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An Open Letter To Parents Whose Children Stare At Me In Public

“Don’t talk about strangers” is the wrong answer.

All photos courtesy of Jacob Tobia, used with permission.


It’s easy to turn an embarrassing situation into a teachable moment.

A child’s boundless curiosity can be an inspiring thing for a parent. Children often marvel at things their parents take for granted, and it’s a beautiful experience seeing the world through new eyes.

But when children are curious about strangers in public, this wonder can sometimes lead to embarrassing situations.

To address this, genderqueer activist Jacob Tobia recently wrote an open letter for Buzzfeed’s As/Is, in hopes of teaching parents how to address their children’s questions about gender nonconformity. Tobia, whose pronouns are they/them, is a member of both the Forbes 30 Under 30 and the OUT 100, and their amazing sense of style made them the new face of Fluide Beauty, a line of LGBTQIA-inclusive makeup.

Tobia was recently at a hotel for a queer conference, hanging out by the pool when they were stared at by some swimming children. The inquisitive kids, not used to seeing gender-nonconforming people, “Mommy, that boy is wearing lipstick!” and “Look, Dad! Look at what he’s wearing!”

Unsure of how to respond, the parents exchanged embarrassed glances with Tobia and told their children something like, “It’s not nice to talk about strangers.”

But Tobia believes that parents should consider these situations on a deeper level.

“In reality, when your child turned to you and said ‘Look, that boy is wearing lipstick!’ what they were really doing was asking a question: ‘Mom/Dad/parental unit, is it okay for boys to wear lipstick? Is what that person’s doing acceptable?’” Tobia wrote in their open letter.

Tobia says the don’t-talk-about-strangers response shuts down children’s natural curiosity and squelches teachable moments. It also communicates a level of discomfort that, according to Tobia, inadvertently furthers “the culture of stigma and discomfort that surrounds gender-nonconforming people.”

Tobia suggested that the best way to respond is by respecting the world’s natural gender diversity, writing, “You could say ‘Yes, Johnny, sometimes boys do wear lipstick and that is perfectly okay. You can wear lipstick too if you want!’ Or you could say, ‘Why, yes, Sarah, she is wearing a bowtie. Girls and boys can both wear bowties. Would you like one?’”

Read the whole letter at Buzzfeed’s As/Is.

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