This is an open letter to anyone who has ever felt like an outcast because of who they were with the caveat that who you were or are did or does not harm, affect, or pass judgement onto someone else (i.e. racist assholes).
I remember the day I bought my first pink shirt. I was in middle school in the sprawling suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. The shirt was on sale for less than $10 at American Eagle Outfitters, from what I remember, and was at least two sizes too large, big enough to probably two of my skinny kid figures.
Nonetheless, I liked the color (it had been my favorite color from a young age) and wore it with pride to the movie theater later that day. After the movie, someone close to me sat me down as one would do with a vulnerable and impressionable child when there is something important to their well-being to discuss. The kind of sit down where an adult passes on wisdom to a child, the kind of sit down where good-intended guidance means an attempt to form a child’s outlook and understanding of the world and ultimately their place in it.
I remember the chat so vividly, it shook me to the core and I still remember the sharper details today.
“Do you know why guys wear pink?” the person asked me.
I responded with some sort of response that I thought would appease them, but still got the answer wrong, in fear that I would acknowledge the truth of myself, drawing anything I was scared to admit to the forefront of the conversation.
“Because they want to be different.” the person responded.
Though this conversation always stood out to me through the rest of my childhood and into my adolescence, it never really struck a nerve to take action and process my thoughts until recently.
Yesterday, I had a close individual to myself visiting New York City from the Midwest. I was showing them around my neighborhood, my NYC, when they said a statement that struck a cord.
“I just can’t believe how people dress here.”
Immediately, my mind filled with flashbacks to my chat about the pink shirt with the individual from my childhood. It wasn’t that I felt a feeling of appall of her statement, I was more so shocked as I hadn’t heard such a comment in some time.
One of the reasons I love New York City so much is exactly this: it’s a concrete jungle where dreams are made of, the place where you can dress however the fuck you want, when you want, because you want to.
I often struggle to understand conformity. Why would a person fall into a certain culture-cut cookie of what to believe and how to act at the sole fear of being different? I understand this may be a tough argument as there is a flip side: What if I wore that pink shirt to school? (Which wouldn’t have happened, as I went to a Catholic Elementary with very strict uniform standards.)
I would have been pinged as different, called gay and silently tormented on the playground. The same kid who wrote on the bathroom wall in 7th grade “Austin B. is gay” would have added “because he wears pink.”
No, I wasn’t gay to wear pink. I was gay because I was genetically engineered that way. I wore pink because I liked the color.
The argument to protect children from bullying by means of enforcing standards to the cultural “norm” is only a short term fix. That won’t prevent the kid from committing suicide later on because they felt trapped, unable to be who they were.
Children (and adults) need to be taught to have conviction in themselves and their beliefs. That even applies to what they wear.
Another close individual called me the other day asking me to change my “Interested In” status on Facebook to private. Let me preface this by saying this person is a tremendous human being and has had a huge hand in shaping me to become the man I am today. “Dare to be different” they used to always say.
As per my sexual orientation setting on Facebook, they had worried that people in my childhood community would see it and think differently of me or them, that they would be pinned with the Scarlet Letter of being tied to a gay individual, they would be the pariah of the neighborhood.
Losing my breath, I dug deep into my gut to find my voice. “Well, then fuck them!” I retorted as the blood rushed to my head and my bones shook. I defended my good-person nature and further explained why I deserved to have that status: I, and millions before me, straight and LGBT, fought for that and will continue to do so.
It wasn’t the pink shirt that that individual from my childhood was really worried about, it was my sexuality, it was who I was.
I’d like to encourage everyone to be themselves. Life is too short to be anybody else. Also, love your fellow American for who they are (again, unless who they are harms, affects, or passes judgement onto someone else).
That’s the American thing to do.