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Author Patrick McKenna

When Chris Tompkins realized there was a missing conversation happening with his own family, he felt the need to not just broaden their view on LGBTQ topics, but to do so with families everywhere. This put him on a path that led him to giving a TEDx talk five years ago and publish his first book, “Raising LGBTQ Allies: A Parent’s Guide to Changing the Messages from the Playground.” Since publishing his book, Tompkins is also currently hosting speaking events, which you can learn more and contact him about here. MenLiving’s Patrick McKenna got to speak with Tompkins about breaking the rigid walls of heteronormative thinking, staying curious about your child, cleaning under your bed and more.

Patrick:
I wanted to start by talking about your book Raising LGBTQ Allies. Can you tell me a little more about the process and then the intention behind writing the book?

Chris:
Yeah, I appreciate you asking and using that term process. In therapy and the mental health world, we always talk about the difference between process and content.

Patrick:
Tell me more about that.

Chris:
Content is what you’re saying and what you tell someone. It’s the stuff that you see on the table. The process is the emotional labor and the emotional aspects of it, so the underneath. It’s like if you look at the iceberg image, content is above water, and then the process is all of the stuff underneath the water. I share that because the content of my inspiration of wanting to write the book came from a few different intersections. It was the perfect storm of everything. I bartended at a pretty well-known gay bar here in Los Angeles for 11 years. In addition to that, I’d been doing a lot of LGBTQ advocacy work. I was also teaching social emotional learning to youth ages 12 to early twenties. Then add my own experience of having come out of the closet and navigated that journey. So, all of that was the background.

Patrick:
Right.

Chris:
Then in 2015, I was giving a workshop at the Arizona Equality and Justice Conference, which was an LGBTQ-specific conference. After the conference, I was going home to my mom’s home to visit, and my family was over. My nephew asked me a question that made me realize the nuances of the family dynamics of homophobia, heteronormativity, coming out of the closet…all of those things. That propelled me on a path of realizing, “Oh my gosh, I know so many people who have kids. Are they having these conversations?”

When I started to ask around, I realized there were a lot of nuances. It’s not black or white, and that propelled me on this path of doing research. I felt like I had found this antidote, like a serum or something, that could help families. And so, I wrote a letter to my family, and that letter turned into an article. And then I started to go to Toastmasters because I had a fear of public speaking. I didn’t realize you have to give 10 speeches to be considered a competent communicator. So, in my experience, I hadn’t even thought about that I have to write a speech before I even give one. That’s where I really discovered that I had a lot of things I wanted to say.

That’ the content of what started the journey for me to write the book. I literally felt, like I said, I found this serum that I wanted to share with other people. I had something I thought could really help others.

Patrick:

That’s amazing.

Chris:
Kind of like what MenLiving does, there was a need that I felt like I was able to help with.
Because of what I saw working at a bar for 11 years, I saw the effects of addiction, unhealed trauma, shame, not being able to relate or needing substances in order to be authentic or feel vulnerable and connected. Additionally, with teaching young people and the messages that I was hearing from them, I realized we all play on the same playground. I’m working with these young kids who are telling me things that I remember experiencing my adult life. So that was the content. And then, the process was really my own healing. They say that with books, the author writes the book for themselves, and then they share it with others.

Patrick:
I like how you use the metaphor of a serum. You had that realization from the conversation you had with this young child, your nephew, and it led you to think about all the other conversations that were leaving things out of.  These younger brains are trying to piece these two things together that culturally they haven’t been taught, and they might be having a hard time just because their family or parents haven’t talked about there can be a dad and a dad or a mom and a mom instead of always a mom and dad. They just don’t know this existence.

Chris:
Yes.

Patrick:
And now they can learn – adults, children, everyone.

Chris:
Absolutely. I grew up in a family of addiction, and what I really learned was what wasn’t being talked about. This is my whole thing, and the name of my TEDx talk was actually called, “What Children Learn from the Things They Aren’t Told.” With my family, on one hand, we talked about certain things. But there was this whole thing that we weren’t talking about. It was what I was sensing and what we weren’t talking about that created a whole learning, the messages that I received. As it relates to sexuality or gender, with the things that we don’t talk to our children about, they’re still inherently learning. What I really wanted to convey to parents and caregivers is why it’s so important to have conversations with kids at a young age. They’re already developing and learning. By not talking about certain things, they’re interpreting that as, “Oh, well this must be wrong or bad.”

