This is a guest post by my friend Cindy who lives in Canada with her wife and two daughters.
Spring is in the air – the time of warm weather, longer days, sunshine and, for some, events like the annual Father-Daughter Dance.* Many young girls are planning their grown-up outfits and chatting with friends about their dance moves. Their moms are getting ready to snap Instagram-worthy pictures of them all dressed up with their dads before they head out. But a few of their friends are quietly standing apart, not displaying the same level of excitement about the big night. Maybe one has a father who passed away and no one has ever come close to playing this role for her since. Maybe another has been raised by one awesome mom and never felt – until now – that there was anything wrong with that. Or maybe, like my own two daughters, one has two moms, two grandmothers, no living grandfathers, and lots of aunts and a few uncles who don’t live nearby. All of these children have very full lives and are loved as much as we would wish for any child. Should we, as a community, be sending messages that there is a problem with the cadre of adults who love them because of its gender composition?
As a child, I participated in father-daughter dances. I never thought about the kids who were left out by such a gendered event and the messages that such an event sent. I do now. I think about them every time I see a picture of friends on social media from a father-daughter or mother-son dance they attended. Here are some of those thoughts:
- Father-daughter dances exclude people without good reason. Inviting your parent to a big party and night out is fun! No one is arguing for disposing of good clean partying with your parents while they are still your favorite people on the planet. But the default should be inclusion. Family is a broad term that can include parents, step-parents, aunts, uncles, and kids of all genders; a family dance should be the default. If you are organizing or participating in a dance that only invites subgroups of the list above, why? Is the gym too small to hold boys and girls and their parents together? Maybe you could find a different venue, or host multiple nights, splitting the kids by age. Mixing boys and girls at a special event also reinforces the normality of boys and girls socializing, rather than making a girl whose friends are all boys feel like she doesn’t belong because her best friends aren’t girls and were therefore excluded from the event.
- Father-daughter dances reinforce heterosexuality as the norm. Many of these dances will, behind the scenes, “allow” girls without a dad to attend the dance with their mom or other significant female adult in their lives if they cannot come up with a significant adult who is male (though that is often offered as the first suggestion). This is parallel to how the presence of LGBT couples is “allowed” or tolerated, but not welcomed in various scenarios in adult life: you can participate, but all of the signage and messaging will remind you that you are different, strange, not the norm. All signs point to the fact that you, and your differences, are not truly welcome. Maybe the dance you or your children attend is hosted by a religious organization that is intentionally aiming to make people feel like homosexuality is bad; realize that if you are participating in the event, you are helping to send that message to children who are LGBT or who have families with LGBT parents.
- Father-daughter dances are a chance to show your children what being an ally really means. Lots of us like to think of ourselves as welcoming to LGBT friends and families (as well as any other family structure other than one mom + one dad) into our lives and want our kids to know that different family compositions are great! We read them books about families with two moms and smile and wave at our neighbors who are a two-dad family. But allyship is where the rubber meets the road. Being an ally doesn’t mean flying the rainbow flag once a year or sticking an ally button on your backpack; it means showing up when showing up counts, even when there is a cost to you. This could mean getting involved in the planning of the dance at an early enough stage to change it to a family dance. And if the event is to proceed as a father-daughter dance, it certainly means boycotting it or otherwise making it known that you do not agree with the message these dances are sending. No one you know should be left wondering if you support that messaging, least of all the child you are raising.
Over the past year, in a few select cases, I raised this issue with friends who I thought were or wanted to be an ally to the LGBT community. I explained why I was disappointed that they had a) participated in such an event and b) not vocally spoken out against the event. I generally heard variations of “I don’t disagree with what you’re saying but I didn’t want to rock the boat” and “I didn’t want to take this fun night away from my child”. If you have said or thought these things as you supported your child in attending a father-daughter dance, but you also hope to raise a kid who will stand up for people who are different, you have missed a stellar opportunity to teach your child how to be an ally.
In one case, the person I approached thanked me for raising the issue and committed to joining the group that runs the dance at her children’s school to advocate for changing it to a family dance. Truly, this is all it takes. Make sure your child knows what you are doing and why, so they can learn from your example. If you don’t win the fight to change it to a family dance (yet), this doesn’t mean you have to choose between being an ally and having a fun night out with your kid. Find a special way to spend time together while boycotting the dance and be proud of what you are demonstrating for your child. Someday, even if not this day, they will thank you for teaching them the value of standing up for what is right, even when there is a cost, because this is when standing up really means something.
*Many organizations will host a parallel mother-son dance. A similar set of arguments would apply.