This father’s gender-fluid child taught him a lesson on love more powerful than any sermon
By Ethan Vesely-Flad
Amidst the anguish of recent weeks, I am so grateful for two things: first, the profound love that is being shared, as resistance and fortitude to the violence we are experiencing – from Orlando to Dhaka to Baghdad and on & on – and second, the lessons that the next generations are teaching me.
In the wake of the Orlando massacre, in particular, I am especially thankful to my six-year-old child M, who continues to challenge and change me, day by day.
This pink long-sleeve ensemble is what M chose to put on one recent morning, despite the coming 90-degree heat. The day before, it was a Star Wars shirt and lots of talk of swords & fighting. One day previous, he wore a beautiful white flowered dress. (And told stories featuring guns. Sigh.) That same week, as the school year ended, on the big Field Day party it was a favorite long pink dress, and the next & final day, it was a simple green polo as he said goodbye to the beloved Jennies pair of kindergarten teachers and displayed his wolf project at the science fair. And on & on.
The thing now is that it has been months, almost years, since M’s gender creativity prompted me to take a photo — it’s no longer unusual to us. The only times we get deeper are the rare occasions when M says he’s a girl, rather than his normal mantra: “I’m a boy who likes to wear dresses.” (We have noticed M seems most likely to push back when an exclusively binary framework is presented: “Boys on this side but girls on that side.”) We are seriously blessed to be in a school, and church, and community setting where that fluid and changing sense of gender expression is not only ok and safe, but respected and welcome.
In the past few weeks, through social media and other semi-public settings, many friends have openly discussed their sense of gender identity, and for those who (like me) identify as heterosexual and cisgender (a term I am just learning, along with my identifying pronouns) these conversations have included one’s personal engagement with LGBTQ and queer spaces and communities. For me, like most, there is so much to say, and I know that growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, self-identifying as an athlete and member of the hip-hop generation, there would have been many times when I was complicit with homophobia in my youth. One moment from middle school years is etched in my memory, when a teacher said something that clearly made fun of and denigrated an effeminate man, and I laughed loudly and retold that story on many occasions during the following school years.
I know that it was later, in college, when I found a space where I first truly came to be in conversation around my heteronormativity in the context of the violence experienced by LGBT peoples. There was one moment during those four critical years of my psychological development and maturation when I was propositioned by a gay man in a time and space that felt threatening and left me feeling deeply vulnerable, exposed, and shaken. Ultimately, however, rather than making me angry at gays and fearful of them, I felt more compassionate and connected to the gay community — and more aware of my own sense of sexual questioning and gender identity.
Moving to NYC, and going to late-night clubs several nights a week, as well as (surprisingly) working for the Episcopal Church, took me to another level. It would have been difficult to live in The City and participate in the house/club/hip-hop scene in that era (or others, I’m sure) and not be in relationship with LGBTQ folks. But mine were deep and formative, and specifically I will never forget when my homegirl Desi del Valle took me into the privileged space of an underground drag queen show (ca. 1990) in midtown and the time that my brother Thom Chu took me out dancing at a gay bar in “the South” (to me: Louisville) during NatGat (the National Christian Student Gathering, ca. 1991).
Indeed, it’s been the workplace – while employed in faith-based institutions – where I’ve been blessed with so many personal/professional relationships that have helped open me up and prepare me for parenting lovingly and fully in a LGBTQ-identity and gender-non-conforming era. In the past quarter-century, I’ve had eight different supervisors in my four workplaces; six of them have been LGBTQ individuals. I have learned from them and countless peers (including several who have transitioned in their gender identities, and one with whom I traveled to a Middle Eastern country where one’s gender was, definitively, legislated) more about human dignity and faithfulness than any book or class or sermon or campaign could have ever provided.
As I have joined in mourning the queer and trans lives torn from our human family in recent days – a massacre that viciously portrays the relentless targeting of LGBTQ individuals in our communities – I have found myself nevertheless hopeful for the future. Had M been born a decade ago (much less four decades ago, when I was a child), I am convinced he would not have had the same opportunities to freely express his beautiful, unique, loving sense of gender creativity. The world in which he is growing up is presenting fewer constrictions to his sense of self, and as his parent – while I do hold real fears for his safety as a non-conforming child (and especially as he enters youth, then teenage years, then adulthood, the violence he could experience) – I am clear that his generation is infinitely more embracing of gender fluidity, and that he will play a role in dramatically shifting our cultural understanding of these “norms.”
This is to say that I am grateful for all who have paved the way for my child to express his gender identity as he longs to, and that I envision him continuing to pave a way for those who will come after him – not because M sees himself as a torch bearer, but simply because he is living into norms that have evolved. These are gender norms that he, in turn, will evolve in whatever social setting he chooses to be part of. What I hope most is that, as M goes about his daily life, he is safe and fearless.
In my heart of hearts, this is what I wish for M, who is my teacher. What a blessing it is to be walking this path in the company of such a child of God.