Better World

5 LGBTQ Heroes You Should Teach Your Kids About Today – And What To Say

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Whether your kids identify as LGBTQ or not—and whether they have family, friends, or classmates who do, or if they’ve never met anyone who’s openly LGBTQ—it’s important for them to hear about queer and trans people both in a positive light and in a variety of roles. The more we listen to people different from us, the more we can help build an inclusive and equal world for all. And the more LGBTQ kids see people like themselves represented in the world, the more confidence they can develop to become who they want to become.

The following diverse LGBTQ contemporary heroes who are rocking the realms of sports, the arts, and politics are likely to inspire your kids—and you!—plus lead to some interesting discussions that they might not be getting in school or in their social circles. See below for kid-friendly ways to introduce each person and their accomplishments.

Schuyler Bailar speaking at 2017 Pride and Prejudice Conference. Credit: Wymzee, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons [cropped]

Schuyler Bailar

Fast facts: Schuyler Bailar is the first openly transgender athlete to be on a Division I college swim team. He is also the first trans athlete to compete in any sport on a Division I men’s team, and the only one to have competed for all four years. He was initially recruited to the Harvard women’s swim team, but decided to join the men’s team instead after his transition—even though he knew his ranking as a competitive swimmer would suffer. After graduating from Harvard in 2019 with a degree in psychology, he is now a public speaker, activist, and researcher. He also has a middle grade novel coming out in 2021!

Start the conversation: Watch this short Identify documentary episode on the Olympic channel for more about Bailar’s beginnings as a water baby, the hard decisions he’s had to make as a transgender athlete, and his heartwarming relationship with his grandmother. Or start by browsing his very informative Instagram account together, and you’re both bound to learn something and have plenty to discuss.

Qs to ask your kids:

  • Bailar was given the choice to swim on the women’s team or the men’s team in college. Why do you think he chose the team where he’d actually have less of a chance of winning races?
  • What are some of the ways that Bailar’s family, coaches, and teammates supported him? Why was that important for his wellbeing, and how did it help him become the inspirational person he is today?
Official portrait of Congresswoman Sharice Davids. Credit: Kristie Boyd; U.S. House Office of Photography, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons [cropped]

Sharice Davids

Fast facts: Sharice Davids is a U.S. Representative whose election in 2018 marked many firsts: the first openly gay Native American in Congress, the first openly gay person in Congress from Kansas, and one of the first two Native American women in Congress. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation who was raised by a single mom, she became the first in her family to go to college and ended up with a law degree from Cornell. She also competed as a professional mixed martial artist (MMA) and worked in community and economic development on a reservation before deciding to run for office. In a traditionally conversative state like Kansas, her representation for the LGBTQ and Indigenous communities and her commitment to equality make a bold statement.

Start the conversation: Watch this three-minute NBC Out video that documents Davids’ upbringing, her unlikely path to Congress, and what drives her to fight for equality. There may be plenty to relate to for your kids and/or plenty of differences between her background and theirs—but either way, it makes for interesting discussions about who represents us in government, plus what careers your kids may want to pursue.

Qs to ask your kids:

  • In the NBC video, Davids said that being an athlete helped her develop mental toughness. Why do you think mental toughness is important for her as a member of Congress?
  • Davids also mentioned that as a lesbian she could still legally be discriminated against in her own state when looking for a house or apartment. Do you think that makes her more likely to fight to pass laws that protect other groups’ rights as well?
Screencap from an interview with Vivek Shraya at the Art Gallery of Mississauga for On The Queer Screen, 2016.

Vivek Shraya

Fast facts: A versatile artist, writer, and musician, Vivek Shraya has released 15 musical albums, published 7 books, and started a publishing imprint to highlight the works of diverse authors. Many of her storytelling touches on being trans, queer, and South Asian. She came out as trans in 2016 using her original song, “Girl It’s Your Time,” to announce her switch to she/her pronouns.

Start the conversation: With younger kids, check out Shraya’s picture book The Boy & the Bindi for a unique take on gender expression, Hindu culture, and a sweet mother-child relationship. With older kids, start with her illustrated book of short stories told from a child’s perspective, God Loves Hair; or her memorable interview in the second half of this Nancy podcast episode.

Qs to ask your kids:

  • Shraya has spent her career experimenting with all different art forms, including filmmaking, music, poetry, fiction and nonfiction writing, visual art, and plays. Which art forms would you want to use to tell an important story from your life?
  • Shraya said in a magazine interview, “My approach to art has often been, ‘There’s a wound, go deeper. Expose it.’” Why do you think Shraya—like many other artists—decides to make art about some of the hardest and most hurtful times in her life?
Pidgeon Pagonis, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pidgeon Pagonis

Fast facts: Pidgeon Pagonis is a queer, non-binary, and intersex activist who was diagnosed with androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) as a child and was forced to undergo unnecessary surgeries to alter their genitalia because they had characteristics of both male and female bodies. Pagonis worked with interACT and co-founded the Intersex Justice Project, part of the movement which recently succeeded in getting a major children’s hospital to apologize for and promise to end non-consensual, medically unnecessary procedures on intersex infants.

Start the conversation: For a quick introduction to what intersex means, featuring Pagonis and a few other intersex activists, watch this As/Is video, What It’s Like to Be Intersex. For more specifics about Pagonis’s life and experiences, watch their YouTube channel which has fun and open episodes about everything from appearing on the cover of National Geographic to surgeries they had as a child.

Qs to ask your kids:

  • When do you think it is appropriate for parents or doctors to make medical decisions for children who are too young to understand what’s happening?
  • Why do you think some people are uncomfortable with the fact that not everyone fits cleanly into the “male” or “female” box?
Credit: Mai Le from San Francisco, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons [cropped]

Alice Wu

Fast facts: Alice Wu is a film screenwriter and director whose films have broken barriers of representation for Asian Americans and queer women. When she started out, she turned one of her amateur stories into a movie script, quit her tech job, and decided to learn film editing. When it came time to create the film, Wu wouldn’t let any studios buy the script without letting her direct it and make decisions herself, because many Hollywood executives wanted to whitewash the Taiwanese American main characters. She stayed true to her story, and ended up making Saving Face, which in 2004 was the first Hollywood film starring a mostly Chinese American cast since 1993—not to mention a lesbian love story.

Start the conversation: Tweens and teens can watch Wu’s recent queer high-school romantic comedy The Half of It, and teens may also enjoy the groundbreaking 2004 rom-com Saving Face. Both films have plenty of family dynamics and coming-out moments to discuss. Plus, watch the brief Queerty interview where Wu discusses the special thing about high school, small towns, and other conversation fodder for your family.

Qs to ask your kids:

  • Have you ever seen another Asian American lesbian portrayed in a movie? Why do you think it is so rare?
  • Even though Wu was a first-time filmmaker when she was creating Saving Face, she was so confident in her vision that she wouldn’t let Hollywood executives make any major changes to the story. Have you ever had something you were so sure about that you just didn’t want anyone else’s opinion to influence you?

Dealing with school closures, childcare issues, or other challenges related to coronavirus? Find support, advice, activities to keep kids entertained, learning opportunities and more in our Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic Facebook Group.

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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.