When Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar signed on with TLC, they put their family before the public as a form of entertainment, and that is how many Americans seem to view the Duggars—as entertainment. I’m not surprised, then, to see people publicly speculating about the Duggar children’s sexuality, but I am concerned. To be clear, I’m not talking about noting that the odds are one of the Duggar kids is going to be gay. I’m talking about public speculation about the sexual orientation of individual Duggar children. I’ve seen fans and critics alike analyze individual Duggar children’s dress, bearing, and other details looking for indications that this one or that may be gay, and then gleefully trumpeting their findings.
There are some very serious problems with public speculation about the sexual orientation of individual Duggar children, particularly those still living at home (whether or not they are minors). First, while Jim Bob and Michelle chose to sign with TLC, thrusting their family into the public eye, their children have never had a choice in the matter. Second, while it may not be obvious at first glance, speculating about the Duggar children’s sexuality is actively dangerous.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a teenage child growing up in a fundamentalist Christian homeschooling household. Imagine, now, that there are rumors circulating that you are gay, rumors based on your appearance or bearing, or your interests or likes. Think for a moment about how such rumors would impact you—because you better believe they would. These rumors might make your local homeschool and church community standoffish and suspicious, and they would certainly lead your parents to crack down on any sign of failure to toe the party line.
Your every move would be scrutinized.
This is not idle speculation on my part, either. I know of homeschool alumni who experienced exactly what I described above. As rumors swirled in their communities, or as their parents became concerned that they might be showing gay tendencies, they faced consequences—whether or not they were in fact gay. They were shunned by their communities, or had their parents treat them with suspicion and quick judgement or even try to “cure” them of their tendencies. Speculation about a fundamentalist child’s sexual identity isn’t just harmful, it can be outright dangerous.
Roughly 40% of homeless teenagers are gay. Where do you think all those gay homeless teens came from, exactly? There are fundamentalist Christian families out there who respond to having a gay child very very badly. Remember Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teen who walked in front of a truck a year ago? Her parents were fundamentalist Christians whose efforts to “cure” their daughter’s gender identity ultimately led to her death. There are other stories too. Homeschool alumni Susie writes this of coming out to her parents:
After a few weeks of gay therapy, I was still gay so my parents did the unthinkable. They both, in my opinion, totally slipped over the edge of reason. I had gone to my therapy appointment and when I came home, as I was pulling in the driveway I realized my driver’s license was not in the console of the car where I usually kept it. So I went inside and asked my mom if she knew where my driver’s license was. Long story short, in an effort to “protect me from myself,” my dad had taken my driver’s license, passport, social security card, birth certificate, credit card and debit card and put them all in a safety deposit box at the bank. I had no legal identity!
I am trying to share enough details to paint the picture, without boring you. So I am going to cut to the chase.
My mom ended up driving me two hours away, in my car, with some of my things and dropped me off with $7 to my name. Tough love is what they called it. I was lucky enough that a friend had a house with two of his friends and they let me stay in an open room. I had no bed, just a pillow and a sleeping bag with some clothes. I didn’t even have a blanket.
Leelah and Susie both chose to come out to their parents, on their own timing. Engaging in public speculation about the sexuality of children living in fundamentalist Christian homes risks forcing those children’s hands, which, again, is actively dangerous. Being a gay teen in a fundamentalist Christian home is a risky proposition even without having to worry about public speculation forcing you out of the closet, especially when the consequences can be astronomically high.
But wait, you say! Speculation about the Duggar children’s sexuality will never actually get back to the Duggars themselves! This is not at all clear to me. It’s fairly clear that the Duggars follow what the media says about them. After the news broke that Josh Duggar had molested four of his sisters as a teen, the girls themselves spoke of feeling re-victimized by the media. The Duggar children still living in the home do have internet access, albeit with certain restrictions. And even if such rumors never make it to the kids themselves, the same is unlikely to be true for the Duggar parents—or for others in their communities.
Perhaps you would still argue that the Duggars signed on for this when they signed with TLC? Public speculation about your personal life is just one more consequence of leading a public life, yes? First, let me repeat, again, that the Duggar children didn’t have a choice in the matter. And second, do you truly care more about your “right” to publicly snark and speculate about the Duggars than you do about the Duggar children’s safety or autonomy? I certainly don’t.
Yes, it is likely, given the sheer number of Duggar children, that one of them is gay. But we need to give that child the space they need to decide when and how to come out, on their own terms, and without having to worry about public speculation about their sexual orientation. This isn’t just about privacy, though it is about that as well. This is also about basic personal safety. Growing up gay in a fundamentalist home is hard enough without the risk of being forced out of the closet by rumors fed or created by public speculation. As homeschool alumni Andrew Roblyer put it:
I often equate growing up gay to growing up in a warzone, where bombs fall all around you day after day after day. Eventually the abject terror you feel when one lands nearby fades into a constant clenching in your stomach that you don’t even realize, because while you can’t entirely relax, you can’t afford to run at full alert at all times. I saw and heard so many gay people attacked and condemned by the people I grew up with that my stomach was perpetually clenched, terrified that their rhetoric and doctrine would be used to attack me if they ever found out.
How can we make things better for children like Roblyer? And, presuming that at least one of the Duggar children is gay, what can we do to support that child?
To begin with, we can stop making children’s sexual identities a thing of snark or speculation or a “gotcha” against fundamentalist Christian parents and instead demonstrate our support for LGBTQ youth wherever they are found (and that includes respect for their self-determination of when and how to come out). We can prove ourselves safe people by being safe people. And while we’re at it, we can deconstruct myths about homosexuality or queer identities and criticize the Duggar parents’ anti-gay rhetoric without putting their children in the firing line.
If we care at all about the safety and wellbeing of the Duggar children, and not just about the entertainment value they provide, we need to end public speculation about whether this or that one may be gay.