I was leaving my daughter’s elementary school the other day when a mom I know called out to me.
“Are you always here?” She rolled down her window and leaned across the front seat of her van.
She was right. I am at my daughter’s school a lot. I take the time to walk her into class each day. I volunteer in her classroom once a week. I am currently a leader for one of the after-school programs. I attend or chaperone as many of the school field trips I can. I show up to as many of the parent-invited school programs my schedule allows. And I have made it my job to get to know the school’s principal, my daughter’s core teachers, and her peers.
My first grader walked ahead of me, and I poked my head through the passenger side window of my friend’s van. “It feels like it,” I told her.
She complimented me on my patience with the kids and my willingness to give up so much of my time, which was nice to hear. But while I do love working with the kids and getting to know my community, I let her in on a little secret, my real motivation to sign up and show up to all of the things:
“Someone has to show these kids what queer looks like,” I told her.
She laughed and then nodded. She understood. I am fortunate to live in a pretty open and accepting place, but, among their classmates, my kids are still the only ones with two moms. And none of the moms look like I do. I am the mom who is mistaken for the dad of the family. I am the mom who doesn’t look like any of the moms or women in children’s books or television shows or movies. I am the men’s clothes wearing, short haircut styling, gender-nonconforming woman who confuses the kids at first glance. But I don’t mind.
Because for every kid who tells me they thought I was my daughter’s father, for every kid I hear whisper to a friend that they are pretty sure I am a girl, and for every kid who asks me if I am indeed a girl or a boy, I am given the opportunity to have a conversation. I am presented with the opportunity to teach beyond the heteronormative and LGBTQ-limited or exclusive curriculum.
I am able to confirm what these kids are thinking: I don’t look like the women they are used to seeing. I tell them I like how I look. I remind them that there is no right or wrong way to express your gender. The important thing is to respect what makes people feel good. Just by being present and myself, I am reframing what these kids perceive as normal. Not only does it feel normal and routine for me to help with their writing assignments each week, but I am normalizing our queer family and my masculine appearance to these kids. I am normalizing being different.
I also show up for the kids who either live with or have bigoted adults in their lives. I show up for the boy with the dad sporting his NRA hat and All Lives Matter T-shirt. I am not saying these parents are any less the parent I am. I am not saying that a dad proudly denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement with his clothing doesn’t love his kid with the same fierceness I love mine, but I am saying he may be closed-minded.
This parent was at the same after-school program I was, and I admired that he was there for his kid. But based on the side-eye he gave, he wasn’t there for me. He looked at me too long and hard. I could tell he didn’t approve of my rainbow beanie hat. I knew he was judging my men’s jeans and my anything-but-ladylike appearance. As much as he was likely resenting my presence, I was judging and resenting his too.
I smiled and waved at him just the same. But internally I reminded myself why I spend so much time volunteering at my kid’s school: I am the representation I didn’t have as a kid. I am the representation of queer culture, family, and people I wish to see more of in this world.
There are kids being raised in homes that don’t like people like me, or at the very least disapprove of my “lifestyle.” There are kids who will someday come out and be like me. Whether I show up or not, there are already students at my daughter’s school waiting to come out and identify with one or more letters of the LGBTQI+ rainbow of possibilities. I am very aware that I may be the only representation of diversity and openness that some of these kids are experiencing.
I am also very sensitive to the fact that I may be providing hope and strength for some closeted kids who don’t have anywhere else to find it. Sure, I want kids to be able to string a few coherent sentences together, but it’s more important to me to help kids find a way to love themselves and to accept and love the differences in others.
I didn’t have anywhere to look for these things when I was a kid. All I saw was bigotry and reasons to stay hidden. I eventually found my way out — out of the closet and out of the fear of being gay — but I wish I would have learned from an early age that there were people like me. I wish I had seen the side of diversity I am showing my daughter’s classmates.
Sometimes you need to be the representation you wish to see in the world. So I show up.
I’m always here.