June 1 is the 6th annual blogging for LGBT families' day ! I am pleased to submit this post in support of this event. The title of this blog is Gender and Schooling, and as regular readers may note, I often take up issues related to sexuality and sexual orientation as well. This is not because I am confused about the difference between gender and sexuality, but it is because issues related to gender identity and expression are often misunderstood to be issues about sexuality and sexual orientation. In order to clarify these differences and work towards gender equity and liberation, it is important to talk and teach about issues related to sexual identity and orientation as well. (P.S. everyone has a gender identity, sexual identity, and sexual orientation -- not just GLBT people)
This week there were several news stories on the backlash and concern around lessons on these issues in elementary schools. For example, a school in Oakland, CA introduced a day of lessons about gender from an organization called Gender Spectrum for students in grades K-5. This initiative caught the attention of a local conservative legal group who then got involved. The Pacific Justice Institute opted to offer counsel to parents who wanted their children to opt out of this instruction. Their spokesperson explained, "this instruction does not represent the values of the majority of families in Oakland." He reported that three families chose to keep their children home from school that day. Hmmm...my math may be off, but I don't think three is a "majority."
The lessons in question reportedly included instruction around toys, colors, geckos, and clownfish (*gasp* clutch the pearls!). The primary goal as explained by Gender Spectrum trainer Troy Flint is: "to promote a level of acceptance that will allow all students to participate in school equally, and that is an important equity issue, which is supported by federal, state and local law, as well as school board policy." Sounds pretty dangerous to me.
In spite of this public resistance, the principal talked about her support for the project: "Really, the message behind this curriculum is there are different ways to be boys. There are different ways to be girls." Shocking, right? It gets worse: one of the students explained what he learned during the lessons: "I think it's about how it doesn't matter who you are," he said. "If you're a girl who likes girl stuff, or a boy who like boy stuff, it just matters if you're human." I can't imagine the trauma of subjecting children to such a radical lesson (insert ironic tone here).
The Fox News coverage highlighted a blog post from a conservative media group Media Research Center, that wrote how the plans were the latest example of a "gender-bending" agenda infiltrating mainstream culture, "This is only the latest example of what seems to be a New-Age, gender-bending agenda pushed into the mainstream media by those who refuse to accept the traditional sex differences between men and women." Fortunately, the principal stood by the program and was not cowed by the threat of media scrutiny and parental backlash. Too many educators are immobilized by these kinds of threats and their inaction and silence result in a hostile and harmful climate in many schools.
In another California school, a group of first graders were visited by children's book author, Eric Ross, to learn about marriage equality. He read from his book, My Uncle's Wedding and talked about same-sex marriage. This lesson was chosen as a way to talk about Harvey Milk and civil rights for GLBT people on the official state wide Harvey Milk Day. California is in a unique situation to address these issues due to all the controversy surrounding Proposition 8 and recent legislation introduced (FAIR Education Act - SB 48) that would require the inclusion of LGBT people and history in the social sciences curriculum.
As I point out in my book Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools - this resistance is common, but it shouldn't prevent educators from doing the right thing for their students and their schools. The backlash is particularly strong when this information is introduced in early childhood and elementary education settings. However, this is exactly the right age and place to talk about these issues. Most early childhood and elementary curricular programs include talking about families, relationships, and understanding the self as central to the learning goals for elementary-age students. If the school is silent about certain kinds of families, certain types of relationships - such as families that are parented by or include bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer and transgender people - then children quickly learn that their families are not valued or welcomed at school. This message subjects children to discrimination from the school and their peers that can include bullying, harassment, exclusion, and discomfort at school.
Research in Canada and the United States has documented the discrimination experienced by youth from LGBT families in schools.
These findings underline the importance of proactive measures to talk about gender and sexual diversity at all ages in school. I applaud the efforts of these schools and these teachers (and all others who didn't make the news) who work to teach inclusively about gender and sexual diversity issues. All families deserve full inclusion and respect in school.
Kosciw, J., & Diaz, E. (2008). Involved, Invisible, Ignored: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Parents and Their Children in Our Nation's K-12 Schools. New York: GLSEN.
Taylor, C. P., T., with McMinn, T.L., Elliott, T., Beldom, S., Ferry, A., Gross, Z., Paquin, S., & Schachter, K. (2011). Every class in every school: The first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Final report. Toronto, ON: Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.