One morning last week, my daughter wanted to go to preschool as a fairy. Consumed with kindergarten tours and info nights, obsessed with her impending entry into public school -- a place where I think they expect you to wear shoes and clothes that aren't pj's -- I said to my partner, "well, this might be the last year she could do this...."
So she went to school in her long red velvet party dress. But we drew the line at fairy wings. The school frowns on costumes brought from home...the wings won't fit in her cubby...they'll get dirty...we had lots of supposedly good reasons. So our little fairy went to school sans wings.
Then a few hours later, I happened to be walking by our local high school and I saw a male student standing outside with his friends, sporting poofy white fairy wings.
Any other day, I might have smiled to myself and walked on by. But the night before, I had seen the premiere of Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up, the new film from Groundspark. The film is about how strict gender stereotypes and pressures deny students the opportunity to be joyfully who they are. About how boys who like to dance or sing, girls who like to play sports or speak up in class -- let alone girls who like girls or boys who like boys -- don't feel safe expressing themselves for fear of being labeled as gay and therefore teased, bullied, outcast or worse.
The film is also about what's lost from our schools -- and our world in general -- when anyone feels forced to repress their differences. I got a reminder of this truth shortly after Proposition 8 passed, when a gay man said something snappy on the BART platform -- I can't recall what, but as I laughed, I thought "his voice was absent from No on 8." In the name of convincing undecided voters that gay people are just like everyone else, this man's quick wit and his celebration of fun, his ability to laugh at himself and others, was absent from the campaign.
By all outward appearances, my daughter conforms to gender norms (hence the long red dress!). But she has two moms, and as I've written before, a safe school environment is of paramount importance to us. She doesn't actually have to be allowed to wear her fairy wings, but she does need to be in a school where her family is understood and respected. As I watched Straightlaced, I tried to picture her, just 10 or 12 years from now, as one of the students in the film. I can only hope that we are raising her to be as thoughtful and self-possessed as they are.
And I wish it didn't need to be said that people who do buck gender norms are some of the most courageous among us -- but I think it's a point that needs reiterating. When I saw the Fairy outside my local high school, I wanted to run up and congratulate him for his bravery. Instead, I leaned over and said "nice wings!" "Thanks," he said, barely noticing my comment. I got half a block and turned around to ask if I could take his photo with my cell phone. What was remarkable was how nonchalant he was about the whole thing. He just kept right on talking to his friends. He had no more sense of shyness than had he been wearing a football jacket. Which, after seeing Straightlaced, thrills and inspires me.