Brenda Lee Marquez McCool died at the hands of a terrorist during that horrific night last year at the Pulse nightclub. So did 48 other people. But McCool stands out for me. She very literally took a bullet to save her son. You’d be hard pressed to find a parent, who wouldn’t have taken the same action to spare the life of their kid – me included.
Becoming a parent drastically changes a person. No, I don’t believe people are “more complete” or “fulfilled” when they have children. Parenthood just changes you, and I think that it really changes gay men in particular.
As I thought about Pulse, and McCool in particular, I wondered what the hell is it about kids that change people to the point they are willing to die for them. I get the whole mama bear instinct to protect – having another human being growing inside of you and giving life to that little person creates one hell of a connection. But what about dads? I didn’t carry my sons. I don’t even share DNA with them. Why then, would I jump in front of a bullet for them?
Jen O’Ryan, a PhD in Human Behavior from Double Talk Consulting in Seattle, told me, “Men are typically socialized to take charge and problem solve. Suddenly this tiny human being is handed to you and their very lives depend on you not screwing up. The realization of how fragile and amazing life can be is huge.”
That in turn leads men to spend the next couple of decades in constant protection mode.
It’s true — to the point of absurdity. I recently advised a good friend’s adult daughter, who was traveling to Athens, that Greece is really hot this time of year and she needed to remember to stay hydrated. I was trying to protect an adult kid I don’t even know.
Dan McIntosh, PhD is a psychologist at the University of Denver, and a close friend of mine since we were in 7th grade. He and his wife are the parents of two adult sons. Dan’s also probably the first person to whom I ever said the words, “I’m gay.” So, I was curious to hear why as a gay dad specifically I would have this instinct to protect.
Dr. McIntosh told me, “There is evidence that cues to kinship can increase altruism, which may not be based exclusively on biology. Simply put: experience and relationship matter.”
He hypothesized that accepting a child as yours is enough to create the experience and relationship that lead to the altruism necessary to protect a child with your very life.
I may not have carried the boys for nine months (thank God!), and they may not be the fruit of my loins, but I’m their dad. Our experience as father and sons, and the relationship we have created, influences what actions I am willing to take to protect them.
For me, the strangest part of this parental need to protect kids is that you won’t ever outgrow it. You never stop being a parent no matter how grown up your kids become.
Those instincts even extend to muscle memory, which develop over years of protecting a child.
“It’s a visceral response to put yourself in between your now-adult-formerly-tiny-human kid and potential harm,” said Dr. O’Ryan. “Well after my son was the same size as me, I still automatically reached my arm over in front of him when coming to a sudden stop in the car.”
Brenda McCool was simply doing what came automatically to her; she was simply throwing her arm out to protect her son.