To say that I was sad to hear about the uproar over the picture of a boy with his toenails painted neon pink in the J. Crew catalog would be an understatement. The picture controversy had right-wing pundits and mainstream media frothing at the mouth, bemoaning the transgenderification of our youth and denouncing the act. As many parents of young children can attest, childhood is equal parts exploration and conformity. Many boys feel naturally drawn towards physical activity, weapon play and superheroes, while many girls fall madly in love with the color pink at a young age along with princesses and pretty dresses.

But the outrage over the pink toenails is symbolic of a society in turmoil over self-expression fueled by an archaic notion that a lack of conformity is threatening. It is not entirely dissimilar to religious doctrine that preaches strict adherence to a singular vision of morality and sexual expression, which has arguably contributed to the widespread sexual transgressions by members of the clergy.

To be clear, there is no equating pedophilia with repression or homosexuality. Part of the tragedy of the Catholic Church sex scandal has been the assertion by some that the pedophiles were latent homosexuals. But we have to wonder what would have been if the ideas of self-expression and self-acceptance were as valued in both the church and in our culture as the idea of conformity.

When I heard about the recent arrest of the athletic director at Archbishop Carroll High School for soliciting a student, I was deeply saddened to see yet another story about someone accused of shrouding their sexuality in shame and misplaced longing.

We have to wonder what could have been. What if more of us had been taught to listen to our inner voice, taught to love ourselves for who we are. What if thousands of closeted gay men were raised to believe they could be themselves and be accepted and loved.

It might not solve every inner conflict, but we have to wonder how many fewer tragedies there would be, how many would have sought help and not solace in the church.

What is most sad about the response to J. Crew’s photo is what it means for those among us who are still suffering, for those among us who risk their emotional and physical safety just being who they are. If a 5-year-old boy isn’t safe to paint his toenails in a playful and joyful moment with his mother, how can we expect anyone to feel comfortable being himself?

– Jennifer Katz

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