The National Black Justice Coalition and Cartoon Network partnered to release a comic strip that teaches kids about pronouns and respect.
While most people today would disagree with the adage “children should be seen, not heard,” many act as though young people’s identities are not theirs to articulate. Adults affirm children being expressive through extracurriculars. We encourage them to be entrepreneurs, and teach them to self-advocate. Unfortunately, adults can also limit and restrict possibilities for children.
The stakes around identity affirmation are life-and-death high: Sexism, homophobia and transphobia are pervasive, making it dangerous to be gender nonconforming. Perhaps that’s why some adults respond to questions around young people’s gender identities with so much fear, even coercion. Maybe we’re scared for them, or maybe we’re wedded to our bigotry. Whatever the case, it’s unhealthy for our children. They have to be able to be who they are.
In fact, there are scads of grown-ups who used to be children who hid their identities out of fear of rejection, loss, displacement, violence and other abuse. They needed to be affirmed and protected, and their communities failed.
- “I wish I had seen this sort of thing as a kid. I definitely would have come out sooner than I did. I’m glad that this generation of kids are learning these things.”
- “It makes me feel seen, and it warms my heart. All the younger ones who get to see themselves on screen and know their favorite channel thinks they’re rad? YES.”
The Stakes Are High
Suicide rates in trans and gender nonconforming communities are appalling, regardless of age, but attempt rates among youth can be as high as 50.8 percent. That’s tens of thousands of young people trying to kill themselves—and our data is limited. This must change.
Family and community support make a profound difference. A study from the University of Texas found that respecting trans youth’s chosen names across school, home, work and with peers resulted in “71 percent fewer symptoms of severe depression, a 34 percent decrease in reported thoughts of suicide, and a 65 percent decrease in suicidal attempts.”
Normalizing gender-expansiveness saves lives. It helps guardians love and support their children without stigma; it helps peers respect and affirm their friends; and most importantly, it ensures that people who defy the status quo can see themselves reflected in positive ways. They get to know that they are valued and worthy of love and belonging.
Affirmation Through Art
The comic strip collaboration between NBJC and Cartoon Network was the creative brainchild of a group of Black trans, queer and gay activists who sit on NBJC’s Youth and Young Adult Action Council (YYAAC). A conversation that began with the question of how to increase safety for Black LGBTQ+/SGL young people immediately honed in on a real danger—gender policing—and a key solution: respectful identity affirmation. And so the comic strip was born.
The comic strip depicts what it looks like to treat people who are traditionally overlooked, insulted or threatened with respect. It shows children and adults alike that they can, and should, feel empowered to assert their identity. It offers an invitation to adopt the use of pronouns as a way to make space for everyone, especially those too often left out. It helps us think critically about the experiences of trans and gender nonconforming people and it invites us all to be our best selves. The comic strip also offers a foundation for those who want to learn more.
More Work to Do
Reactions to the comic included concerns that teaching children about pronouns beyond a she/he binary would cause gender confusion, turn them trans, or be spiritually harmful.
In reality, what is actually happening is that children are realizing they are trans or gender nonconforming and repressing their identities to avoid abuse and rejection.
Moreover, the refusal, on religious grounds, to acknowledge or affirm people’s authentic selves, and the insistence on trying to eliminate aspects of identity, leads to religious trauma, which undermines mental health.
The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found 10 percent of survey respondents “reported undergoing conversion therapy,” and of those, 78 percent said it occurred under the age of 18. Youth who reported undergoing conversion therapy reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who did not.”
Let’s Do Better
We are in a moment of significant growth as a nation. We need to celebrate organizations like Cartoon Network who are doing the necessary, tough work of advancing inclusion in partnership with entities like the National Black Justice Coalition. Together we can increase both competence and compassion so that everyone feels seen and can find a space to be exactly as they are.