Patrick:

Which has long-term ramifications.

Chris:

Totally. Another thing that I wanted to really address was for so long was how we’ve been using words like homophobia or even transphobia or the phobia piece. I really felt like in my own advocacy work, that was kind of missing the mark. I’m in school and learning the DSM-5, which is the diagnostical stand. Phobia is its own section. It’s a diagnosable mental health condition, and just like bipolar, you have to meet criteria to be diagnosed with that condition. When I realized that my family wasn’t talking to their kids about me as a gay uncle, it wasn’t that they were homophobic. They didn’t have a somatic bodily response when I was around. It was that we were entrenched in heteronormativity.

Patrick:

Right.

Chris:

When I was able to start talking about what was really happening, I found that heteronormativity and the virtue of my nephew being raised and socialized in a dominant culture, the world view that he has is automatically assuming things like I do as well. I make heteronormative assumptions myself.

I go to 12 step meetings, and I was just in a meeting this morning where a girl was sharing, and she was talking about her partner. I didn’t even realize it, but when she used the pronoun her and she a few minutes into talking about her partner, I realized that I had assumed her partner was male. That’s a little, subtle example. Just like anything, we have to actively do the work to push out the dominant forces, whether it’s about toxic masculinity, mental health, or growing up in the family disease of addiction. That’s the invitation with my book — in order for us to create new playgrounds, we have to actively, consciously take action to go against the dominant forces.

Patrick:
Going off the processes that children have in their development, self-discovery is such a huge part of their development around themselves and their identity. I’m curious how you – as a teacher and an uncle – think parents and adults can best play their role in ensuring a child has a healthy space for self-discovery?

Chris:
I think it starts by being really curious. This is outside of even LGBTQ related conversations. In general, the parent child dynamic is that you have this child, and you want so badly for this child to either experience things differently than what you experienced or to raise your child different than how you were raised. Another aspect is to want so badly for your child to do this or have that, have the things that you didn’t have. Parents, caregivers, even uncles…we all can project into our children what we want for them.

What that ends up doing is it closes, energetically, us off to really being curious about who they are. So, to answer the question, the invitation is to really be curious about your child. I say this often, but if I were to have like an elevator pitch about my book, it’s like, talk to your kids. Have conversations with them, and by virtue of having conversations, you’re going to learn they’re learning. And you get to hear some of the things that are going on in their inner world. We get to have these authentic conversations and we get to challenge these ingrained beliefs. And then we get to think in new ways too.

Patrick:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the comparison that can be made of when Barack Obama was elected and a lot of Americans had this perception that because we now had a black president, racism wasn’t a problem anymore.

Chris:
Right.

Patrick:

Looking at it from a reverse lens, it’s similar to what happened when gay marriage was legalized. Same concept of people thinking, “Okay, the work must be done. LGBTQ rights isn’t an issue anymore and everything is fine.” But today, you can see there’s a staggering amount of bills and laws being created and passed that are very specifically trying to strip away rights and legal protections for the LGBTQ community, especially transgender people. I’m curious what you think about this cultural trend of one big step forward, three steps back for marginalized communities. Why do you think this happens?

Chris:
Yeah, that’s a really great question, and it’s another thing I write about in my book. I talk about cultural dynamics and what happens when we make progress. It’s like a pendulum that swings; you have the momentum of the progress, and it goes this way, and then you have cultural dynamics that swing back around in the opposite direction. This is kind of what we’re experiencing when you have a lot of progress going forward in one way, and then the cultural dynamic swinging back around.

Patrick:

I like that metaphor.

Chris:
For me, how I interpret that is another anecdotal thing that I use. I love using this as an example because I think it really just speaks to what we’re experiencing. Whenever I teach classes, especially with young people, and I’ll talk to them about uncovering these unconscious blocks that are holding us back. Young people may think, “I want to be happy. I want to have friends. Why am I feeling like I don’t belong? Why am I having these difficult in my relationships?” We get to talk about the more deeper-rooted beliefs that we have about ourselves and about the world around us.

