Every month, Presbyterian Welcome hosts an event as part of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) and allied youth program. These events offer a space to critically reflect upon questions sexuality and spirituality, and how these are not separate lived experiences from the others we all face on a daily basis. This month, we went to the American Museum of Natural History.
I am reminded of one thing in going to the American Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on Pterosaurs: youth are much smarter than so many of us give them credit. Sometimes the work of youth group is minimized to what happens on any given Wednesday night youth meeting, or to (patiently) “baby-sitting” youth while parents can enjoy a night of respite. However, youth do not want to be baby-sat or controlled—they want to be creative, and challenged. And the Museum provided this kind of creative space and energy.
Even walking with the youth to the Museum was filled with kind of creative energy. For many of them, walking around NYC was a kind of new experience. Many of the youth coming into the City from New Jersey had never seen these sections of our fair City that we, iPhone in hand, pass by without a care. They marveled at the “hotel from Home Alone 2;” at how big Central Park really is; at the runners passing through us yelling “coming through!” This isn’t about remembering the simple things in life, but actually enjoying them. There is a difference in a feigned nostalgia and feeling the wonder of a City you have known only vicariously.
At the Pterosaur exhibit, the first thing they did instinctively was sit down to watch a movie about these foreign flying creatures. The film was short, maybe two minutes long, and afterwards they got up and realized they were in a museum where they could go an explore. Most of their time in this special exhibit was spent in a simulation area where they got to move and flap their arms as if they were the wings of a pterosaur. We walked around the museum taking in all the Toucan-, rat-, and pterodactyl-looking pterosaurs we could, and as we did, we got a sense of how different each pterosaur was, but also how different they seem to us. After this, we moved around to actually use large puzzle-like pieces to create our own one of a kind Pterosaur. The last leg of our visit to the Museum was to see as much as we could from what they remembered from the 2006 movie Night at the Museum.
Using what we learned, saw, and most importantly experienced, we headed back to Rutgers to have a group discussion. With the ideas still fresh in their minds, these youth saw the pterosaurs as something strange and odd. I asked them why they looked so strange? They looked funny. Weird. Interesting. Yes, but why? I pressed them to think about what makes something look strange. But here the answers were not as rapid fire as they were before, but mostly centered on how familiar they looked, but how different they were all the same—they were not quite as sure why they looked strange, they just knew.
In our discussion, we used our experience with the pterosaurs to discuss how sometimes we are seen as strange or odd, but also what other people say is strange and odd. The first thing that one of the youth named was disability. Recognizing that supposed strangeness exists in many facets, the youth were able to name not only disability as something that some people find as strange, but also cultural dress, body images, sexuality, and a myriad of other things. All of these things exist in our society based on perceived notions of “normalcy” such that whenever we encounter anything that falls outside of those categories, we don’t know what to do.
I asked the youth, what can we do about how we/the people around us react to things that are different. The first response was to offer a hug—a warm embrace that expresses love, not 'acceptance'; we said not to internalize those things that people say about them; and lastly, we said that wherever perceived difference exists, we would offer an embrace. This embracing of others doesn’t come easily, but comes with time and patience and practice of using all of our ‘muscles’. We left with a commitment to exercise our muscles by embracing ourselves and those around us. Embracing difference isn’t about erasing difference, though. Rather, It is a recognition of the inherent queerness in God’s good creation—pterosaurs and humans alike.