Photo: Courtesy of Jacob Tobia
Kids are naturally curious. They ask questions about everything they see and usually do so pretty loudly, which can sometimes put parents in awkward situations. However, when it comes to kids pointing out gender non-conforming people on the street, writer Jacob Tobia doesn't want parents to feel awkward or embarrassed. Here's why.
In an essay on Buzzfeed's As/Is site, Tobia wrote an open letter to the parents whose kids stare at them in the street. Tobia identifies as gender fluid and uses the pronouns they/them, which many trans and genderqueer people use instead of he/him or she/her. They dress in a way that doesn't conform to gender norms, so it's no surprise kids are drawn to their fun-coloured lipstick and super cute and bright outfits. In the letter, they recall going on a recent trip to Orlando for a queer conference where "Half of the hotel was filled with queers trying to learn how to better serve trans youth; the other half was filled with nuclear families who’d come to Orlando to meet Minnie and Elsa and Goofy at Disney World."
"It made for an interesting combination," they note.
Tobia recalls how throughout the trip, kids who had never encountered a genderqueer person before would point them out to their parents (which is totally fair because like we said, kids are curious and they'll look to you for how to react to things that are new to them). They write: "The most common reaction was that your children, upon noticing my gender expression, turned to you and exclaimed something like, 'Mommy, that boy is wearing lipstick!' or 'Look, Dad! Look at what he’s wearing!'"
Unfortunately, many of the parents—who presumably didn't know what else to say—simply turned away in embarrassment and told their children that it's rude to talk about strangers. This right here is what Tobia says is not the right way to react to your kid's comments. Take notes, folks!
"You took a moment when your child could’ve learned an important lesson about how to respect the broad diversity of gender expression, and reduced it to a tangential and less important lesson about manners in public," they write. "Furthermore, by demonstrating your own discomfort with the situation, you made your kids uncomfortable too—inadvertently furthering the culture of stigma and discomfort that surrounds gender-nonconforming people." Preach.
Instead, Tobia says to let your kids know that it's okay for people to dress however they want and that it's also an option for them if they wanted to try it out. Most importantly though, Tobia wants parents to try and move past the discomfort. "Just be cool, alright? Is that really so much to ask?"
We totally agree with their message and think it's a great thing for parents to be aware of. Kids can pick up on your discomfort pretty easily, so panicking and succumbing to embarrassment will leave the impression that gender non-conformity is a taboo subject.
Also, don't worry that you're encouraging rude behaviour by not addressing your kid's manners. We know you don't want to raise tactless monsters, but remember that it's normal for kids to take note of what they see without necessarily passing judgement. If you are concerned about rudeness you can always address that later, but in the moment, you don't want to miss this parenting opportunity. By responding in the way Tobia suggests, you not only teach your child to appreciate beauty in diversity, but also allow them to explore that same complex potential within themselves—and those things are much more important.
You can read their essay in full here.
This article was originally published online in March 2018.