“Wasn’t that rude?”

My son was recounting a conversation he had had with an adult at a gathering at a local park. The parent of a playmate was confused about one of the little ones — a beautiful human I am very fond of — who has been gradually exploring their personal identity through fashion. The adult asked, out loud, if the child in question was “a boy or a girl,” Brooks told me, livid.

“They’re just them,” he said. “I don’t know why that matters.”

I realized that day that my kid, who was maybe 8 at the time, had become a young LGBTQIA+ ally, something of which I’m very proud. Maybe it’s because he’s being raised in a world where he’s much more exposed to different types of people, both in his personal life and in the media zeitgeist, than at any other time in history. I hope he’s also learned good things from me and the world that we’ve created, which includes friends and family from that community.

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But I want his support to develop naturally, without tokenizing an entire community so I look magnanimous. Performative allyship is stupid. So I sought advice from the Rev. David Flaherty, pastor of St. Sebastian Independent Catholic Church in Parkville and Messiah United Church of Christ, an online community of older worshippers. I’ve known Flaherty, who has been out as gay since he was in seminary, since he led a church in Fells Point about two decades ago. He listened to my story about Brooks’ strong reaction to someone making a big deal of gendering his friend and said he thought we were on the right track.

“This is how I think we find a real way, when we take people as they present themselves. When you meet people, listen to what they are telling you about who they are,” said Flaherty, whose community is named for Sebastian, patron saint of athletes, who over time has become something of a queer icon.

The key, Flaherty said, is organic exposure to all kinds of people so your kids grow up considering that normal. He was encouraged by the number of young people he saw at this year’s Baltimore Pride, including at a drag queen story hour.

“Kids were there, and it says something to me. If there’s something that you haven’t experienced, I can get you to be afraid of it,” he said. “There are more and more children growing up knowing better. Nothing works against personal experience. People can tell you whatever you want, but you know better.”

As much as society has progressed, there are people trying to drag us back into the dark ages. Hate crimes based on gender identity and sexual orientation are on the rise, and the FBI even put out a cautious note of guidance in advance of Pride Month celebrations.

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Flaherty said the hordes of hateful people threatening to bust up drag shows, attacking trans people or threatening Pride events remind him of photos of angry white hordes in 1960 tormenting Ruby Bridges, who was trying to integrate a school in New Orleans. “They were screaming at that little Black girl who was just trying to go to school, screaming in her face. What is that? That’s not human.”

Hate still exists, obviously, but what’s different is that more people are willing to be open about who they are. “They will tell you that they don’t fit into a character,” he said. “The trans community is changing in their understanding of themselves. They’re using their [new] names and saying, ‘This is who I am. I’m not in the wrong body; nothing is wrong with me.’ We need to listen and see.”

And, when kids see their parents listening and not judging, they follow suit. As important as it is to be an ally, you can’t really declare yourself that — only the community that you are pledging allyship to can definitively say that you are helping. As a Black woman, I’m especially sensitive to that after 2020, when a lot of well-meaning white people reached out to me, truly disturbed by the terrible racial tragedies happening around the country, but sometimes made it more about them being good people rather than shutting up and letting me be heard.

“Can we try too hard to be allies?” I asked Flaherty. He laughed and referenced John Waters’ 1974 film “Female Trouble,” in which “an aunt is trying to convince her hairdresser nephew, ‘Don’t you want to be queer? Queers are so nice.’”

So, yeah, don’t do that, or objectify the person or make their queerness about how tolerant you are. Ultimately, it comes down to listening. Flaherty said that’s particularly important for young people watching their friends come into their own. “Whoever they are, when they are ready to be that person, they are going to be that person.” he said.

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“I grew up Irish Roman Catholic. Kids got into fights, like into physical danger, and adults always came in and fixed it. The first thing that I learned was that this [being defended] was never going to happen for me,” he said. “Before I knew what gay was, the language of the church was that there was something wrong with me. To be 60 years old, when you never see someone stand up and say, ‘That’s not cool,’ [it] plugs in [as] ‘something’s wrong with me.’ It’s foundational.”

To hear that my son instinctively defended his friend touched Flaherty because it signals to Brooks’ friend and to others that he is a safe person. Sometimes, accepting people as they are is the basis. I told the pastor how my late father, who was a devout Christian, went to see 1993’s “Philadelphia,” starring Tom Hanks as a gay man dying of AIDS suing for discrimination, and Denzel Washington as his lawyer. It’s not the kind of movie he may have watched if it hadn’t featured two actors he admired greatly, and he was so moved that he drove my sister and me to see it the next week so we could discuss it.

Flaherty had his own emotional experience with that movie, “sitting by myself sobbing” when a couple and their teenage children sitting in front noticed him. The mother “doesn’t say a word, sits next to me and held me for a couple of minutes. That seems to be as much opposite as the hideous hatred in the faces of that mob [against Ruby Bridges]. You just get to know each other.”

That mom was the ally he needed at that moment, because she didn’t have to do anything but cement her presence as someone who cared.

“I don’t know who that woman was, and I’ll never know,” he said. “But we worked as a family.”