is intense, to say the least. My clients are all male, and between the ages of six and sixteen. My day is broken into any number of 3-4 hour sessions spent with individual clients both in their homes and in the community. Each of my clients has a “Lifestyle Plan” which is tailored to their needs, abilities, and target areas of learning. Broadly, I work on language and communication, fine and gross motor skills, and general socialization/social skills. It requires intent, creativity, and no end of energy.
In previous drafts, I have wanted to talk about many things: (A) being a gay male and the problems it can present modeling “masculinity” for my clients (this draft was called, “Do They Pee Standing Up?”); (B) being a male in general accompanying small children into the community (titled, “Is That Your Brother?”) or (C) the interactions I’ve had with other parents telling me how to do my job (called, “Thanks for the Suggestion, but I Know Why He’s Crying”).
The post that will hopefully follow is actually (D) all of the above. It also contains a bit of (E), a topic Jennifer earlier broached as “The Ember of Rage,” which is the only title I can really put on it.
My work is best done when it’s made “fun—” my kids love learning when it feels like playing. This is easy to do in my clients’ homes; I have full access to their entire lives—favorite toys, foods, TV shows, movies—you get the gist. But any given shift is a blend of being at home and being “in the community.” While I may have my (office-acclaimed) “Mary Poppins Bag” at my side in the community, there’s only so many balloons and candies a guy can stockpile. Luckily for me, one of the hallmarks of autism is my clients’ thriving off of sensory input; this includes hugs, tickles, massage, wrestling, piggy-back rides and any combination thereof. Nothing is more reinforcing to my clients than a big ole’ hug with me funny-voicing “grrrreat talking” while tickling them.
One of my clients is nonverbal—common with mild-to-profound autism—and we’re working on increasing his inventory of American Sign Language. One afternoon I had been differentiating between “tickles,” “hug,” and “rub/massage” with this individual (he had been overgeneralizing “hug” for all of these, which are obviously different). It isn’t surprising then, that while at the park, he continued to ask for the most reinforcing of these, which for him are “tickles.”
Another aspect of teaching children with autism is the difference between praise and reinforcement; while I might praise my little guy by saying “good signing,” to elicit the same behavior again I have to administer a reinforcement to show him that signed want = want received. Logic would have it, then, that giving tickles would be an appropriate reinforcement. (This is where my job sounds a little like Pavlov’s Dogs, and I just have to roll with it.)
So, while at the park, every time my little guy signed “tickles,” there I was funny-voicing “goooood job SIGNING!” and making quite a show of giving him tickles. On this particular day, the park was not crowded at all, so I let my big personality reach its peak—there was no holding back on funny-voice volume or tickle magnitude (these are technical terms, if you ask me). When I noticed the other mother on the playground, I sheepishly backed off.
When I noticed her recording me on her iPhone, I knew it was time to leave.
A fact I have always been acutely aware of was made more than plain to me in that moment: no matter how much fun I am having, no matter how much fun my kids are having, and no matter how many state certifications and training hours I have received, there is no hiding the fact that I am a visibly gay man interacting with visibly young boys.
I quickly steered myself and my client away from this concerned citizen with, admittedly, not the best distraction— “come on, little guy, let’s go to the bathroom!” I’m retrospectively smacking my forehead with my palm.
Could you guess—as I emerged from the restroom, client in-tow, this concerned citizen was waiting for me, iPhone in hand.
And have you guessed her opening line? She addresses my client, “Son, if this man is touching you inappropriately, you can tell me.” And I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to prison. And I haven’t even finished Orange is the New Black.’ I’m also thinking, ‘training didn’t prepare me for this.’
What this woman said to me is nothing short of harassment, and in state courts less conservative than my own, probably borders on slander or a hate crime. With a tact and coolness that deserves a medal of honor, I calmly explained to this woman that I was this young man’s caregiver, certified by the state, and that she could address my company (name given) with any concerns. This should have done it; no sexual predator would have divulged THAT much information to a crazed good samaritan. But this woman was not assuaged. She ensued to tell me that “tickling a boy that age (re: toddler) is supremely inappropriate; that she would NEVER tickle a boy that age (re: were she a gay man).” During this, I’m trying to keep my composure, not let the thoughts of, ‘well I’m sorry for your child’ not pass my lips, and also keep tabs on my client, who is cowering behind me, visibly upset by this woman’s yelling.
