When my nephew was eight years old, I took him to work with me. He was excited to see where all the action happened and to meet my coworkers. He had been nagging me for a long time to take him. At the time, I worked at an LGBT advocacy org and, while he knew he had two aunts, I don't know that he understood much more about what being a sexual or gender identity minority meant or what LGBT advocacy work entailed.
He was in the office for all of ten minutes, making the rounds and shaking hands with my colleagues, who generously engaged him. They doused him with stickers and swag and he couldn't have been more excited.
He also met my co-worker Chris who is transgender.
As soon as we left, he turned to me and said, "Is Chris a boy?"
"Yes," I said. "Chris is a transgender man."
"What does that mean?" he asked.
"It means Chris has always been a boy but was told he was a girl when he was younger. But he now gets to live his life as he always knew himself to be."
"Oh, OK," my nephew said. "I like his sneakers."
And like that, an eight-year-old child understood and accepted what being transgender meant and respected the gender identity of my co-worker. Without a beat, he had moved on to more discerning things like fashion and sneakers.
Why adults are unable to make the same, rational connection in their heads is beyond me. I know that a lot of the hype is political theatre during an election year. Shame on politicians for exploiting those who are most marginalized for political gain.
And the rest is pure misunderstanding. Exposure breeds acceptance. Most eight-year-olds don't have the opportunity to visit an LGBT advocacy org and meet someone who is transgender. Or if they do have the pleasure of meeting someone who is trans, they might not have two gay aunts who can answer their questions. The thing is, most eight-year-olds are naturally more open to learning and accepting if the adults in their lives didn't impose their ignorance and judgement on them.
Perhaps more significantly, most adult moms or politicians or teachers haven't met a transgender person -- at least that they're aware of -- and so they haven't had the opportunity to realize the painfully obvious notion that we're all just people trying to make it in this world. If given the chance to shake hands with, look into the eyes of a fellow human being, all those who have leaned into fear would likely lay down their swords and open their arms.
My nephew went on to help educate his classmates about what being transgender meant, and to defend transgender people in school when someone berated them. He was also the only student in his class to choose LGBT civil rights for an assignment where the class was asked to do research and report on a minority group. I'm so proud of him. Despite being his aunt, which makes me extremely biased into thinking he is super extraordinary, I know that he's just an average kid who had the luck of the draw of being born into a diverse and accepting family that taught him love and compassion.
That single handshake with someone who was transgender and thirty second discussion after helped empower a child to go forward in the world looking to help, not hurt, others who are different. We desperately need more handshakes right about now.