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 Instituteand The Door both have programs dedicated to working with kids around bullying. And theCenter for Anti-Violence Education works directly in communities to break the circle of violence that prejudice too often engenders. Other organizations like FIERCE andStreetwise and Safe help LGBTQ youth stand up to bullying from the social service staff and police officers
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.
Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate and affirm family. Too many LGBTQ kids have been rejected by their families of origin. But they have a family in the community, represented by the dads of Stonewall Community Foundation’s Dad Fund.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, mostly because it is a day for my large extended family to be together. When I was a kid this meant that the Vermonters, who saw each other regularly, would be joined by relatives who were spread across the Eastern Seaboard. I can’t think of a Thanksgiving where fewer than three generations were together. We would gather at my grandparents house, known as the “meadow house,” in central Vermont, or at the house of another relative. We would dress in church clothes, play Handel’s Messiah, eat a lot of food, go for a long walk – ideally there would be snow by then – and then play charades or cards into the night. Thanksgiving was an opportunity for us all to formally affirm that we were a family, that a central purpose in our being was to love, nurture, and celebrate each other. And to give thanks for that. I basked in that love every year – coming out as a teenager made no difference, and I brought several boyfriends to dinner over the years.
I have a family of my own now, and I am grateful for them every day. My husband and I – together for 12 years, married for 7 – surmounted a lot of challenges and heartbreak to bring kids into our home. We have a daughter, Matilde, adopted in Wyoming, and a son, Giuseppe, adopted in Pennsylvania.
Having kids means that family is no longer something that culminates with me – I am now the caregiver as well as the cared for. I am a link in a generational chain that started before I was born and will continue long after I’m gone. That offers an incredible sense of security and love – something I, my husband, kids, and other relatives will joyfully celebrate with food and music on November 26.
As I give thanks for my family, I know that there are thousands of kids in New York City who either have no family, or whose families do not celebrate them. There are between 4,000 and 8,000 homeless youth in New York this year – it’s a number that is tragically difficult to pin down. An estimated 40 percent of these kids are LGBTQ. LGBTQ kids are said to be 8 times more likely to experience homelessness, where they are at considerable risk from the moment they arrive on the street. LGBTQ kids are at a significantly higher risk of suicide, drug use, of being forced into sex work, and of getting lost in the justice system. These are kids whose families rejected them, who actually forced them out of their home for being queer or questioning. Many thousands more LGBTQ kids are still at home, hiding their identities from their families in order to stay, living a lie or being abused because of who they are. They might be at home, but they aren’t getting love.
Fortunately, these kids, though in real danger, have organizations that help them. New York has some of the best services for runaway and troubled youth in the country – even though it is not anywhere near enough. Drop-in shelters such as Ali Forney offer a wide range of services from health care to beds. Streetwise and Safe runs know-your-rights workshops for fabulous youth who routinely get harassed by cops. Peter Cicchino Youth Project offers legal services to LGBTQ homeless youth, helping them access public services. Hetrick-Martin, the LGBT Community Center, Green Chimneys and other organizations are there every day making sure kids – our kids, the most vulnerable of LGBTQ community’s next generation – are safe.
Last Father’s Day I was reflecting on being a dad and living in a city with such disparity between such as my own who are safe and loved, and those on the streets or in hostile homes. I’m a dad to my kids, but I’m also a gay adult in a community that sees LGBTQ kids as our kids. Doesn’t that make me a dad to those kids? Thinking this, I checked in with other gay dad families and posed the idea of a collective fund to raise money for organizations that care for our community’s kids. With an enthusiastic response, and support from the folks at Stonewall Community Foundation – a key vehicle for our community to care for itself – we set up The Dad Fund. Members commit to donating a minimum of $20 a month to the fund, which Stonewall can use to respond to community needs, and which the dads can also collectively direct to projects they identify as needed for our youth. It’s a community of gay dads mobilizing for our community’s kids.
In addition to the financial support, the Dad Fund intends to make our presence known in the community – to let kids know that there are gay men (trans and cisgender) who care about them as dads. Let’s face it – dads in American society aren’t necessarily thought of as the nurturing parent, and gay men working with kids still face prejudice. We gay dads know that the stereotypes aren’t accurate, and we’re living that truth openly. The Dad Fund wants LGBTQ kids to know that not only are there people and organizations to support them, there are dads who see them and care about them and want to help them. We know the dads they started with aren’t there – so we’re taking up the job. That’s what family does.