Once, I almost got into a fight with a kid at summer camp who made fun of my name. We were arguing about something stupid -- yeah well, how many girls could you take back to the kissing rock -- when he went for the jugular: He played the "funny name" card. My first instinct to fight him was trumped by my second instinct to back off (it's no accident I'm a musician, not a boxer, now). So I froze, and perhaps lobbed an ineffective "yeah well... you suck!" at him. He snickered and strode back to his bunk, satisfied.
I had similar situations throughout childhood, as any kid of immigrant parents who valued preserving our culture over our comfort might recognize. Each time I froze, and each time I wished I had a different name.
This past summer, I watched a young family member of mine freeze. While he, too, has a funny name, the ridicule he faced was for a different reason: He was wearing a dress. When the antagonist, another boy, tried to yank it off him, he retreated to the other room. A few days later, I saw him in "regular" boy clothes.
I was thinking about that episode when I read Ruth Padawer's piece, "What's So Bad About a Boy Who Wears a Dress?" in the New York Times Magazine. It turned out, according to the article, that there were plenty of boys out there wearing dresses, challenging traditional gender norms. And there were plenty of bullies responding to the perceived difference.
The whole thing is complex. Kids just want to be kids and do what they want, so why do other kids get to determine that they can't? At the same time, difference -- from funny names to boys in dresses -- can be unsettling to an unaccustomed kid.
It's complex for parents, too, who must weigh their desire to nurture a kid's identity with their desire to protect. I'm not a parent (remember that musician thing -- I effectively live in a van), but when I saw that boy wearing "normal" boy clothes, I felt sad. He didn't feel like he could wear what he wanted and, in a real way, was forced to compromise his own identity.
Sadness gave way to relief (he wouldn't get teased at school) which gave way to guilt (is it wrong that I'm relieved that he can't do what he wants?). Padawer's piece drove this dynamic home compellingly, sympathetically and realistically, and illuminated the challenges parents face, too.
Soon after I read the piece, I had a dream. There was a boy in a bright pink dress. He was sitting in a wagon, and there was a wizard-looking figure with one eye dragging him across town to a party where there were other boys in dresses. The next morning, I told my band about this, and we came to two conclusions: First, I should get my head checked out. Second, we should make a video.
So, we asked our friend, the director Chris Cannucciari, to help us out (his first instinct: Cobra Kai!) and we asked fans to lend us their 7-year-olds for a day. We shot the video for "Sun Gonna Lemme Shine" in kindergartens, basements and Chinese restaurant parking lots in Westwood and Dedham, MA.
And while most of our recent album, Battles, does not focus on boys wearing dresses per se, it does look at choice. Through the eyes of people who have done all the right things and still fall behind, it questions what choices they have to stay above water. Do they have to sell out? Throw elbows? The kid in the video does the right thing of staying true to himself and only sees rejection as a result. So, what choice does he have?
I thought my only choice at summer camp was to fight. I hope that young family member of mine knows that he doesn't have to. Rather, he just has to be tough and patient (maybe even go on a wagon ride with a one-eyed wizard), and understand that it will pay off to not compromise. It's hard as hell -- for him wanting to fit in, for his parents (and me) wanting to protect him -- but conforming to the ignorant expectations of others sets a scary precedent at such an early age. If you limit your choices now, what other compromises will you make down the road? What else will you deny yourself? And who, in the end, will you become?
Besides, and history seems to show over and over, the bullies often wear dresses when no one's looking. You might, after all, be a trend-setter.
I found out recently (thank you Facebook) that the kid from summer camp got married to someone with an exotic name. And he never did tell me how many girls he took back to the kissing rock.