T-shirt power

On Being a Gay Parent

by Brett Webb-Mitchell    
Published: March 17, 2012 in On Being a Gay Parent

Best to admit it up front: I collect T-shirts. I don’t mean shirts by local retailers that have the name of a store emblazoned on them, in which the buyer actually pays to be a billboard advertisement for the company they just bought the shirt from. The T-shirts that I collect are ones that are emotionally charged with a memory and message. The habit of collecting T-shirts began when I was first running in many 10K, half marathons and full marathons. It finally spread over to colleges and universities I attended. Finally, I gave in to some of the places where I’ve visited or been on pilgrimage, gathering at least one T-shirt as a remembrance of the place where I’d just been. Every time I wear one of the T-shirts, I am instantly transported back to where I was before I got the shirt, remembered who gave or bought the shirt and even some times remembered putting the shirt on for the first time and how it made me feel…or made others feel, think or react.

I write “react” because in this day and age, there is often a reaction to a shirt being worn that has a powerful message that may delight some or bring out anger to others, with no middle ground. I’ve witnessed how some shirt’s message actually causes another person to do a rubberneck motion, taking a second look to be sure that they understood what the T-shirt actually said.

For example, I was on the board of COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), a group committed to making it safe for all children and young adults related to those who are LGBTQ and parents, guardians or close relatives. One of our board meetings happened to be in Orlando and so we spent one night enjoying ourselves at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Several of the board members — who were children of LGBTQ parents or relatives — wore T-shirts during our evening among the great rides of Disney’s theme park that simply said “Queer Spawn.” Hanging back at times from the group wearing the shirts, I was amazed at how many people no longer were looking at larger-than-life costumed figures of Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Goofy and were, instead, doing a double-take, if not staring, at the chest of the people wearing the shirt that said “Queer Spawn.” Some observers laughed or giggled, while many suddenly wore a sneer across their lips. Needless to say, the T-shirt probably started quite a conversation among many family and friends that night, running into the next day.

And, the reaction of the youth who wore the T-shirts? They knew exactly what they were doing and loved it. As we piled into another ride, they were smiling, chatting, laughing, not noticing any of the commotion they left in their wake. They were claiming who they were and were neither ashamed nor ready to be pushed into any closet because of the sexual orientation of a parent, guardian or relative.

I witnessed the same power of a T-shirt’s message when wearing a T-shirt at a recent rally against the NC marriage amendment held in the student union at NC Central University (NCCU) in Durham, N.C. In order to show our solidarity as LGBTQ and straight ally students, staff, administrators and faculty members of NCCU who were opposed against the vote, we wore Kelly green T-shirts that stated the following: on the back were the list of the groups that were opposed to the NC marriage amendment and supportive of LGBTQ and straight allies on NCCU’s campus. On the front was a simple symbol: three frames across the top and in each frame was a different stick figure. One frame had a stick figure of man and woman holding hands. Another frame had two men holding hands. The last frame had two women holding hands. Underneath these three frames are these words “Love=Love.” The shirt is bold, simple and clear in its message — there are all kinds of ways for a person to love another person and love is exemplified in all three scenarios.

While at the rally, I received no attention from the shirt message. I did not notice the power of the shirt until I left the rally. It was while shopping in a mall, buying groceries at the supermarket or working out at the gym in the shirt that I noticed people looking at the shirt. As with the youth who wore the “Queer Spawn” shirts, some people smiled, some stared, some even looked and then looked down at the floor. And, like the young people who wore their shirts proudly at Disney World, I wear my shirt proudly, in public, making it clear that love=love. Such is the power of a simple T-shirt with an audacious message for the entire world to consider: love = love. : :