Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Just Ella"

As we drove to a school fundraiser the other night, the following conversation took place:

Ella:" Mom, I don't want to be Bonaldo anymore."
Me: "Okay, what do you want your last name to be?"
Ella: "No, I just want to be Ella."

This sort of conversation pretty much sums her up. As I've talked about endlessly on this blog, Ella B (excuse me, I mean "Just Ella") is a free spirit with a big personality. She knows exactly what she wants and doesn't want and isn't going to submit to any societal expectations, even when it comes to last names.

I saw her three-year-old personality in full force when we arrived at the restaurant for the fundraiser. She took her usual fifteen minutes to warm up to the crowd of teachers and students excitedly talking to her and telling her that they know me. She was not impressed by my apparent fame in the least. However, before I even realized it, she had shed her sweatshirt and was running around the restaurant in her super girl costume pretending to fly. She played a few rounds of hide and seek with a friend of mine, and downed an ice cream cone like it was her job. People were in awe of her: smile as wide as her face, tangled hair streaming behind her as she ran. She was captivating, mostly because she was doing whatever she wanted without worrying about what anyone thought (including the wait staff).

This display seemed incredibly appropriate given the event we were attending. As I said, it was a fundraiser for my school, but I didn't mention that it was for our PLAHD club, the gay-straight alliance that helps raise awareness and support for the LGBTQ community at our school. The club is not only for kids who are gay, but for anyone who supports the notion that we all deserve to live our lives free from discrimination, hate, and inequality based on sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.

It felt rather poignant, then, to see my daughter, entirely unaware of the fundraiser's purpose, running through a restaurant wearing a Halloween costume in March, being 100% herself just as all three-year-olds are. It got me thinking about when that all changes. At what point does it stop being okay to be ourselves? Sure, there are plenty of kids (these PLAHD club members to name a few) who refuse to let society stop them from being themselves, but we view them as kids who are making a decision to be individuals, and to some extent, making that decision may marginalize them. When will that happen to Ella? When will she have to stop and decide whether she's going to be herself or conform to some expectation of her culture or society? And what will she choose to do if being herself means being marginalized? Will she be confident enough to stay "Just Ella" if others decide they don't like what "Just Ella" stands for?

I mulled over these ideas as we enjoyed our sandwiches and fries, and some time after my friend left, Ella asked, "Where'd he go, Mommy?"  I told her he had to go home to, "have dinner with his husband." As soon as I said the words, I cringed at what her reaction would be. I assumed she would say something like, "Mommy, that's so silly! Boys don't have husbands!"

But she didn't say anything. She just kept on eating her ice cream cone as if I hadn't said anything funny at all. And I thought, wouldn't it be great if she grew up in a world where despite all the tough decisions she'll have to make about which parts of herself to let the world see, she won't have to worry about that one? Wouldn't it be great if being an openly gay teenager wasn't a brave decision?

I don't know how the world will view homosexuality in ten years. I hope that today is the beginning of something really positive, but I know there are still so many people out there who don't want a kid like Ella to be herself if being herself means offending their values. I'd like to think there is room in the world for a free spirit like Ella, but I just don't know. In the meantime, I hope "Just Ella" can find a way to keep wearing that super girl costume long after it doesn't fit. I hope she never lets it go.

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