Sometimes I eavesdrop on conversations when I'm eating alone in restaurants. It's not an intentional act. I'll just be sitting there trying to mind my own business, and before I know it, someone says something that gets my attention, and wham! I'm all eyes, ears, and, regretfully, sometimes mouth. The other day, I was in a restaurant eating breakfast. As I was eating the last bite of my cheese biscuit, I heard someone say, "Hey, you're the man!" Two lady gym buddies, sporting the same attire, were high-fiving each other. I got from the conversation that one of them was congratulating the other for reaching a milestone on the treadmill. They chatted about their kids and what they did behind their husbands' backs. Then after an energy bar and coffee, they both entered almost identical Honda Odysseys, fixed their ponytails so that they were over the back strap of their baseball caps, then drove off.
Here were two athletic women who clearly don't have a problem being referred to as "the man." In fact, the way they were talking, it was a compliment. I wondered about their children. If they had a little girl interested in sports, would they encourage her to be an athlete? What about their son? What if he didn't like sports? Would they sign him up for soccer anyway?
It seems like we give ourselves much more latitude when it comes to bending the traditional gender roles than we do our children. When I was a school counselor, a teacher referred a little boy to me because he refused to go to another's teacher's class for an enrichment activity. When I brought him to my office to walk him through his refusal to participate, he revealed to me that when he messed up on his project for the second time, he broke down and cried. The teacher's response was to accuse him of "crying like a girl." She offered to "bring in a dress" for him. I will never forget the shame in that boy's face when he told me his story. I will also never forget the shame in the teacher's face when I confronted her with what she had done.
One time I was called by the parent of a high school student to intervene on his behalf because he was facing expulsion from school. During a math class, Jamal, an effeminate male student, was asked to come to the front of the class to work an algebraic equation. Not wanting to go in front, he answered his teacher back in a somewhat disrespectful tone. The teacher's retort was to wink, sashay over to Jamal, and imitate Jamal's response in a fluttery, exaggerated way. When the class broke out in laughter, Jamal couldn't control himself and asked his teacher to go ["pleasure"] himself by inserting a broken bottle into one of his orifices. In no way do I condone Jamal's behavior, but what about the teacher's demeaning retort? Aren't we as the adults supposed to take the high road?
Obviously, our schools haven't evolved to be places where our children feel comfortable enough to grow into themselves. They not only have to deal with the daily taunts from their peers, but too often they have to listen to judgmental tripe from a handful of the very people we trust to teach and guide them. It would be great if there were programs in every school to sensitize our teachers to the needs of LGBT students, but I've been in education long enough to know that that won't happen anytime soon. Instead, I suggest that we build a community in our schools that encourages all students to be allowed to develop into the person they are meant to become. When we witness or hear an adult make an ignorant comment to a student, we need to confront them. We need to teach them to walk in someone else's shoes. Empathy doesn't come easily for some people, but we can always plant a seed. There are parents out there who want to know how to guide their LGBT children. They look to us for guidance. If they knew who we were, it would most definitely make it easier for them to find us. Every change starts with one person having the courage to take a stand and not be afraid of the consequences. There doesn't always need to be focus groups and committees. There just needs to be a handful of people who can unite, teach, and guide. Sometimes that's all it takes. A community starts with just one.