We have an activity in our GLSEN* Professional Development called Earliest Messages. Through it we explore our biases or acceptance of concepts around diversity based on the messages we received from our family/friends/teachers/society growing up. Because I’m often asked why I do this advocacy work and HOW it came to be that I’ve always thought diversity should be celebrated when I say, “I’ve always thought diversity should be celebrated,” I’m often thinking about the earliest messages I received.
Sometimes something brings back an early message in it’s entirety and I think, “Aha! That was it! That was my earliest message about…”
Sometimes it’s a song from Marlo Thomas and Friends’ Free To Be…You and Me, a clip from Mr. Rogers, or a picture from the very early 80s of my baby brother and me playing at the park attached to the married student housing apartment complex, where we all lived in an iiiitty bitty two-bedroom apartment as our parents finished college.
Incidentally all of the above provided Pre-K me with lots of early messages on diversity, but I experienced many in that apartment. We had neighbors of many different races, ethnicities and nationalities with whom we played, visited, ate and celebrated. To this day I believe my mom still has the beautiful hand-painted Korean wall-hanging that one of our neighbors gifted to her. Even though it had some how gotten some water damage in the last 40 years, she still treasured it. In my memory, living in that apartment was like living in the 1971 Coke commercial. Only now when I see that commercial, I see that the camera lingers the longest on white faces, a detail I wouldn’t have noticed as a child but that probably also accurately portrays my early experiences of seeing the diverse world through my white-privileged lens. (Go ahead and take a minute to watch. I’ll wait right here.)
Today I had another one of those “Aha!” moments when a song on the radio transported me back to one of my earliest messages on gender expression and sexual orientation. When I was around 5 years old, Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon was my favorite song. I would put my mom’s Colour by Number LP on the record player and stare at the album cover, admiring Boy George’s makeup while singing, “Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma cham-E-leon” like I owned it and had a clue what the lyrics meant.
I don’t remember the exact conversation with my mom about Boy George and his fabulous makeup and long braided hair, but whatever my mom said, I added some boys wear makeup into my understanding of the world with the same simplicity that I added concepts like the Earth is round and the sun is hot.
Even though I don’t remember the exact conversations, I know my earliest messages from my parents around gender expression and sexual orientation were positive, affirming ones that taught me to embrace diversity in all of its forms, and for that I am still thankful. I work every week with people who are trying to overcome the biases they learned and/or internalized from the earliest messages they received, and I feel fortunate to not have that struggle to such an extent. (Though I do still have biases I have to uncover and work to address. We all do.)
I’m also certain that the foundation I received from my parents of accepting, embracing and sometimes even admiring people’s whole authentic selves, including the parts of their identities that were different from my own, helped me later in life as I began to learn about gender identity and the fact that some people don’t always identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. While some people struggle to wrap their mind around this truth, for me the concept settled into my understanding of the world like a piece in a puzzle that I didn’t even realize was missing, but that helped to create a more complete picture of our beautiful human diversity. It’s similar to how I feel about how the world grows bigger and more beautiful in it’s complexity when I learn more about another language, another culture, another religion, or even just about another individual who is sharing the same space with me for a bit.
I’m thankful that my parents gave me this gift of seeing the world and its people in this way. Ultimately, it helped me get to this very place I am today, where I get to advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Just think, if we all spent a little time paying attention to the earliest messages that we are sending to our kids and our students, those gifts just might help teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
* You can find out more about GLSEN and their programs here.