Rep. Chrissy Houlahan and her daughter, Molly Rep. Chrissy Houlahan and her daughter, Molly

When my oldest daughter Molly was little, she would insist on wearing the most audaciously colorful and outrageous hair bows. They seemed sometimes to be larger than her head. At least that’s how I remember them. Her dark brown ringlets starkly contrasted with the rainbow explosions of curling ribbon that looked every bit like a continuation of her curls upwards to the sky like fireworks. She also insisted on wearing what I thought was an obscene amount of pink. And she simply loved every princess imaginable and all fairytales.  In Molly’s world, everything that glittered was good!

I’ll admit this was all confounding to me as a young mom. I very much wanted to make sure to raise my children to be empowered and to never feel the need to adhere to traditional stereotypes. After all, I had spent my life straining against them: serving in the military as an engineer, helping run a basketball apparel and footwear business, and teaching chemistry.

I struggled with how to raise what some would consider a very ‘girly’ girl. I tried to set my own biases and plans for her aside and let her be the author of her own story. I imagine that we all strive to give our children that space.

Fast forward to the present day, and I reflect on those memories against the backdrop of today’s troubling times. My daughter, Molly, is now 30 and a professional theater director – her childhood love of all things fairy tale and magic have become a career reality. Halfway through my own story – although a decade ago it was not part of my life plan – I am a member of Congress. And our nation is embroiled in a vicious and divisive reckoning regarding gender norms, particularly as they relate to children, teachers, and the LGTBQ community. 

This reckoning has translated into some alarming, troublesome, and hateful legislation. State legislatures are passing restrictive laws to tell educators that they cannot engage in some of the conversations that are likely to arise in a classroom.  “Tell me about your family” used to be a simple, straightforward question.  Now, it is fraught with decisions on how to respond to children of all ages when they discuss their life at home or themselves. The theory behind this legislation is that somehow teachers could be “indoctrinating” or “grooming” our children into non-conforming gender norms if they talk about these issues. Why did we lose trust in our educators to responsibly partner with us in teaching our kids?

Thankfully, that legislation has no path forward in our own state legislature – at least for now. To ensure it never takes hold in our Commonwealth, we cannot be afraid to speak up.

Over the last few weeks, I have had three separate visits with school-aged children. In all three, I have experienced a conversation with a child that gave me pause, and I’m sharing those stories with you today.

In one, I had the opportunity to visit a preschool setting, with a small classroom filled with both boys and girls. They were free playing in small groups, one with kitchen toys and another with Barbies and Ken dolls. Boys and girls played side by side in both groups, and I joined them. At one point, a small girl admonished her male classmate because he was dressing a Ken doll in available sparkling Barbie clothes: “Boys don’t wear dresses.” I didn’t know how or if I should respond. And I wondered how their teacher would have been able to respond if our Commonwealth adopted Florida-style legislation.

Just a week later, I joined a classroom of five-year-olds to read them a story. One of the illustrations showed a small boy dressed in pink. A student on the carpet declared: “Boys don’t wear pink!” Interestingly, a pink-clad male parent standing in the back quickly declared that indeed they did! Again, I wondered how their teacher would have been able to respond to this very innocuous situation had we all not been there.

And finally, just this week, I was with a group of fifty or so children of all ages. An eight- or nine-year-old with long blond hair in a green polo and khaki pants introduced themselves to me as Henry. Later, while we organized a picture, the photographer directed Henry by saying, “…and the girl in the green shirt.” Of course, that photographer didn’t know Henry’s name or gender, but I was struck by the fact that again educators could be restricted. Under the hateful anti-gay legislative initiatives now being enacted or threatened both at the state and national levels, what’s a teacher to do?

So, as we recognize Pride Month, I think of those children and of my Molly.

My daughter is an absolute wizard storyteller. We could see that coming her whole life. But what we didn’t see coming was when she came out as gay in her early twenties. She’s a proud member of the LGTBQ community and will marry her lovely and accomplished fiancée this year. They plan to build a life and a family together, one that I cannot wait to see unfold and celebrate with them.

 The Supreme Court of this land has ruled that gay marriage is legal. When my Molly and her  wife come to class with their children one day and a classmate perhaps chirps: “Where is the dad?” What is the authorized response and  indeed what right does any state legislature or any body of government have to define a family?

A genie – or in this case, a princess – cannot and should not be put back in the bottle. Our American story of inclusion and embracing differences is what unites us. It’s a love story with an inevitably better and happier ending. This Pride Month, I ask my fellow parents, educators, and lawmakers to simply love one another and embrace our diversity and differences.  My family, and so many families across our great country, are clearly stronger for it.

Houlahan is an Air Force veteran, an engineer, a serial entrepreneur, an educator and a nonprofit leader. She represents Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District, which encompasses Chester County and southern Berks County. She serves on the House Armed Services Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Small Business Committee. She is the recipient of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Abraham Lincoln Leadership for America Award which “recognizes members who demonstrate the bipartisan leadership and constructive governing necessary to move our country forward.”