I was standing around at a child’s sixth birthday party, probably about five years ago or so, when a few kids playing dress-up quickly ran by me. “Get that thing off! You don’t want everybody to think you’re a sissy, now, do you?!” sternly hollered a dad to his son, who was donning a pink tutu and a silver tiara. My heart sank into my stomach. I felt so bad, not only for that child, but for every person who had to hear an adult—a parent—tease and reprimand a child for simply playing. Gaslighting children is never healthy. That wasn’t the first time I saw first-hand a child’s desire to freely play stifled by a parent’s close-mindedness. When I was a child, I vividly remember playing Barbies with my friend in a small, make-shift fort behind his house. He claimed that he could only play Barbies where his parents and older brother couldn’t see him. Sure, he grew up to become an openly gay man who eventually told his family—who eventually came to terms with it and accepted him—however, I will never forget the fear he expressed to me when we were children, as he demanded that I keep our play-time a secret. Maybe that was the first time I acted as an ally.
One does not have to be the sibling, parent, or friend of someone in the LGBTQ community to become an advocate or ally. All one has to do is just express support for LGBTQ children, teens, and even adults, or join a Facebook group to connect with others. Tell them that you accept and support them, and ask them, “What can I do for you?” Especially when it comes to the children. Parent and advocate Wayne Maines’ recent TEDtalk gives both great insight and something to think about. And if you are still trying to wrap your mind around the happening transgender movement, check out the January 2017 issue of National Geographic, which many consider the go-to guide.
Over the course of the past twenty years, I’ve developed many friendships with gay men and women, and more recently have established a close relationship with a transgender child. I’ve heard many stories and, sadly, all too many of the stories sounded the same—the only difference having been who the storytellers were. Almost all of the stories began with a fear of “coming out” to parents around the ages of 10, 11, or 12, when they likely began to gain a certain sense of their sexual orientation. Looking back, some have often laughed, mutually exclaiming that it couldn’t have been THAT much of a surprise given their toy preferences, interests, and hobbies. Nonetheless, fear was common and present for most of my friends when it came to expressing that they were gay, or lesbian, when they were youths. Hiding their dreams, silencing their desires, and, in many cases, never feeling free to express themselves.
Today, all of my friends are accepted and respected by their family members, but there are still many children and teens who are scared to express who they are and truly do benefit from the support of allies. And some are not as fortunate, such as an acquaintance of mine who lost an adult nephew to suicide—when looking back, she said there were many occasions where, when gathered with extended family, he was withdrawn and shy. She shared with me a regret, “Maybe if we had accepted who he was and embraced it rather than not talk about it, he would still be here today.” So, if there is one overall message here: Be welcoming so that children know your arms, heart, and mind are all open.
Sexual orientation—whether or not someone is “straight,” lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer (however they prefer to identify as)—seems to have become much more acceptable as time has rolled on. That’s great news for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer folks, and our society. Unfortunately, acceptance isn’t automatic and some families and communities struggle to get there. Too many states allow conversion therapy, which has been deemed cruel and harmful. However, as awareness of the transgender community has quickly shifted into the spotlight, spreading awareness may be more challenging than expected and achieving acceptance may take more time than desired. For those who have met and had interaction with transgender youth, recognizing that there may be preferred pronouns and acknowledging them are usually the first and most important social expectations that are desired to be met by these children and teens, as well as their parents. For some relatives, teachers, and peers, replacing “he” and “him” with “she” and “her” is a cake walk. But, I have seen cases where, despite saying support would happily be mustered, preferred pronouns fail to be used. Sometimes, reminders can be simple and possibly even presented in a humorous manner. But, what does one do when time and time again, a grandparent or family-friend consistently uses the former pronoun, ignoring the preferred one? Who should speak up about it—parent or child? The mistake that has been made should not go unnoticed and certainly does deserve to be discussed, and the behavior should be expected to change.
Developing healthy self-esteems and respectful interpersonal communication skills are two of the most necessary experiences of children and teens, but when it comes to close family or other adults they interact with, there may be a feeling of awkwardness that results in a verbal or non-verbal shut-down.
Parents, or other allies, certainly should speak up on behalf of any youth facing this issue. It is never okay to condone ignoring LGBTQ youth’s needs, even if it is something as simple as using a wrong pronoun “by accident” when speaking to or about a transgender person. Both speaking up and speaking out are necessary. Sit down with them and ask if there is anything you can do to help them get to the point where they are expected to be. Drop books off to them at their homes. Email them educational shows and informational videos and follow-up by asking them what they thought. Invite them over to watch a documentary. Do whatever you can, whatever it takes—remember that despite your efforts, you may not succeed at influencing them as you had hoped. But, the most important thing to remember is that you tried. And that is what being an ally is all about.
I have heard stories where some parents felt they had no other option but to disconnect from family and friends who fail to show support for their LGBTQ kids. This isn’t as easy as it seems because emotions are involved and one never knows what the outcome will be. Maybe it’s a grandparent or step-parent who struggles to grasp the child’s “coming out,” and it may take more than a good book or documentary—perhaps group counseling or individual counseling sessions. For some couples, divorce is sometimes inevitable, but many transition as difficult days ease with passing time and eventually common ground can be cultivated. The bottom line is, as allies, we cannot force others to understand our points (as logical as they may seem to us) and accept what we simply see as reality. But, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We may feel it necessary to give up once we have exhausted all options, but when faced with another situation wherein someone “doesn’t get it” or unfortunately seems to refuse to try to understand, be that ally. Stand strong and speak up. And whether you fail or not, give yourself a pat on the back. Rest assured, you done good.
There are many different ways in which we can be allies. Many vendors across the country are offering free services for LGBTQ couples seeking to wed. One could become a member of a church congregation that is LGBTQ-affirming, such as those belonging to the Unitarian Universalist Association. As teachers, we can include lessons on diversity and speak of heroes in the LGBTQ community, like Harvey Milk. I hope my students know that my mind is open and that I am always there for them, especially when faced with adversity. And as a parent, I hope that my own children know that I love and accept them whoever they are and whoever they become, as long as they live life in ways that allow them to be true to who they are.