"Mom, I told everyone in fifth grade today that I'm non-binary, not really a girl but not a boy either"
I sat in my wheelchair by my flight's terminal, waiting for pre-boarding. I shifted my phone from one ear to the other. I analyzed every lilt and nuance in her tone to read her mood.
"Okay. How are you feeling about that?"
I listened. She recapped the day. I asked a few clarifying questions, like if she preferred new pronouns (she didn't) and how the other kids responded (so acceptingly that it gives me hope for the future). She had to go do homework, so we agreed to talk more once I was home.
I put down my phone and exhaled the breath I didn't even know I had been holding.
When I heard her say she had come out publicly, my immediate thought was, "I shouldn't have let her shave her head." I knew that was ridiculous. Shaving her head had nothing to do with being non-binary, though it was one way she expressed her gender identity before she was ready to put it into words. Over the phone, I could sound calmer than I felt, responding with the gentleness and curiosity I wanted her to hear from me even as my instincts were denial and doubt.
Denial and doubt were progress. I was born in 1982. I remember gay being an identity but it wasn't one I was ever supposed to have. When I was my daughter's age, gay meant weird at best and an AIDS death sentence at worst. Every slur was spoken in my household. I didn't repeat them, but I didn't say anything either. I was the youngest. I watched and listened. I knew cruelty ran in our family and shame was the heirloom we passed through generations. Even as a child, I sensed our collective moral compass was dangerously broken. While we didn't always have empathy, we always had TV. Watching my family didn't work, so I watched the screen. It seemed like a more reliable metric for the world than my small town in central Florida.
From television, I learned that people are people. Some women loved women, like Rose's friend on Golden Girls. Some men loved men, like Leon on Roseanne. Sometimes people didn't seem to fit any gender rules I knew, like Chandler's dad on Friends, but I didn't know what the words were for it, not yet. All these characters just seemed like people to me, but I didn't know anyone else who talked about them as people. No, they were called "the homosexuals" as if they were dangerous or maybe kidnappers. I didn't understand, but I didn't care much either.
Then 1994 arrived, and my older siblings and I met Pedro Zamora on the screen as one of the strangers picked to live in a house and stop being polite. Pedro was gay and HIV+, and the show was unscripted, a reality show before reality shows existed as a known category. I knew The Real World was real(ish) and would show stigma and discrimination without tidy resolution.
Pedro surprised me. My family's slurs for him didn't. He was multi-faceted and easy to like. Before Pedro, I wasn't completely sure that being queer wasn't a made-for-TV trope rather than being something real people were. I cared about Pedro. I was furious with Puck Rainey and others who didn't accept him, in their house or mine. When Pedro died from AIDS-related illness, I grieved unexpectedly as a 12-year-old girl who had never wept over the loss of a celebrity before.
The rest of my family barely blinked at the news. "Well, he was gay," they said, as if that explained AIDS led to his death. I knew that was wrong because I knew Pedro. HIV wasn't humanized for me before that show. But Pedro was an ordinary guy who did ordinary things, including dating and falling in love. Years later, after being friends with several people living with HIV, Pedro still came to mind when my husband and I adopted a sibling group of three, including one who is HIV+. Meeting Pedro through my TV screen paved the way to understanding that my kid was not defined by a diagnosis.
The same year I met Pedro through the screen, I met Carol and Susan on Friends and realized lesbians could be parents. Right after, ER showed me how prejudice toward people who didn't fit binary gender boxes could lead to suicide. In the following years, I met other queer characters in shows like Blossom, Living Single, Party of Five, My So-Called Life, and Moesha who expanded my understanding of the world inch by inch on my small staticky bedroom screen. By the time Ellen DeGeneres said "I'm gay" on the air in 1997 it seemed so normal to me that I don't even remember my reaction as I watched. That's what years of watching queer stories had done for me.
What I do remember is the response that followed, both the public's and my own. Every adult I knew recoiled as if she had turned into a serial killer. It was hateful and expected. But what was unexpected was my own cowardice. While I didn't see Ellen as dangerous — rather the opposite in fact — I wasn't ready to say that out loud. I wanted to speak up for her and for the gay friends I had made in real life by then, but I considered the stakes too high as a high school freshman. It took years of those friendships for me to understand how much higher the cost was for them. When I was 22 and addressing our wedding invitations, I included my friend Emma's longtime girlfriend Karen on her invitation. When Emma RSVPed no, her gratitude for my affirming their relationship taught me how seemingly insignificant acts of allyship mattered on a personal level. I was (and am) still learning, but television programs I watched had already humanized being queer. I learned the groundwork from the screen: each of those friends was a person, first and foremost.
When it was my kid telling me what it felt like to be gender non-conforming and then sharing that with her entire class, though, I found myself connecting for the first time with Ross instead of Carol and Susan; the judgmental roommates instead of Pedro. Two and a half minutes into the pilot episode, Joey asks Ross, "And you never knew she was a lesbian?" I thought he was being obnoxious until I wondered the same about my child. "What kind of mother am I," I thought, awash with shame, "if I never knew she might be non-binary?"
For the rest of the month, I found myself analyzing everything through absurd stereotypes, like Ross later in the pilot: "This was Carol's favorite beer. She always drank it out the can. I should have known." Instead of alcohol choices, I was analyzing every parenting decision I had ever made. Was she enby (the slang term for a non-binary person), or was it her buzz cut, or our recent visit to the local LGBTQ center that made her think she was? Would every conservative suburban mom judge me for her gender identity?
I was becoming the Puck of her story, who wove himself scornfully into Pedro's storyline, and I didn't want to be the kind of person I hated as a child, someone who would center myself in a queer person's story. As a disabled woman, I knew what it was to be treated like the other, and I knew I was doing that to my own kid, in my thoughts if not my actions. I needed work, not her, and I didn't want to work out my old ingrained biases on her.
I went to therapy instead. I'm a work in progress. We all are.
The Greatest LGBTQ TV Characters of All Time
My child is finishing up sixth grade and sticking with she/her pronouns until she tells us otherwise. Genderqueer is the term she prefers, but that's fluid and she uses gender creative sometimes too. Her hair is still short, and it's usually any color of the rainbow except for pink or purple. Most of all, she knows her dad and I love and support her, now, and as her identity continued to unfold over time.
We aren't perfect. We won't ever be. But thanks to fictional blueprints, we understand the specific ways in which we can show up: not in the starring role but whenever our child needs us so she can shine as the lead in her own life.
Shannon Dingle is a writer, disabled activist, and survivor living in North Carolina with her spouse and their six children. She is working on her first book, Living Brave, with HarperOne, and her online home is www.shannondingle.com.