Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Reciting (and resisting) a pledge of convenience

I’ve always thought it was weird how children are the only citizens who regularly have to recite a loyalty oath to our country. It’s probably been more than a decade since you said the Pledge of Allegiance, as most adults prove their patriotism simply by standing during the national anthem at sporting events.

Yet, we make children pledge their allegiance to the United States, and we make them do it every day, like we suspect they’re using recess to plot an underaged overthrow of our government. This is the type of subversive curiosity that benignly bounces around my head, but has suddenly gone from theoretical to my living room.

My nephew’s school sent home a note instructing him to wear all white next Thursday because his class will form a human U.S. flag as they sing patriotic songs for, in no particular order, troops and social media.

“We’re going to make a video for the people who make us free,” my nephew told me, sounding like any properly indoctrinated elementary school student.

I believe most soldiers fight for a paycheck and the comrade beside them more than any sense of patriotism, that wars rarely have anything to do with freedom or justice, and that our cultural sentimentality for the warrior-hero gives politicians the capital to send more people, other people, to unnecessary death, supposedly to “make us free.” I suspect that conveying this to a 7-year-old could get both of us placed on a terrorist watch list.

“There are many brave men and women who went through a lot for this country,” I said. “And the best way we can honor them is to do everything we can to make sure there are never anymore wars.”

Instead of explaining to him my concerns about his participation in the nationalistic, warmongering propaganda that has become Veterans Day, I went shopping so his white shirt would be extra clean and crisp. As someone suddenly thrust into guardianship of a young mind, I sometimes tell him things that I realize mid-sentence I don’t believe, but which are the easiest way to answer his questions without destroying his emotional core.

My wariness was learned during our first weekend of living together, when he told me he knew Santa wasn’t real. I rubbed his hair and complimented him for being such a big boy, then was devastated by the hopelessness in his eyes as he looked up and asked, “So he’s not?”

I’ve kept quiet when people ask him whether he’s got a girlfriend because, as embarrassed as he gets by the question, it would probably be more awkward for me to start warning about gendered expectations. But there are parts of me that want to encourage questions about his girlfriend: my insecurity that our family will think I steered him toward homosexuality, and my hope that he enjoys the ease of heterosexuality.

When I came out, the only discomfort my mother expressed to me was about my safety, and how much more difficult my life would be if I were gay. Parental objection toward their child being LGBT is not always based in religion and spite, but often another way parents think they’re protecting their child’s emotional core.

I’ve been upfront with my nephew about my sexual orientation with the hope that he, like the rest of my family, will know that the easy, default mindset is not the only way to understand the world.