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There are two boys I grew up with who came out of the closet some time after we graduated from high school. Looking back, there's no question both were gay, but I had no concept of gay and straight until I got to college. Despite growing up in a liberal family in a largely liberal area, there still weren't too many conversations at the time about how not every relationship looks like, say, my mom and dad's. Being gay wasn't a taboo topic; it just wasn't a topic at all.
Thankfully that's changed dramatically in the ensuing years. These days, my 6-year-old daughter knows that some men wear dresses, plenty of women marry women, and not every other first grader's family is like ours.
We have variations of that conversation often, sometimes as it relates to stories in the news or people we know, and something just because. It's critical for her to understand as early as possible that all kinds of love and people are out there, and our job is to be tolerant, respectful and empathetic of and to everyone, even if what we believe is different from any or all of them.
Never has the necessity of that lesson been more evident than in the past several days. Humans of New York recently posted a picture of a little boy looking seriously distressed as he sat on a stoop. The caption said: "I'm homosexual and I'm afraid what my future will be and that people won't like me."
Facebook initially removed the post and then put it back up, where it has received over 650,000 likes, 62,000 shares, and 60,000 comments. Celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres have commented on the photo ("Not only will people like you, they'll love you. I just heard of you and I love you already."). Hillary Clinton also offered her two cents: "Prediction from a grown-up: Your future is going to be amazing. You will surprise yourself with what you're capable of and the incredible things you go on to do. Find the people who love and believe in you—there will be lots of them."
Kids may be little but their feelings are as big and real as those twice their age and older.
Not all comments have been as supportive or shown much understanding of the boy's plight, however. One person wrote on a Yahoo story about the photo: "Oh PLEASE ... how does a tween even know he's gay and why is he worried?" while another said, "He shouldn't be 'recruited' by the gay community because he's young and confused."
Hopefully the boy is aware of the more loving remarks and knows of the far-reaching concern for him, but equally tremendous would be if the parents who have seen the photo and read the caption talk to their kids about being kind to everyone, no matter their differences or similarities.
Anyone who thinks a kid of any age isn't old enough to know about their "preferences" doesn't know kids. You don't need to be an adult to have fears, worries, insecurities and other concerns as they relate to your sexuality, appearance and relationships—and you don't need to be old enough to drive, shave, vote or drink to know who you are and who you aren't. Yet while no one can control what another person's child thinks or feels, we can help guide how our own children treat their peers.
Let this little boy's anguish serve as a reminder to our kids to treat their friends, classmates and playground acquaintances gently and with respectfully. Kids may be little but their feelings are as big and real as those twice their age and older. It's impossible to expect a kid can avoid experiencing pain or anxiety, but it shouldn't be futile to hope that all kids can be capable of walking through life—from the beginning—armed with compassion for and an awareness of everyone around them.