At the gas station the other night, a stranger struck up a conversation with me. He was an older man in his late 70s. The gas pumps were down for a few minutes for some kind of daily security check so there was a brief opportunity for us to chat. He asked me if I lived in the area and if I knew that the gas station we were at had the cheapest gas in the valley to which I replied, “Of course, that’s why I came here!” He shared that his wife had passed away years ago and I expressed my condolences.
After that, he made a comment about how crazy gas prices have been lately and lamented about "what's going on in Washington," he asked me what I do for work. I told him I wear many hats but that my passion is teaching. He then proceeded to go off on a rant about how he thinks "it's crazy that these teachers are telling kids to change their gender," and that he "saw on tv that they brought a drag queen into a school, and that is just ridiculous." He asked my opinion and this was my reply: "With all due respect I wouldn't just believe everything you hear/see on TV. They take isolated incidents and exaggerate them to shock people.” Then I told him to think about a child that he knows. I asked, “What if that child told you they didn't feel like themselves because they didn't identify with the gender they were assigned at birth? Now what if this child expressed that they felt like they didn't belong? A lot of the time people who feel like they don't belong isolate themselves further and become depressed/suicidal. Would you make that child feel like something was wrong with them? Or would you seek out resources to help them feel more like themselves so they can be happy?"
We continued to talk a bit more about it but honestly I think I opened his mind a bit to something he was VERY close-minded about at first. I chose to come from a place of curiosity instead of judgment. I could have easily written him off and let him go on thinking this way but I couldn't. I felt a sense of responsibility to at least TRY to change his mind. This is a man who grew up in a very different time. He was judging what he didn't know. At the end of the conversation, he told me that the kids I teach are very lucky to have me. We wished each other well and went our separate ways.
I decided to share this because it’s so important to talk with people who have different perspectives from yours. If you’re open- you will learn something from every person that you meet. I think many of us believe that we can’t “teach our elders” things because they are set in their belief systems and think they know better than younger generations. But just because they have been alive for longer, does not mean they have nothing left to learn. For example, I learn things all the time from my younger sister. If I let my ego get in the way, I would close myself off from all of the valuable lessons she has taught me about social issues. If it weren’t for her, I might not have felt confident enough to teach this man about what I know.
September is National Suicide Awareness month. According to a recent U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of Young People, 41% of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. While these conversations like the one I shared may be uncomfortable, they are necessary. Everyone should have the right to be themselves and to be supported by their community.