I went to bed the night of August 14th, 2001 a selfish, self-absorbed, scared little girl. By the following evening, however, my life was no longer my own. All of the worries that were stuck on repeat in my head, all of the melodramas that played out before me, all of the fear that kept me incubating in a bubble, all of that seemed to mean nothing the first time I held my daughter, Avalina Rayne.
Something happens when you have a child. No matter how politically tuned in you are, no matter how environmentally aware you claim to be, nothing raises your consciousness quite like becoming a parent. Suddenly EVERY issue is a fight worth fighting. Wars, poverty and homelessness, civil rights, the rape of our environment, the inequity of our educational system; all of these social injustices crystallize before you as you realize that these problems are not just someone else’s to worry about. They affect you. Worse, they affect your child!
As parents, we can continue to turn a blind eye to the inequities of the world we live in; a world that our children are set to inherit, or we can pull up our sleeves and get to work. We can do our part to build a better world for our future generations. What’s more, we can do it with our children.
I began bringing Avie to rallies and events when she was 7 years old. Before that, I used scenarios in her little world as teachable moments to explain larger issues of social justice in ways she could understand. The discrimination of DOMA for example, was understood a lot better when it meant that Uncle Joe and Uncle Bill could not get married. Eating a mostly vegetarian diet was put into context when we would visit Abner, the Yorkshire pig we saved from slaughter and sponsored at Chenoa Manor, a farm sanctuary in PA. These small moments added up to a social awareness that sadly most adults do not possess. Before my eyes, my daughter was growing into an intelligent, compassionate, worldly young lady. She knew right from wrong, and she was not afraid to stand up for the underdog. It was this concern and maturity that made me feel she was ready to get more active.
My child-rearing practices have not gone without criticism, however. Older relatives have expressed fear for my daughter’s safety despite my assurance that I never bring her to an event that I feel could be dangerous. Strangers seem to like offering their opinions as well. If I had a dollar for every time I heard some form of the word “indoctrinate” I would have more than enough money to send Avie to college. However, I can’t help but find this critique amusing. First of all, it’s usually lobbed at me by some opposing protester who is standing next to their own child (as was often the case in Albany during the week leading up to the Marriage Equality vote). Second, parenting, at it’s very essence, is an indoctrination of sorts. From the food we use to nourish our children, to the books we choose to keep on our shelves, the holidays we celebrate (and those we avoid), the noise we accept from our televisions, all of these…all of these are ways our beliefs and opinions shape our children. Dr. Seuss or Eric Carle? Wooden toys or a room full of Fisher Price plastic? From the first time we take our child into a house of worship, or choose not to have them take part, we are “pushing” our ideals onto them. When we enroll our child in a public school, private school, or charter, we are making yet another decision that will directly affect our children based on our personal beliefs.
You see children are born a blank canvas. They know no god. They know no hatred, or bigotry, or prejudice. They have no feelings of superiority. They come into the world with a vulnerability that forces them to seek the good in people as a means of survival. They are trusting and know only how to love. It is not until parental biases come into the picture that a child is taught to dislike that which is different. If that is not indoctrination, I don’t know what is!
Actively involving children in the push for social justice offers, in my opinion, a better educational experience than reading about past movements in the history books ever could. Empowering children to believe they can be the change they seek in the world by actively engaging them in that change means so much more than reading the sappy platitudes of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” Involving children in the realities of this world, as opposed to shielding them from “grown up stuff” not only develops their character, it cultivates their curiosity, builds their empathy, and instills in them the strength to stand up for what they believe in, no matter what. Moreover, it offers children the opportunity to show just how capable they are to think critically and formulate ideas. Far too often Western parents “put baby in the corner” by treating them as tiny beings too precious to think for themselves, despite the fact that research shows young people’s brains are capable of a higher cognitive functioning than we give them credit for.