What I often invite them to consider is this: what if your parents ask you to clean your room and you’re like, “Hey, we’re going to go out to dinner in a half hour, so go in and clean your room.” You go in, you clean your room, you’re picking up with the clothes and you’re wiping off the dressers. And then, and all of a sudden, with a minute left you realize you didn’t clean under your bed. You look underneath the bed and there’s all this stuff and mess. So, I asked my students, “What if you didn’t look under the bed and all of a sudden, your parents opened the door and they come in and say, “Oh my gosh, you cleaned your room! It looks so good. Thank you so much.” But you know inside that underneath your bed is dirty. So, can you technically say that you have a clean room? I feel like that’s an analogy for what’s going on right now in that on the surface, laws are so important because laws give people rights. But laws aren’t enough because they don’t take away societal beliefs.

Patrick:

Right.

Chris:
We can still have these ingrained, misguided beliefs. What we’re experiencing now is the evidence of that. After Trump was elected president, I remember having many conversations with people about when he became president, it was like all of a sudden, people were coming out of the woodwork and supporting him. A lot of people in my life were shocked and surprised. For me, it was enlightening because it allowed me to see people didn’t just all of a sudden wake up one morning and believe that. They felt that way for a long time; they just haven’t said anything. I feel like that’s kind of what’s happening.

Patrick:
Right now there’s been a huge push in schools with these efforts of restricting and criminalizing people and educators teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation or that queer people even exist. With what you know for yourself, interacting with queer people through the Trevor Project and knowing what happens with people’s mental health when they’re given these messages, what does this bigoted messaging do to younger queer people?

Chris:
I’ll be perfectly honest, I don’t have to work at the Trevor Project or volunteer with them still to know the effects.  Like I mentioned, I worked at a very popular gay bar that’s well known around the world, and I saw some of the effects of not being accepted. In my clinical practice, I work with a lot of mostly gay men. I have some transgender clients and other LGBTQ clients. My youngest client is 20, my oldest client is 63, and I see the effects. If it’s depression or anxiety, if it’s something else, I’m looking at that as depression or anxiety rooted in heteronormativity. Rooted in not being raised in an affirming household. There’s something that happens when a child and parent don’t have an attachment. When we can consider the possibility that our children are developing their sexuality, their gender – that is developing right now. The argument’s no longer whether or not being LGBTQ exists.

We need to affirm and support our young people. There’s a psychic disconnection that happens when a young person doesn’t see themselves in the classroom. When they’re not seen and they’re not heard, the disconnection occurs and it’s like they can’t see themselves. I’m from Arizona. A lot of people are shocked that this bill “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. But up until a few years ago, on the books in this state of Arizona – where I was born and raised, where I went to grade school and high school – there  was a No Homo Promo law, which was the same thing that is the legislation in Florida. Basically, it was preventing teachers from talking about LGBTQ in any way at all. That was up until two years ago.

Patrick:
True. It’s always been there.

Chris:
Right. We got a new superintendent in Arizona and so the bill was passed or changed, but I went to school as a young person with that. I grew up in it.

Patrick:
You are the example I’m asking about.

Chris:
I’m an example. I’m an example of what it is to feel like when you can’t talk about who you are, and the effects have been a part of my own healing journey. I know what it is to externalize the messages that I internalized at a very young age about who I was.

Patrick:

My last question is more specifically about fathers. what do you think their role is in helping foster an inclusive family environment for their kids? No matter how they identify or end up identifying later in life, what can fathers do?

Chris:
I think it really boils down to doing the best they can. Parenting is not easy, and I want to say that because this isn’t about being perfect. This is about another one of the things that I invite people to consider all the time: ruptures and repair. We’re going to make ruptures in life and in relationships. Ruptures are good for the therapeutic setting because working through the rupture allows there to be repair. That’s why MenLiving is such a wonderful organization. What you’re offering is reparative experiences for the ruptures that men have experienced in relationship with one another.

Patrick:
Definitely. It’s a huge part what we try to offer.

Chris:
As that relates to parents, this isn’t about focusing on being perfect or keeping up or saying the right thing. I talk to a lot of parents, and especially now, they just don’t know what to say, or they don’t want to say it wrong. So, they don’t say anything. What I would invite people to consider, especially fathers, is it’s multifaceted. Especially when it comes to queer kids, I think that because toxic masculinity exists, men especially have to work through their own feelings of discomfort around same-sex relationships and what that brings up for them.

If you don’t know or if you don’t know what to say, there are places that you can go to start having a conversation. Whether or not a parent has an LGBTQ child or not, I think it’s really important to be able to have conversations early on with kids about sexuality.

To learn more about Chris Tompkins and his book Raising LGBTQ Allies, click here.

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