Jim Obergefell: How Do We Explain the Hatred of the Orlando Tragedy to Our Children?

Jim Obergefell
Jim Obergefell attends 2016 Human Rights Campaign New York Gala Dinner in New York, February 6. The activist says we can learn a thing or two about love from children's reactions. Rob Kim/Getty

After the abhorrent hate crime in Orlando, resulting in the murder of 49 innocent members of and allies to the LGBTQ community, as well as scores of injuries, I've struggled to comprehend the hatred that drove this killer. I've struggled to understand what it is that could create such disdain for his fellow human beings.

I don't understand it, nor can I explain it, and I'm almost 50 years old. I don't have children, so I don't have to imagine how I might talk about it to a child.

How does one explain such hatred to a child?

My friend sat down with her 8-year old son to have a conversation no parent should ever have. My friend had to explain this atrocity to a child who should know only joy and love. After she told him what had happened, he asked why the gunman chose that place, those people. "Because they were gay" she answered.

I know this 8-year old. This lovely boy, this innocent boy, knew my late husband John, and they shared one of those inexplicable connections that made them fast friends. My friend didn't expect her answer to confuse her son. But it did. She started to explain that some boys like and marry girls, and some boys like and marry boys, but he interrupted her to say, "Mom, that's love…but what is 'gay'?" As she struggled to explain that some people use that word to describe certain kinds of love, he interrupted again with the perfect 8-year-old's reaction.

"But that's stupid."

Leave it to a child to boil it down to the simplest response, to perfectly capture what has gone wrong in our world. It is stupid, and it is wrong. We are teaching our children the wrong things. We are failing our children, we are failing each other, and we are failing our humanity.

We in the LGBTQ community have grown up in a world that doesn't make it easy on us. We know we're different from an early age, but we're afraid to admit it to ourselves, let alone others, because of the message we've received from the media, elected officials, politicians, entertainment, religious organizations, strangers, neighbors, friends, and, saddest of all, our families. That message is loud and clear: being gay is wrong.

We are taught from an early age that the essence of who we are is wrong, flawed, evil. We are taught that we belong outside society. We are taught that if we are LGBTQ, we must be ashamed of ourselves and hide in a closet. The thing is, that closet is not of our own construction. Others build it for us and force us into it. If we close that closet door too tightly, the lies and hatred of those around us can turn into destructive self-loathing and extreme hatred toward others in the LGBTQ community.

We are taught to be ashamed of ourselves when it is others who should be ashamed. They should be ashamed of teaching by word and example that being LGBTQ is wrong. They should be ashamed of creating an atmosphere in which discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community—and any other community perceived as "other"—is not only condoned but encouraged. And written into law.

They should be ashamed of refusing to say LGBTQ in reference to this terrible act of hatred. Saying LGBTQ will not make them LGBTQ. Not saying LGBTQ makes them less than human.

They should be ashamed of placing their worth as a person above that of any other person.

My LGBTQ family and our allies have gathered worldwide not only to mourn but to rejoice in our sense of community and family that this gunman tried—and failed—to shatter.

We will never forget these 49 innocent souls who died.

We hug one another, we cry, and we promise to create positive change. And we will. We have lived far too long in the closet others have built for us. We have lived far too long as second-class citizens, as pariahs, as outcasts. We have watched too many family members die at their own hands or at the hands of others because some people refuse to see us as human beings.

We have survived countless years of hatred. We survived the plague of HIV/AIDS. We have survived and we have thrived because we are family. A family that spans every demographic. A family that fights for and protects each other. A family and a community where all are welcome. I find solace in that knowledge.

Children aren't born seeing differences. Children are taught to see differences, and I find solace that there are parents and other adult figures who teach children to see people, not differences. Parents like my friend, who realized after the conversation with her son that he didn't understand what gay meant because she and her husband never distinguish one kind of love or one kind of family from another.

My friend was reminded that her 8-year-old who believes love is love offers hope on such a dark day. I like to think I was the one who reminded her of that, but it doesn't matter who did, it matters that it happened. I find hope in my community and our allies, and I find hope in the words of a child.

Love is love. That is a lesson the world could learn from an 8-year-old boy. Now if only everyone would listen.

Jim Obergefell is the U.S. citizen whose landmark Supreme Court case led to same-sex couples being granted the same basic rights as all other couples. Love Wins, a chronicle of Obergefell's fight for equality, co-written by Debbie Cenziper, is out now.