At the age of seven, I chose to actively involve my daughter in the fight for LGBTQ equality. I did this to teach her that when the government tells a segment of its population that they are “less than” through unjust laws, the majority must rise up and fight those laws. As Dr. King said, “what affects one directly affects all indirectly.” It was important that my daughter learn at an early age how interconnected we human beings truly are. How our actions have a ripple effect into the environment and the lives of those around us. That no one is truly free until we are all free.
At the end of the day, that is what the fight for LGBTQ civil rights is all about. It does not need to be a confusing discussion about the appropriateness of what happens in someone’s bedroom. It should not be a question of religion or what one individual’s god believes over another. It has nothing to do with which political ideology is “right.” The struggle is for full federal equality, plain and simple. It is for the right to marry the person you love, and receive the same benefits as other couples. It is to be federally protected from wrongful termination of employment or eviction from your home. It is to safeguard our youth from bigotry and hatred in school. It is to ensure that all people, regardless of race, class, sexual orientation, or gender identity, are viewed as completely equal in the eyes of the law. When you put it like that, it’s child’s play.
My activism has ebbed and flowed since I was old enough to advocate for a later bedtime. I have marched on Washington as part of the anti-war effort. I have rallied in front of City Hall to fight the brutality of the NYPD. I have blocked traffic and been arrested in the fight for LGBTQ rights. I spent the week leading up to the NY Marriage victory in Albany, advocating for equality with my daughter at my side. She missed the last week of school, but gained a lifetime of experience. Together we stood in opposition to the personification of hate. Chants of discrimination and fear echoed the Statehouse halls. Men and women, overheated and angry, yelled at my daughter and accused her of not knowing what she was talking about. Supposed men of the cloth followed her around with the sole purpose of making her feel uncomfortable. When it got to be too much for me to handle, my daughter insisted that we stay. That it was the right thing to do. Throughout the week, Avie saw just what believers of social justice are up against. From the hate and ignorance masked as religion to the divisiveness of the political system, Avalina witnessed first hand many harsh realities of the world we live in, and she handled it with the grace and aplomb that many seasoned activists lack.
Standing in the Senate gallery on June 24th, 5 days after arriving in Albany, tired and wearing clothes that had been hand-washed in the sink of the motel room we shared with 6 other people, Avalina witnessed history. As the Senate clerk announced “ayes 33, nays 29” a rush of absolute joy filled the room. All of the anger, and fear, and hatred that Avie had witnessed had dissolved into four simple words, “the bill has passed.” At the age of 10 she was not only witnessing firsthand what democracy looks like, she had been a part of the process.
Since her time in Albany, Avie has become a vocal proponent of anti-bullying education in her school. She has conversations with her friends about what it means when they say, “that’s so gay,” and has stood up to her classmates when they are disrespectful to someone who is different.
Will she always have an interest in being socially active? I hope so, though that is her decision entirely. At the end of the day, much of what I have tried to instill in her, from a desire for social justice, to the health benefits of a well-balanced diet, will have to be accepted or rejected as she continues to command her personhood. No one can be forced to stand up, regardless of their belief in the cause. Children are no exception. I would never force Avalina to be involved in something that she did not want to take part in. I do however encourage her to find her own interests and causes to fight for, which I believe is something any parent should do. Look at your child’s interests and go from there. Do they like animals? Take them to volunteer at the SPCA. Are they involved in sports or the arts at school? Bring them to board of education meetings when funding for extra-curriculars is discussed.
As Edmond Burke states, justice exists only because human beings make the effort to stand against injustice. It is our duty as parents to mold the next generation of freedom fighters who will rise up, take to the streets, and stare down the barrel of hate in a hot, crowded statehouse.
If I leave my daughter with one lesson, it will be that she never stops using her voice. Her words are her weapons to take down the gravest of injustices, to inspire those around her to act, and to stand up for those who cannot speak.
The world will be far from perfect when my generation moves on, but as long as we instill the values of equality, fairness, and action in the face of injustice, the kids will be all right.
Melissa Kleckner is a wife and mother, an MSW candidate, and a straight ally living one mile west from the greatest city in the world. She is a New Jersey state organizer for GetEQUAL and a member of Queer Rising.