This is all fine with me. You know, I’m kind of glad that citizens are keeping an eye out for sexual predators. I just wish they wouldn’t profile me while I’m trying to do my job. I figure I’ll let this woman blow off steam, then take my little guy to Wendy’s so I can eat my feelings out in french fries (which also happen to be one of his favorite foods).
But then she says, “I hope this isn’t what I think it is” and in a searing finale, “If it is, you need to seek help.”
That’s when I walked away.
I’ve been out of the closet since I was twelve. For over a decade, I’ve dealt with more (let’s call a spade a spade) ignorant clods than there are stars. But I’ve never let it get to me. I’m a sass-mouthing queen with a thick skin.
For the first time in ten years, I cried. Most ignorant clods judge me on—what, exactly? A word or identity they can’t grasp; a misread piece of scripture; cultural and gender stereotypes that have gone stale.
But this ignorant clod—this woman—was making a judgement call on my moral fiber. I have come to consider each of my clients an extension of my own family—in some cases, I half-jokingly call myself their “third parent” because I spend so much time with them. This woman wasn’t just making pot shots at my sexuality. She was accusing me of sexually abusing one of my kids—one of my children. How can I even begin to come to grips with that?
Apparently, I’m not the only one. When I dropped my client off at home, I told his father about what had happened. “Ah, we had a similar situation like that last year,” he replied nonchalantly, explaining how a different male staff had been accused of touching our client inappropriately in the bathroom. (Clarification: this client needs some assistance when it comes to navigating the finer points of aim, flushing, and washing his hands.) When I got home and was venting about my afternoon to my boyfriend, his best friend (who was listening to the story via Skype) chimed in, “some woman almost called the cops on me for holding my son’s hand once.
In all honesty, it made me feel better to know the same moral misjudgement had been waged against straight men.
But then the ember of rage flared up. It got me thinking: what role have men been given when it comes to interacting with children—especially in affectionate ways?
How many mothers have I seen tickling their children at the park, onlookers smiling and cooing?
When his female staff takes my client to the bathroom, why doesn’t anyone call foul play?
Is hand-holding a privilege reserved for mothers and middle-aged nannies?
Had I been teaching my client “ball” or “throw,” and playing catch, would the woman have batted an eye?
Had the other staff let his client piss all over the bathroom floor, would a simple “boys will be boys” have made his accuser laugh instead of throw stones?
Had my friend simply said, “come on kid, time for dinner,” would the woman have thought, “what a good father?”
There’s an issue of my being gay = predator here that DOES make my blood boil. But there’s a bigger issue of how we, as a society, allow men to interact with children that makes me even angrier.
Apparently, we’re so unused to seeing men interacting affectionately with children (perhaps especially boys) that it’s seen as a threat to the child’s well-being when it happens. How can/does that even happen? I know this isn’t an old stereotype—especially when it comes to gay men (the ‘80s were especially unkind, despite the martyrdom Milk tried to make of it).
The roles of “fatherhood” are changing as new television shows and commercials are showing us—giving us father figures who are doofy and likeable, who can (precariously) change a diaper and successfully apply their daughters’ nail polish.
But when I set myself to think about it, I can’t bring myself to think of any show, commercial/advertisement, or blog that shows dads interacting with sons affectionately. Daughters, yes (because that’s “cute,” and plays on the daddy’s-little-princess theme which is equally enraging), but never sons.
I suppose I don’t have a happy/helpful note to end this on—except that my emotional trauma is mostly abated. My co-workers, supervisors, and other higher-ups were more than supportive, kind, humorous, and helpful when I relayed the days’ events. And the ignorant clod never stepped forward (though at this point I wish she would so I could file a few lawsuits against her).
But the ember of rage has been stoked. How do we see the role of adult male interaction with boys—and how can we make it inclusive of showing affection?