What a 3x5 vinyl sticker taught me about courage and empathy

Some years ago I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (which my husband teased me about because I’m not really into comics, but —whatever). In one early chapter McCloud discusses the role abstracted representations—cartoons— play as part of the vocabulary of comics, exploring the phenomenon of non-visual self-awareness.

Non-visual self-awareness is the way we hold a constant awareness of our body whether or not we are looking at any particular part of it. McCloud explained how this awareness can expand to inanimate objects that serve as extensions of ourselves:

“When driving, for example, we experience much more than our five senses report. The whole car — not just the parts we can see, feel and hear — is very much on our minds at all times. The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car. If one car hits another, the driver of the vehicle being struck is much more likely to say, ‘Hey! He hit me!!’ than ‘He hit my car!’ or ‘his car hit my car,’ for that matter … Our constant awareness of self flows outward to include the object of our extended identity.”

This fascinated me, because if you’d asked me if I considered my car an extension of myself, I would have said no. I’m not the kind of person who keeps a lot of stuff in my car or names it or anything. But I’ve definitely said “He hit me,” when involved in a fender-bender.

I thought about this concept again recently when remembering a simple sticker I put on my car four years ago this month and how courageous that felt.

Early in our daughter’s senior year of high school, she came out to us. And in an instant, my relationship to the LGTBQ+ community changed. Before, I considered myself a live-and-let-live kind of person. I had no problem with people who were gay, but I also didn’t involve myself much with any issues they faced.

Afterward, it got personal. I wanted to protect my daughter from any harm that might come to her because of who she was, but I had no idea how to do that. And if I’m honest, at first I felt both helpless and a little freaked out. I read some books and material online, but other than letting her know I loved her and supported her, I didn’t know what else to do.

About a year later, I got up the courage to go to my first PFLAG meeting. God Bless PFLAG, and God Bless Dear Abby, who has been directing people to this amazing organization for decades. (I realize I am dating myself as a Person of a Certain Age by saying I read Dear Abby, but 🤷‍♀️.)

At my local PFLAG chapter I met other parents, family members, and friends who wanted to support, celebrate, and advocate for their LGBTQ+ loved ones as well as support each other in what can at times be a jarring and confusing time. It was a place where I could talk through my worries as our daughter left for college and also celebrate when she wrote an article about coming out for the student newspaper.

I also got plenty of Rainbow Pride exposure.

I was not going to be the kind of PFLAG mom that had rainbow everything, but it seemed important that I had at least a few pieces of Pride swag I could wear if the occasion warranted it.

The following spring, our Lutheran church was officially designated an all-inclusive church that intentionally welcomes LGBTQIA+ people and their families. It was the culmination of a nearly year-long process that involved numerous informational meetings, Q&A/discussion sessions, the drafting of a welcome statement to appear on the website and in every bulletin, and finally a congregational vote. It passed overwhelmingly, but sadly our congregation did lose some families because of it.

I was so proud of my church that I bought a T-shirt and lapel pin with the inclusive logo. Voila! I now had Pride gear.

I wore the shirt to the gym, on walks, to church functions, and neighborhood activist events. I even got to wear it to the 2017 Pride parade when my daughter and I marched with a contingent of several Lutheran churches in the glorious cachopahany and contained chaos that is San Diego Pride.

After the parade, tired, sweaty, and with aching feet, my daughter and I made our way back to where our car was parked, but not before ducking into a funky independent bookstore in the Hillcrest neighborhood we’d been meaning to check out. After browsing for awhile I made my way to the register, and there on the counter was a stack of rainbow flag vinyl window stickers. Something told me I needed to buy one, so before I had a chance to think about it too much I added it to my stack and paid.

Buying that sticker had felt brave in a way that buying the t-shirt had not. I was actually a little afraid to put it on my car, so I let it sit on my desk at home for a while. Anytime I felt uncomfortable seeing it there I didn’t let myself think too much about why. I think it was because I was afraid the discomfort and fear meant I was ashamed of what it stood for. But I’d just marched in a Pride parade! That was definitely the gayest thing I’d ever done, so why should a little piece of colored vinyl make me feel any different?

Looking back, I realize there were two reasons why I was way less anxious about wearing the t-shirt and pin than I was about the car sticker.

One was because even though the the shirt and pin were rainbow colors, the logo said more about being part of an inclusive organization than about an LGBTQ+ identity.

The second reason was because the shirt and pin were things I could put on or take off as I chose. The car sticker — that plain, rainbow-colored flag — would be stuck on my car, which, as McCloud points out, becomes an extension of myself whenever I’m in it.

My anxiety about putting on the sticker wasn’t because I was ashamed of the identity the flag stood for, but because I was feeling a tiny bit of the the feeling LGBTQ+ folks feel when they show up in the world. This part of their identity is not something they can choose to put on or take off, and you never know how people will react.

San Diego storyteller and former teacher Steve Montgomery tells how he didn’t feel completely safe showing that part of his identity in his conservative school district in East County, and the toll it eventually took on him. He was hesitant to put a photo of himself and his partner on his desk and would constantly do verbal gymnastics such as saying, “I went to a great play over the weekend,” instead of saying “we,” to avoid the question of “so who did you go with?” Eventually, exhausted by the effort of constantly hiding who he really was from his colleagues and students, he retired early from teaching.

I was practicing making myself smaller and smaller so that I could fit into some preconception of what a high school teacher should be. I was worried that by the time I reached 65, there’d be nothing left of me.

This shouldn’t be a compromise someone has to make. (Which is why passing the Equality Act is so important. There are still 29 states that currently do not have explicit anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ+ people)

But even though I did not realize any of this at the time and still felt nervous about it, one day I peeled off the paper backing and smoothed the sticker to the inside of one of my back windows.

After a few weeks, I got used to seeing the Pride flag on my car. Pretty soon, I felt happy seeing it there. It had been a small gesture, but it felt significant.

The meaning of the Pride flag has also expanded for me. I once saw it only as a symbol of one’s sexual orientation or identity, but I now see it as a symbol of the freedom to show up in the world as your authentic self. And that’s something everyone should be able to celebrate.

What I’m Reading

I recently finished the audiobook of The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett (who happens to hail from Oceanside, CA, just up the way from me.) I’m a little late to the party on this one, but wow, it was so worth it. The story is about identical twin sisters who at 16 run away from their small, isolated Southern town. A few years later, one of them leaves the other with no notice, to lead the rest of her life passing as White. It is told in intertwining threads from multiple character viewpoints that span from the mid ‘60s to the late ‘80s. Bennett explores how that critical decision of one sister to cross over into “passing” affected her life and the rest of her family’s from that point on.

My favorite thing about this book is every time I thought I could predict what was going to happen or the way someone was going to behave, something much subtler and more nuanced transpired.

Another thing I noted was how Bennett included a secondary character who is trans whose transition isn’t a major plot point. Their trans-ness isn’t insignificant to the story, but it’s treated as just part of the spectrum of experience of the character, which I found refreshing. It’s important to hear transition stories, just as it has been important to hear coming out stories, but it feels like an important milestone in mainstream literature as trans characters are beginning to be portrayed more holistically.

I hope this issue of Be Your Own Hero gave you something to think about. What does the Pride flag mean to you? Do you own any rainbow Pride gear? When do you wear it and how does it make you feel? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment below — all respectful discussion is welcome. If someone you know would enjoy reading this issue, please forward it to them and/or post it on Twitter or your favorite social media site.

Leave a comment