When I was in middle and high school, my best friend had a super fun, under-supervised house to which we all gravitated. I was still relatively new to Florida, transplanting from the very white, middle class suburbs of Chicago with my parents. My best friend was also new to the area. Her mom was a hardworking single mom, something new and foreign to me at the time, and I really loved the carefree environment of her house. This whole “latch-key” concept was fascinating to me and allowed me to explore some freedom.
I spent a lot of time in their home. I did my first everything in this house (well, almost everything). My first beer, my first night of being wasted, my first party, my first “spin the bottle”, my first law enforcement run in, my first driving without a license…and it just so happens it’s where I met my very first gay person. I’m relatively certain that I had met a gay person before, in passing, but this gay person was my best friend’s brother so I had frequent interaction with this little person.
He was several years younger than us so maybe six when I met him, I was 12. He was flamboyant, loud, funny, annoying, and loved to wear his mother’s clothes and make up. It was very clear that he was gay from a very young age. He didn’t know it yet, or maybe he did, but we definitely knew.
I heard more teenagers call this child a faggot than I care to remember. I remember that making me feel really terrible but as a normal teenager does sometimes, I tended to side with the bullies. I probably even bullied him myself a time or two. But I remember not really understanding why he was called a faggot, why other kids were attacking his sexuality at such a young age. My best friend protected him fiercely, as much as she could but we were kids being kids, as dismissive as that may sound.
Of course, I wish now that I would have said more, done more, to protect him and his innocence, asked others what the big deal was, why they picked on him, asked him how he felt. It was just easier for me to go with the masses. To me, he was the proverbial annoying little brother but it was never about his potential sexuality for me.
I remember it bothering his older brother more than anyone that he was seemingly gay but I don’t ever remember it even being a topic of conversation between my friends. It didn’t feel shocking that he would someday date and love men romantically. He liked lipstick and he was a boy. And I didn’t give a shit about that. He was also my revelation of the no, people don’t choose to be gay, they’re born gay argument. He was just who he was and I loved him like my own brother. I still do, actually.
But he was my benchmark, Markie was. Whether he knows it or not, Mark normalized not only homosexuality for me but also just being different. He didn’t fit the mold I was used to in my sheltered life, he didn’t fall in line. He was unapologetically different in the best ways possible.
He was exposure that helped created acceptance and tolerance for me.
He might not have been my first exposure to differences but he was the first I can recall that had such an impact on me. I didn’t realize how much significance Mark would hold for me until lately, as I raise my own child and strive to create experiences and exposure for her.
We all get so comfortable in our patterns of our lives. Our normal, everyday life is our reality and everyone lives in their own reality. Some are filled with constant exposure to diversity and differences without effort, but many do not. Most adults enjoy the comfort of living in the mundane but the beauty of children is that they’re so curious about differences. Think about how many questions children ask in a day when they’re little. For those with their own children, remember around the age of three when your child would ask “But why?” every five seconds about every.single.thing?
Curiosity. It’s constant and it’s persistent with children.
And the older they get, the questions grow bigger with more substance. The why grows from “Why do I have to go pee pee in the potty?” at the age of three to “Why is that kid’s skin so dark?” at the age of six.
And here we are, the adults shaping the answers to the why’s, creating experiences and knowledge for them. Creating opportunity for them to learn… or creating the opportunity for them to become fearful of differences by shutting down their curiosities.
My daughter has been asked time and again by other kids, “Why do you like dressing like a boy?”, and usually her answers are pretty solid: “Because that’s what I like” or “Because that’s what I feel comfortable in”. But the questions are getting tougher, demanding more explanations, and even are turning into a little bit of meanness from some kids.
When I was made aware of the first instance of her being picked on recently, my immediate advice to her was, “You tell him to leave you alone and it’s none of his business why you like boy things!”…but as I shared this conversation with one of her former teachers, she helped me realize that with that answer, my daughter is shutting down others’ curiosities and thereby dismissing the opportunity to learn. So we came up with a new answer, one that my daughter is comfortable with that is both factual and assertive: “I like boy things because that’s what makes me comfortable and happy. If you don’t like that, you do not have to be my friend but you do not have to be mean to me”.
Are kids still going to be mean to others? Of course. It’s beyond naive to think otherwise.
But the takeaway for me is that the more experiences we can create with exposure to anything different than our norm, the more we can open the door to differences and keep things real, the more tolerance we are creating, the more curiosities we are curing. Let’s not perpetuate even our own fears, biases, judgements and experiences with our kids. Let’s make ourselves uncomfortable by thinking outside of what we think we know about other cultures, minorities, and subgroups of people and really take the time to learn, ask questions, research together, be outside of the masses. Travel, read, discuss. Don’t miss these opportunities.
More importantly, let’s not be afraid of answering the questions. Let’s not be afraid to teach. Let’s not be offended or embarrassed by others’ ignorance. Let’s embrace it so we can educate and create open dialogue for our kids.
Everyone needs a Markie. Everyone needs several Markie’s. And if you’re lucky enough to be someone else’s Markie, don’t take the responsibility lightly. You might just change someone’s outlook for the rest of their life for the better.