True Parent 10
WHEN I volunteered to facilitate the LGBT parent affinity group at my kids’ elementary school, I didn’t think ahead to the moment when everyone would gather in the gymnasium and each facilitator would report back on behalf of the group.
It had been a long time since I’d outed myself from the front of a room. In my 20s, I was an organizer who went to rural Missouri schools, colleges, and churches and told my story to audiences ranging in size from 15-500. There were fundamentalist Christians, farmers, college students, eighth graders, nurses, and inmates, among others. I was in the local news so often that my friends called me “Little Miss News at 11.” Some days, I felt powerful and brave. Some days, I had to be escorted by police to and from my car because someone had threatened, chased, or hurt me.
As I stood in front of the parents of my children’s friends and classmates, a familiar yet more pronounced wave of fear washed over me. Some parents were standing, but most were seated at the lunch tables that had been pulled down from the wall, temporarily transforming the gymnasium/cafeteria into a community gathering space. The room smelled like public school pizza and new basketballs. I was the last to speak.
“Hello everyone, my name is Nikole. I facilitated the LGBT affinity group. That stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender.”
I paused to give the translators extra time. There are 42 languages spoken at my children’s elementary school. Forty-two. Some of those languages don’t even have a word for gay, let alone lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
I watched as heads turned, arms folded, and eyebrows raised—I’d forgotten that I pass. I look like any of the white moms with silver hoop earrings, a little black dress, mascara, and lipstick. The moms who have husbands, two incomes, minivans, and fights about if the TV will hang over the fireplace.
I went on autopilot and listened to my thoughts: “Just keep talking while they process what you’ve said. Let them reconcile who they assumed you were with who you actually are. Let it sink in that you’re telling them something they didn’t see. Just stand here. Radiate warmth, confidence, and ease. Do not run. Do not sit down. Just keep talking. Find the common ground.”
“We must protect each other’s children,” I told them. “We must protect their right to be themselves and express who they are. We must celebrate sensitive boys and fierce girls. We must contain bullying behavior and build alliances.”
After the meeting, a Somali couple crossed the gymnasium to introduce themselves and say thank you. My neighbor, who speaks only Vietnamese, gave a wide smile and a thumbs up. As a woman wearing a hijab shook my hand, my shoulders relaxed and I felt my fear begin to ease.
Later, in the car, I looked at my kids in the rearview mirror and said, “Hey, I need to tell you about the meeting at school tonight. I did something brave, but I’m nervous how you’re going to feel about it.”
I explained what the meeting was about, what I told the room, and how after I was finished speaking, several parents thanked me for my ideas and my honesty. Then I asked my kids, “How do you feel about that?” and “Do you have any questions?”
They looked out the windows and were quiet. I couldn’t tell if they were processing, if they were tired, or if this was just not a big deal. They were born in Portland after all; our chosen family is filled with queers of all stripes. Maybe moving to Oregon meant that my kids wouldn’t face the discrimination and violence that kids of LGBT parents do back in Missouri. I left it alone until bedtime.
“Hey, you two, who can tell me what I told you about the meeting at school tonight?”
Violet, my six-year-old said, “I don’t know, mama. Something about cultures and communities?”
Oskar, my eight-year-old, didn’t look up from his Legos and muttered, “I don’t remember.”
I pressed. “Come on, buddy, you have to remember something that I said.”
He kept his eyes fixed on the small minifigure in his hand and when I asked for the fourth time he turned and shouted, “You told all the parents you’re part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.” Then he threw the Legos and burst into tears.
He was crying so hard I could barely make out what he said. I asked again. This time I heard the words “I’m embarrassed,” and then “I’m scared.”
I felt a rush of pain fill my chest coupled with an immediate desire to fix it—to change his feelings, to justify my actions, to make it all better, to protect him. Before I had children, my reaction would have been to launch into defense mode and try to guide him into having different feelings. It’s taken years to build a pause between impulse and action.
“I heard you say that you’re embarrassed and scared. Is that right?”
Big tears rolled down his cheeks as he said, “I’m scared my friends will think you’re weird, and they won’t want to be my friends anymore.”
“All of that makes sense. Is there more?”
He said, “Yes, there’s more. I’m scared someone will hurt you.”
I had no idea how to respond—my mind was spinning. Should I share that I was afraid of the same things? Was this the moment to talk about hate crimes? To teach about the importance of radical self-expression in the face of intolerance, disrespect, and hate? No, all of that just feeds the fear. Just talk about facing fear. When we are afraid, we make a plan about what we would do if the imaginary fear came true. I turned to my six-year-old and asked, “Violet, what would you do if a kid at school said your mom is weird?”
She wasn’t crying, but her brow was furrowed. She didn’t hesitate. “I would say, ‘My mom is NOT weird,’” she said. Then she paused, relaxed her face and slowly smiled, almost apologetically. “Except that mom, you are kind of weird.” More apologetic smiling. “Sorry, but you are!”
I laughed loudly, letting the tears fall as I reached out and hugged her. She added, “I would tell them that I like weird people. Weird people are way more fun.”
I turned back to Oskar, who was curled up on his bed, listening but still softly crying. I laid down next to him, patted his back and asked quietly, “What about you, kiddo? What would do if your fears came true and someone told you they couldn’t be your friend because your mom is too weird?”
He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, got very quiet and looked me straight in the eye and said, “I would tell them that my mom is kind, and loving, and brave, and if they thought those things were weird, then I don’t want to be their friend anyway.”
Oskar moved closer and softly cried into my shoulder. Violet crawled onto my back and stretched her little arms around me to pat Oskar.
That night, I sat in the rocking chair, singing bedtime songs until long after they’d both fallen asleep. The hallway light spilled into the dark room and I wondered how my eight-year-old child already knew that it is dangerous to be different.