I don't know if my daughter is transgender or not. I don't know if she's a lesbian or not. She's seven -- if she knows these identities, or feels different in any way, she hasn't told me. But already at seven she's experiencing pressure to conform – she's being bullied.
Ever since her brother was born, when she was just two and a half, my daughter has refused to wear stereotypical girls clothes – no skirts, dresses, pink, or hair decorations. She wears sneakers, corduroys, button-down shirts and T-shirts. Every now and then some bright color or a sparkle design on a shirt will show up, but she leans towards tie-dye and stripes.
We've always wanted her to feel comfortable in her clothes. We insist on appropriate –clean, formal clothes (pants are OK) for church and holidays – but otherwise she decides what she wears, and she tends towards the plain and simple. I admit I was disappointed at first – I had envisioned my daughter exploring colors and textures and materials. I once complained to a friend that my daughter dresses like a boy; she suggested that my daughter dresses like my daughter. And so I let that go. Parenting means letting go of a lot of our own prejudices and expectations. It also means helping our children confront them in the world.
Last month, for picture day, my daughter wore a suit and tie. We'd bought the suit for Halloween, to go under her vampire cape. Black pinstripes. The moment we bought it she announced she would wear it frequently, and definitely for picture day, which she did. She looked awesome.
That afternoon she came home and dug through the dress-up box and found an old skirt that still fit, and wore it for the next three days with a pair of polka dot leggings and a sparkle design long sleeve shirt. We had no idea why, and made no comment.
A few days later we found out that a classmate had made fun of her for wearing a suit. Sadly, this came from a Muslim girl who wears a headscarf – a girl that I pray does not get bullied for her own clothing or her religion. I don't know what the girl said, but I know it was negative, and without a doubt a form of bullying. The girl had made my daughter uncomfortable (briefly, fortunately) in her clothes.
This sort of thing happens every day in schools across the country. My daughter has a male friend who showed up at the start of school with barrettes in his hair, and a Frozen backpack. My husband and I made a point of complimenting him in front of our kids. But within a week the barrettes and backpack were gone. Had he experienced bullying? Was he made to feel badly about wearing barrettes? I know for a fact that his parents celebrate him in all his glamour.
No one has to explain schoolyard bullying to a gay man. We've all experienced it, and despite our best efforts, internalized it to some degree. In tenth grade I got called a fag by a guy I had been friends with two years earlier. When I turned and said "Dave, what did you call me?" he couldn't speak to my face and walked away. Fortunately that was the worst of the overt bullying for me.
As gay dads we are particularly sensitive to the bullying our kids witness or experience. They absorb so much chatter and prejudice from their peers that sometimes it gets a little surreal – like the time my daughter used "gay" as an insult aimed at her brother. She knows what gay means. I just had to raise my eyebrow and it never happened again. But her classmates might not get that reaction at home, and each time a kid tries out a new insult or prejudice without being lovingly guided away from it, that prejudice gets rooted in his or her habitual thinking. That sweet boy who used to wear barrettes will not be insulted in my house or at school by my kids, but what about other houses, other kids?
In the same way African-American dads know that racism has to be addressed in schools early on, gay dads know that homophobia and gender prejudice have to be part of the school curricula and community conversations. If one kid brings prejudice to school and it's not addressed, it can spread and become routine.
Fortunately, there are national and local organizations that address bullying in schools and playgrounds, including a number that specifically respond to anti-LGBTQ bullying. These include GLSEN, The Trevor Project, and It Gets Better.
Here in New York we have Live Out Loud, which works to build self-esteem among gay kids. The Tyler Clementi Foundation, named for an eighteen-year-old who took his own life after being bullied, uses the arts to tackle bullying head-on. The Hetrick-Martin Institute and The Door both have programs dedicated to working with kids around bullying. And the Center for Anti-Violence Education works directly in communities to break the circle of violence that prejudice too often engenders. Other organizations like FIERCE and Streetwise and Safe help LGBTQ youth stand up to bullying from the social service staff and police officers.
Alex with Matilde, Giuseppe and Alex's mother
We gay dads do this at home, and in our kids' schools. We also do this work by supporting the organizations that are working in the community. The Dad Fund, part of the Stonewall Community Foundation, exists to help promote this community work. We raise money from gay dads and the wider public to promote the above and other organizations working for LGBTQ youth, and we take a communal stand and let everyone know that not only do we not tolerate bullying, but we celebrate every girl who wears suits – and headscarves – and every boy who wears barrettes.
Please consider joining the Dad Fund and helping spread the word that dads are actively watching out for all kids.