My little sister was only a year old the first time I told her that I'm gay and, clearly, she had no idea what I was saying. It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and the two of us were sitting in my mom's car waiting for her to run a quick errand. I turned around to face my sister, who was buckled into her car seat in the back, and said, “Katie? What would you do if I was gay? Would you still love me?”
She looked at me with her big, round, blue eyes and giggled. Then, the conversation was over.
With the exception of a drunken night in college when I told a friend that I “might be bisexual,” that was the first time I had ever come close to disclosing that I am not straight. And I chose to tell my baby sister because she was the only one I knew for sure wouldn’t judge me. She loved me simply because I was the person who turned on Rascal Flatts and danced her to sleep, and because I was the person who knew she would laugh uncontrollably if I brushed my hair against her face.
But when I tried to come out to her again seven years later, by then confident that I'm definitely a lesbian, and when she was definitely old enough to utter a response, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew she’d keep loving me, but I worried about what those seven years of watching princes fall in love with princesses, and hearing teachers talk only about mommies and daddies had taught her about gay people. Did she even know what “gay” meant? Would she think it was weird?
It’s possible she wouldn’t have known what it meant to be gay, or that it applied to me, even though I came out to the rest of my family only a few months after that long-ago talk in the car, had been out and proud in college, and once brought a girlfriend home to stay with us for two weeks. Katie was only three years old when my ex (coincidentally also named Katie) came to visit. For all she knew, the other Katie was my really good friend. And even though neither I nor my family purposefully hid the fact that I’m gay from my sister, no one had sat her down to explain what that meant, either. So, I knew it was my job to make sure she understood that women can and do love other women romantically — and that it's just as normal as when they love men.
I chose a random day the week before my brother’s wedding to talk to her, because bringing it up in terms of marriage seemed like the easiest way to explain. She was sitting at the kitchen table in her Dora the Explorer nightgown as I flipped eggs on the stovetop behind her.
“Hey Katie,” I said after we went over how excited she was to be a flower girl. “You know, if I get married someday it’ll be to a girl.”
Her eyes grew three sizes and I knew right then that my second worry — that she wouldn’t know two women could even get married — was justified. After all, I didn’t learn that gay people existed until I was 10 and listening to my grandfather shout “fucking dykes” out the window at two women on the street. So, even though she has a gay sister and is growing up in an arguably more progressive time, how could I expect her to understand queerness at 8 years old?
But the fact that she hadn’t yet formed an opinion about gay people actually worked to my advantage. Instead of having the kind of memory I have with my grandfather, I could make sure her first recollection of queerness was a positive one. (I’m pretty sure she doesn’t remember laughing about it that time in mom’s Toyota Camry.)
Our conversation was simple and straightforward; the typical “some women love women, and some men love men, and that’s okay” type of explanation that is often used to introduce kids to same-gender romances. At the end of our talk, clearly exasperated with all of this serious conversation, Katie said, “You know what I love? Toaster Strudel.”
So that was that, I thought as I took the eggs off the stove and popped in a Toaster Strudel. We had our big gay talk, and my duty was done.
She’s absolutely right, because just a few months later, I was once again sitting in the front seat of my mom’s car when she told me that Katie had been proudly telling the kids at school she has a gay sister — and that some of the kids were making fun of her for it.
I glanced at her in the back seat, as she blasted Moana through her headphones and was oblivious to our talk up front, and I couldn’t help but think that I had set her up to be bullied. Maybe I should have told her that not everyone thinks being gay is something to be proud about. Maybe I should have prepared her for the possibility that she could lose friends — not even over her own sexuality, but over mine.
I interrogated myself about the choice. Why did I choose that moment to come out to her? Why didn’t I explain homophobia? Why didn’t it cross my mind that she might face the same kind of hate I’ve become so accustomed to?
Talking to both Russo and Lindsay Amer, who runs a LGBTQ+ education YouTube show for kids called Queer Kid Stuff, helped to calm my guilt and put the blame where it really belongs — on parents who, consciously or not, teach their kids that being gay is wrong.
“I don’t want to have to talk about ‘-isms’ when talking to kids. I want to create a positive space for them to learn about different identities,” Amer tells me. But after the Pulse nightclub shooting happened, she says she had to make a video explaining homophobia, because the world isn’t always positive.
I felt the same way when coming out to my sister. I wanted to wrap her in a happy, gay bubble, where hatred and homophobia don't exist. But such a bubble isn’t possible, and Russo actually believes it can be a good thing for kids to confront complex topics like this.
“Is it great that at 8 years old you have to learn about this stuff — that maybe your friend won’t be very nice to you simply because you have a gay sister? No,” she says. “But, I don’t think that being 8 is too little to realize that other people think differently from you. And having these experiences makes for way more rounded, brilliant human beings.”
As it turns out, my sister wasn’t even all that worried about the “friend” who made fun of her. She was sad, of course, but it didn’t cause the kind of devastation I was imagining.
A few weeks after my mom told me about the bullying, Katie and I were in the kitchen doing science experiments, which we always do when I visit. In between soaking gummy bears in vinegar and making a homemade lava lamp with Alka Seltzer and olive oil, I sat her down to have another serious talk. I wanted to make sure she knew that bullying wasn’t acceptable; that there was nothing wrong with our family, and to be sure she wasn’t afraid or upset going to school.
She told me that it was just one girl who had laughed when she talked about having a gay sister, and that she hadn’t been very nice to her ever since. But, she reasoned in little-kid logic, “It’s okay because she’s not in my class this year.”
Still, I knew that just because this girl was now in the classroom next door didn’t mean my sister would never again face homophobia. And next time, I wanted her to be prepared. So, I reminded her that being gay isn’t a bad thing — that it’s just about people who love each other. Then, I asked if she had any questions.
“Yeah,” she said, practically rolling her eyes, “When can we do the next science experiment?”
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