How to Talk to Kids about Pride Month

Adapted from an address to an elementary school assembly

My first pride, I was four years old, and my parents and older brother and I were going to march in our city’s pride parade with our church. And it was fabulous! I mean we were IN a PARADE. I helped color in my family’s sign. There were rainbows everywhere, and people in fabulous dresses, feather boas, balloons, so much glitter. So fun. And my parents were putting sunscreen on me and my brother in the parking lot, and they stopped, and they asked us “kids, do you know why we have a gay pride parade?” and I was four, so no, I didn’t. I was like, “why wouldn’t you have a parade?” but that was as far as I got. 

And they realized they owed their kids an explanation that they’d never had to give before, and they did their best: they said,  “you know some of our friends like Kathy & Jennifer, or Steve & Gary? Well . . . there are people who don’t think they should be allowed to be together. They don’t think that two women or two men can be in love.” 

It was a lot to take in. That was my first introduction to the idea of prejudice, that someone could pass judgment on someone they didn’t even know. It stayed with me. And by fate or chance, I grew up and became a sex-ed teacher. 

How schools teach sexuality has changed a lot since I was a kid; today, More Than Sex-Ed helps schools make sure that when students learn about bodies, about puberty, about healthy relationships, about love—we make sure that those lessons include and respect everybody. How cities celebrate pride has changed; how people understand what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer has changed. But let’s be clear, that’s not because being LGBTQ is a new thing: gay and trans people have existed for as long as humans have existed. But research shows that social acceptance of queer people has grown faster than any other movement for equal rights in American history. And there are lots of possible explanations for that, but the origins of pride as an annual celebration every June go back to a historical event that happened over 50 years ago in New York City, at a place called Stonewall.

The Stonewall Inn was a gathering place, kind of a community center, for LGBTQ people in New York. But it was also kind of a secret. 50 years ago, gay relationships were illegal. Two men could get arrested for dancing together, or for wearing “women’s” clothing. (Side note, does clothing have a gender? No, of course not.) Some people felt that a place like Stonewall was the only place they could be themselves, but it was also dangerous. 

One June night, in the summer of 1969, the police showed up at the Stonewall Inn to arrest everyone. And it wasn’t the first time, but something was different that night. The gays and lesbians and trans people and drag queens fought back. No one knows for sure who threw what first, but it was like the whole community made the decision all at once that they were done hiding and being afraid. They wanted the whole city to see what was happening and know that they weren’t going away, and for more people to come join the protest. But this was before the internet; they couldn’t put it on Instagram or send out an Evite. Know what they had? Chalk. 

A homeless teenager who was living in a shelter at the time took chalk and started walking up the street, writing on the sidewalk over and over, “tomorrow night Stonewall”. And the next night the protest was even bigger. And the day after, they put out flyers too, and more people saw the message that said to come to Stonewall “tomorrow night”, and more people came. And the protests lasted for five nights straight, with more and more people showing up to say: we are done hiding, we are proud of who we are, and we are not going away. 

One year later, the city honored the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising with the first pride march. They called it “Gay Liberation Day”, and thousands of people joined in the streets to chant, “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”

And the march continues today. I regret to inform you that in the 55 years since Stonewall, we have not yet solved prejudice and discrimination. History is full of laws that are unfair and unjust, but it’s also full of incredibly brave people who did what they knew was right, even when it was dangerous. People who picked up the chalk, and walked up the street, and said we’re done hiding who we are, and we’re inviting everybody else to come out of hiding too.

I want that for everyone; the strength and the courage to figure out who you are, and then do it on purpose, out loud, unapologetically. And there are so many different and beautiful ways to be! It’s why the rainbow is such a perfect symbol for the spectrum of queer identities; it’s the spectrum of refracted light, all the colors that make up everything we can see, all the beauty of our world. There are still people who think that there are only two kinds of humans, pink and blue, and everybody has to be one or the other. But take a look around; see who’s here. Are there more than two kinds of people? And aren’t those differences what make people fun and interesting? Absolutely! 

So let’s talk a little bit about the science of prejudice. Our brains evolved to recognize patterns, and that was incredibly important for early humans’ survival. Learning that this plant is food and that plant is poison, and remembering that pattern, is literally a matter of life and death. The problem is, our brains run that program on everything. “good/bad”. “like me/not like me.” It’s a bias that still shows up in who is more likely to get hired for a job, or be able to buy a house, today. So I want us all to challenge ourselves—the next time you catch yourself in that either/or pattern thinking, ask yourself, could it be both? Could it be in-between, or outside of? And why does it feel like it has to be one or the other? 

As much as our brains love either/or, black-and-white thinking, the world is usually a lot more complex than that. We are vast, we contain multitudes. Embrace both/and. Nature has no edges.

And here’s one more science lesson to leave you with: a little more evolutionary biology. Aside from evolving to see patterns and categories, humans also evolved in communities. We need each other; we are social creatures. Lots of scientists think that’s the reason for sexual diversity; nature created more ways for us to love and be loved and see each other and see ourselves, to survive by taking care of each other in community. 

But for that to happen, people need to listen to each other. Here’s the tie-in to our lesson on puberty, ready? A little kid generally, biologically speaking, needs to listen to their parents or their main caregivers to survive. But for the species to survive, the younger generation typically needs to outlive the older generation, and that means learning how to survive without asking your parents what to do or if it’s okay for you to try something different. That changeover happens during puberty; while the body is going through changes that will make it able to bring new life into the world, the brain is also going through a rewiring that tells you to prioritize messages from other people your own age, and to listen less to adult authority figures. So—we’re not telling kids not to listen to adults, but we are saying that around 8-9-10-11 years old, their brain might start to tell them that adults don’t know what they’re talking about, and that what’s really important is what other people their age have to say.

Our brains are looking for belonging; we all want to be included and accepted as equals in our community. And thinking about early humans, not being included and accepted might have meant being banished from the tribe and sent into the wilderness to be devoured by wild animals. Acceptance and inclusion feel like matters of life and death, because at some point in human history, they were.

So if you’ve heard of “peer pressure”, that’s what’s happening: your brain is trying to figure out how to be an adult in a community of equals while holding the fear that if you don’t agree with everyone else you might die. Most of the time, standing up to peer pressure won’t actually kill you, but to your brain it literally feels like it might.

If someone is teasing or bullying someone else about being gay or transgender, speaking up can feel life-threateningly scary. But speaking up, standing up, grabbing that chalk, can let someone know that they’re not alone. That they have a community to support them, even if It’s not where they thought. That’s a power we all have. And that kind of peer pressure works too. You can help send the message that homophobia and transphobia are not welcome here. You can be the voice that others follow at the next parade.

I want that for you. Please be brave, please celebrate fiercely, please love boldly, please try not to cause your fellow human beings unnecessary suffering. You’re beautiful and amazing. All my love. Happy pride.

Published at Thu, 13 Jun 2024 10:50:37 -0700