Updated: Oct 17, 2021
I bet my Catholic High School didn’t know they were preparing me to raise an independent and secure LGBTQIA child by offering Child Psych as an elective. The teacher immediately dispelled the common myth of sex/gender specific color and toy associations. I learned in that class (and in continued study of human development and child psychology classes for my nursing career) that sometimes kids want toys and colors we don’t typically associate with their birth assigned sex.
I was as prepared as one might ever be (I was not prepared) for the hyperverbal bundle of love that landed in my arms 2/8/1999. When my boy child asked for a doll, he got a doll. He played Daddy. He also played War and World Domination and I guarantee you he got that from his mother. We went to the ballet and he cheered for the villain. Things worked out. This was a part of normal childhood development.
In the weeks before he started kindergarten, our public-school system decided to go to uniforms. Children had a choice of navy, black or khaki bottoms and five or six colors of shirts. My son chose pink. Once again, neither his sexuality nor his gender identity ever crossed my mind. This was just an expression of normal childhood development but, still… children can be cruel. My job was to make sure my Zachy, The Zachster, Zachmeister, Zachman, etc., understood the consequences of small, unleashed cruel minds. I’d been painfully aware that my child was smarter and better with words than myself for a couple of years, so I grabbed something yummy for us, and headed for the house to have what, to this day, was the most profound conversation of my life.
Bridgie- “Zach, I wanted to talk to about the Pink Shirts before I go buy them. Can we talk for a minute? I brought ice cream.”
Zach- “Mommy, what do you want to talk about?” He climbed up in my lap for hugs and kisses before settling beside me to color and eat ice cream.
Bridgie- “Well, Zachy, people in this world are sometimes really funny about things. There are people who think that pink is only for girls.”
Zach- With a dumbfounded look, said, “Really?”
Bridgie- “Yes, it’s true. So, if you wear pink shirts to school some of the kids may make fun of you and say really, really mean things. It could be very difficult. What do you think about that?”
He had the ‘I’m thinking a thoughtful thought’ look.
He looked up at me with those soulful brown eyes and delivered the sentence that to this day I have no response to, other than – “Wherever you came from, I am blessed to be the one to nourish you.”
Zach- “PINK IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MEAN PEOPLE WORDS!”
I proceeded to the store and purchased the shirts.
He smashed kindergarten. He smashed life in general, and my favorite thing was just watching him do it. His biological father was deceased but he and I adapted and grew and thrived until life threw us the curveball of the century.
I had a cerebral aneurysm with craniotomy in 2007 and subsequent complications that made me an ineffective parent for several years. I woke up a completely different person. I made it back to him as his new mama about the time he came out as gay.
In the South, it’s rough to be LGBTQIA. I know it’s rough everywhere, but we’ve got some extra layers of “extra” down here. He was 12. So brave. He humbles me. I say there was no closet. He was a smidge quiet at first, but he was the only out gay man in our town at 12. Although there was nothing I could do to change what happened to me physically, he carried a lot of pain and resentment toward the loss of his mama! MAMA had always been there and fixed things but she wasn’t really there for too long.
For the next few years, we struggled to mend the broken bond. I knew I was losing my Zachy. The baby I could always reach, I couldn’t reach anymore. He was dying. He was dying of mean people words, manifested as self-destructive behavior and depression. Some of his wounds were from my own sideways grief at losing my previous life, and getting this new one that I wasn’t particularly excited about.
If you want to rescue someone, you have to put the safety harness on yourself first. I knew in my heart that my baby was on a bad path and I could not save him myself. It was bigger than me. Bigger than Zoloft. Bigger than a prayer. I needed help. I needed help desperately. I had to plant my feet and shout to the world, “NO! You may NOT have my son. You may NEVER have my son. Over my dead body will you have my son!”
I knew he could not hear me. I started looking for a voice he might be able to hear. I looked and I looked for stellar professionals who understood Trauma! (Capital T). Of course, these people weren’t on my insurance, so I applied for grants and loans. I asked my parents (If you knew, you would gasp). Gasp, please!
I found a wilderness therapy program in Utah. I was apprehensive about the bad reputation some of these programs had (not knowing I had amazing future friends there!). Realizing I was low on options, I flew my son and myself to Utah. To this day, my son will tell you that this program is the best thing that ever happened to him. For three months, he hiked over 100 miles and slept under the stars. He made fire from nothing. He journaled. He wrote letters. He talked. He got centered.
I went to classes. I journaled. I wrote letters. I learned about Mama Dragons and I evacuated my trauma. I traded bitter for better.
I went back to Utah three times before I brought him home. He was different, and vastly more peaceful. He finished high school and pursued Stage Management and Directing with authority as a proud gay man! He secured a highly sought-after internship quickly.
I was sitting in the audience of one of his smaller shows when it happened – that moment that I wasn’t sure I was EVER going to see again. The moment I want for every one of our kids. The moment when he stepped back into that childhood of, “I know who I am. You shall not unseat me.” In other words, this was when Zach had another Pink Shirt moment as a grown man.
During the introductions, the producer said: “…and of course our stage manager, Zachariah Heil!” Well, at best that usually gets compulsory claps because the stage manager is behind the scenes. My son got thunderous applause and his name chanted. He had to come to the stage. As I cried, I took a picture. I was joyfully exclaiming to myself, “You did it Zach! You did it! I love you! I’m so proud! Not because people are chanting, but because you’re peaceful. You’re joyful. You know your value!”
It was a brilliant Pink Shirt Moment!