05/03/2013 06:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Activist in Training

Marsha Aizumi


I stand 5 feet tall in my stocking feet. I am a Japanese-American mother of a transgender son, and I want the world to be safer and more accepting for my child and all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. Every day, I try to do something, even if it is small, to create that safer world for my son and others. However, when I have been called an activist, I have looked back with both horror and puzzlement. Me, an activist? I don't think so! I am not loud enough, strong enough or trained enough for this role. But quietly, I realize I have been traveling down the path of activism and taking notes along the way.

There are activists who carry bullhorns, and activists who are willing to stand toe-to-toe and face-to-face with strong voices. Sometimes that kind of activism is necessary, but that is not me. And so I continue to look around for ways I can use my voice, my passionate, determined but soft voice, to make changes. Recently I heard a story that made me stop, pull out my pencil and paper and begin to take notes.

Jeanne (not her real name) is a second-grade teacher who intentionally creates a gender-expansive culture in her classroom. (How I wish there were more teachers like this!) She uses gender-neutral language, such as "police officer" instead of "policeman," and "fire fighter" instead of "fireman," and, using books like Pinky and Rex and the Bully, she teaches boys to feel comfortable doing "girly" things like writing with a pink pencil. Following a CESCAL (Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership) conference she recently attended, Jeanne decided to read a CESCAL-recommended book to her class called And Tango Makes Three. It is a true story about two male penguins from the Central Park Zoo, Roy and Silo, who sat on an egg that another mother penguin could not care for and hatched a baby called Tango. Jeanne made no interpretation of the information but only tried to guide her students to use the most precise language possible. So when one of the students said that Roy and Silo's relationship is "weird," Jeanne questioned, "What do you mean 'weird'?" There was a healthy discussion that followed. The class decided that the relationship is not weird but different. In fact, one student said, "I don't think it's weird at all. They took care of the baby." No association was made between the penguins in the story and humans. It was just a lesson on diversity.

A few days later Jeanne received a couple of emails from parents who'd been troubled by her reading choice. Then the principal got involved, because Jeanne copied her in the email correspondence with one of the parents. Finally, the Director of Elementary Education was brought in. Jeanne says, "These families, my principal and director are all lovely, wonderful people. The parents were just looking out for their children, and the principal and director were just trying to protect me."

There were many avenues of action that Jeanne could have chosen. She could have gotten upset about the emails and replied to these families and the district personnel defending her position. She could have called the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) or her own union rep and stood on the grounds that she had every right to read that book, with various educational codes and the American Library Association's recommendation of this book behind her to back her up. Moreover, there is the FAIR Education Act, which is the state of California's requirement that schools teach about the contributions of women, people of color and other historically underrepresented groups. On Jan. 1, 2012, the state updated these guidelines to end the exclusion of people with disabilities and LGBT people from history and social studies lessons. Jeanne could have used FAIR to justify her decision, as well.

But what Jeanne did was a concept that I will take with me as I move my activism forward. She realized that she had pushed the envelope too far with some of these families and took responsibility for it, understanding that we can't reach individuals by forcing our point of view on them but by meeting them where they are and bringing them along on this journey. The other thing I admired about Jeanne was that she wasn't afraid to take a risk with good and positive intentions. Often I am afraid to offend others, so I hold back. She took a risk but also took responsibility.

I have marched for equality in Washington, D.C., and I have protested things that I did not think were right. I did those things to share my point of view, especially for those families that may feel isolated and ashamed. I want them to know that they are not alone. I do these things because I want acceptance for my child. But when others don't see eye-to-eye with me, am I accepting of them, and where they are on their journey? It is so easy for me to be accepting when people agree with me. My true test of acceptance is whether I can be accepting of others when their paths are different from mine. Like Gandhi said, I need to "be the change" I wish to see in the world.

A great epilogue to this story is that the Director of Education later came to Jeanne with concerns about all the questions that her young daughter had been asking about the Supreme Court deliberation on Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The director thought that if she borrowed And Tango Makes Three, this book could help her explain some of these current events to her child. Would that conversation have taken place if Jeanne had chosen a more combative and defensive approach?

In addition, one of the mothers who wrote a letter of concern later came to Jeanne with news of her daughter being bullied. Jeanne was horrified, initially thinking that this was happening in her classroom. But the mother said that her daughter had explained, "Oh, no, that would never happen in Ms. Jeanne's classroom." Would this parent have reached out to Jeanne for help if the parent-teacher bond had been severed over the reading of that book?

Jeanne plans to parlay this teachable moment into change for her district. In order to prepare parents, teachers, administrators and leaders for the FAIR Education Act, it will be important to start now and bring communities along to integrate curricula that illustrate the impact that LGBT individuals and people with disabilities have made on our society.

In the end, I learned two things from this teacher: Don't be afraid to take a risk, but also don't be afraid to meet people where people are and help them understand a different point of view. I cannot bring people along if they have to defend their viewpoint. They will become even more entrenched in their beliefs. But perhaps if I accept where they are, they will be more willing to listen to my thoughts.

Each of us comes to this LGBT movement with who we are and want to walk away feeling good about how we showed up for this work. Some of us have strong voices and like to use those powerful voices to bring change. And some of us have softer voices, but our voices also have the power to change hearts and minds. Today, when people call me an activist, I no longer cringe, thinking, "That is not me," nor do I look behind me in confusion, wondering if they are talking about someone else. I am an activist who has learned that I can bring my true self to this movement. And like my transgender son, I want to be valued for who I am, not for who others think I should be.