While walking to dinner in Orlando, Florida last week, Mary Katherine Backstrom and her family unexpectedly stumbled upon the city’s annual 5K Drag Race, which kicks off “Come Out With Pride” week, honoring National Coming Out Day on October 11.
It was there that Backstrom’s young son noticed a man wearing a rainbow tutu for the race — and began to stare.
Naturally, he was curious. He wasn’t being judgmental, she says, but he had some questions. After all, he’d never seen a man wearing a tutu before, and was trying to wrap his head around the whole thing.
“He wasn’t scared,” Backstrom writes of her son’s reaction to the man in the tutu. “And he sure as heck wasn’t bothered. He was just unfamiliar. He simply attempted to BECOME familiar.”
After all, she continues, isn’t that what’s so beautiful about children to begin with? The fact that they are “naturally inclusive, innocent, curious, and loving”?
“Their first instinct isn’t that something unknown is dangerous or bad,” she shares. “They look to their parents for that guidance. And how we respond in those moments of curiosity forever shapes how they will approach the world.”
All too often, we seem to forget that children will mimic precisely what they hear. That’s why we should let them hear words of shameless acceptance and unabashed love whenever possible. After all, isn’t it our responsibility as parents to guide our children in a way that will allow for more kindness, happiness, and equality in this world?
Backstrom certainly thinks so.
Recognizing the simple, yet meaningful opportunity to teach her son a lesson in compassion and inclusion, she seized upon it, answering questions and encouraging him to say hello when the man in the rainbow tutu came near.
The touching moment was perhaps as much a lesson for her son as it was a reminder for Backstrom herself.
“Parents, listen up,” Backstrom later wrote in her post. “It is not enough to teach your children NOT to hate. You must teach them to actively LOVE.”
She also reflects on her own upbringing as a child, nothing that while she was never directly taught to discriminate against gay people, she was never pushed to get to know them, either.
“You can’t avoid people you don’t understand and you shouldn’t teach your children to do that, either,” she writes. “Avoidance creates the unknown. The unknown becomes fear, and fear begets hate.”
Backstrom admits that she hasn’t always embraced the LGBTQ+ community herself, nor would she have imagined 10 years ago that she’d be such a vocal ally today. As a self-proclaimed “church-going Christian,” her faith has often put her at odds with finding acceptance and love for the LGBTQ+ community — but not anymore.
“It wasn’t really a momentous occasion, so much as a hundred smaller moments,” Backstrom says of her shift towards acceptance. “Friends from my childhood church coming out of the closet. Discovering that a beloved colleague was an open, married lesbian. Coming to the understanding that the LGBTQ+ community wasn’t a group of ‘other people’ that I needed to learn to love when I encountered them — but that they were people I already loved.”
See? This is why representation is so important.
We tend to equate what’s in the majority with what’s “normal,” whether we mean to or not. If most of the people we see on television shows, in movies, in books, and on the cover of magazines are straight, cisgender people, than anything that deviates from this no longer feels “normal.” Instead, it feels different. It feels hard to understand.
But learning opportunities are everywhere, and often come in the simplest of forms — even in a moment as brief as a little boy staring at a man in a rainbow tutu. We just need to open our eyes to them.
Many people are still uncomfortable saying the word gay or transgender; they are even more uncomfortable around those of us who identify as gay or transgender. But choosing when to be comfortable is honestly a privilege; and it’s one the LGBTQ+ community simply doesn’t have.
I can say firsthand that we are often uncomfortable in so many situations. We are never sure when bigotry and unsafe situations will present themselves. So we rely on inner strength, intuition, and the faith that living an out and uncomfortable life is better than living a closeted one.
In the end, Backstrom’s advice is something I think we could all stand to learn from when it comes to meeting people who are different from us:
“Ask the questions,” she urges. “Make the friends. Wear the hell out of the rainbow tutu. (Or don’t.) But no matter what your beliefs or orientation, I’ve got news for you: You can’t claim to ‘love thy neighbor’ if you never get to know them.”