Tag Archives: children

ABCs of LGBT: Why We Need Inclusive Elementary Schools

Last year, my son had an elementary school teacher who actually talked about gay people.

Last year, for the first time since kindergarten, Waylon’s classmates didn’t give him any flack about our unusual family. Fourth grade went by without an insult, an indignant question, or even a casual “that’s so gay.”

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Selma_to_Montgomery_marchessmallI happened to be in the classroom on the day after President Obama’s inauguration address. The students were studying the Civil Rights Movement.

“Boys and girls,” Mrs. Hardwick began, “yesterday the President mentioned the march from Selma along with two other movements. Who can tell me what other equal rights movements he mentioned?”

Hands shot up around the classroom. I looked at Waylon. I knew he knew. When the POTUS mentions Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall in the same breath, you can bet your sweet lentil casserole that it’s going to be dinnertime conversation in our queer feminist home.

But Waylon didn’t raise his hand. He was waiting to see what his classmates would say.

Mrs. Hardwick called on the first student, a little girl who proudly answered “women’s rights.”

“Yes, that’s right!” the teacher said. “What else?”

At this point, Waylon looked like his eyes were going to pop out of his head. It was a rare—perhaps unparalleled—moment in his education.

Fewer hands were raised now, but there were still some eager answerers. Mrs. Hardwick called on a little boy who was half perched on the back of his chair.

“Uh,” he said, as if he hadn’t quite thought of what he was going to say. “Gay marriage?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Hardwick said. “The president mentioned the fight for equal rights for gay and lesbian people.”

I looked at my son and saw relief mixed with wonder. His private home world had emerged into the classroom, and no one made any derisive remarks. It was just a simple connection between the course material and current events, the kind of thing that good teachers do all the time.

But it was a big deal, because the elementary curriculum in Texas is silent on the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks.

be-nice-sign-copy2Currently, our district’s elementary anti-bullying initiatives tend to be what University of Texas Psychology professor Rebecca Bigler calls “pro-social” interventions. They focus on interpersonal conflict rather than intergroup bias and emphasize empathy and social skills over teaching students to name and critique inequality.

When it comes to gender and sexuality, these “pro-social” interventions may miss the mark. According to Dr. Bigler, kids who enforce gender norms don’t necessarily intend to be hurtful. Sometimes, they’re merely sharing what they believe to be true.

So the kid in first grade—the one who told Waylon that it wasn’t possible for two moms to have a child—she wasn’t trying to be mean. She was merely sharing what she believed to be true about gender and families. And the current K-5 curriculum wouldn’t leave her any wiser on that score.

In a soon-to-be-published paper, Dr. Bigler and her team compared students who received pro-social training to students who received pro-egalitarian training that named sexism and put it in a context of social inequality. They found that students who received the pro-egalitarian training were more likely to be able to critique sexist stereotypes in the media and more prepared to challenge gender-based exclusion and teasing among their peers than those students who received standard pro-social lessons that emphasized inclusion and kindness.

Clearly, I can’t prove a causal relationship between my son’s year without bullying and his teacher’s willingness to name gay and lesbian people and talk about their struggle for equality. But, as a mom and a former teacher, I know that kids are smart. If their classroom lessons are silent on the subject of LGBT people, they’re going to understand the underlying message that some people and families are less than worthy.

I’m urging my district to adopt the Welcoming Schools curriculum, which puts LGBT families in a broad context of diverse families and teaches elementary students to avoid gender stereotypes. Welcoming Schools offers a wide range of resources for school administrators and educators to support students who don’t conform to gender norms, and it has been successfully implemented in diverse districts across the United States. Read more about it, and talk with your principal and school district about a collaboration that can be tailored to meet your school’s needs.

change1life


Back to School for Transgender Elementary Students

This fall, as elementary-age kids head back to the classroom, some transgender students are returning with more than just new school supplies. For these children, the beginning of the academic year is an opportunity to introduce a new name, new pronouns, and a new social identity.

Over the past several years, resources for transgender elementary students and their families have grown rapidly.  They now include multiple mainstream media reports (with varying levels of accuracy and sensationalism), new organizations such as TYFA and Gender Spectrum, and innovative medical protocols to delay the onset of puberty. While access to these resources is by no means universal, it is becoming increasingly possible for elementary-age children to begin their transition before the maelstrom of middle school.

However, as Elizabethe Payne and Melissa Smith suggest in their recent Huffington Post article, most elementary school teachers and administrators have not been trained in strategies for create an inclusive learning environment for gender nonconforming and transgender students.

As an elementary parent and an educator, I am passionate about welcoming schools. Katy Koonce and I recently had the privilege of creating a training for teachers and staff at a local elementary school. There are stellar materials available, and I wanted to share our outline and some of the things that we found most helpful.

Establishing a developmental timeline

As Payne and Smith point out, “Americans think of young children as ‘innocent’ and ‘asexual,’ so sexuality is considered unmentionable in elementary classrooms.”

Children are perceived as ‘too young’ for such conversations. Because of the ways gender and sexuality are connected in our culture and thinking, addressing non-normative gender brings the ideas of ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ into the ‘innocent’ elementary school space and is thus dangerous.

The first task of our training was to reorient teachers and administrators with accurate information about gender and child development. We used Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s The Transgender Child, specifically chapter three, “Developmental Stages and the Transgender Child,” which contains a detailed breakdown of gender identity at different ages. (If you don’t have access to the book, there is a version of this timeline available on the Gender Spectrum website.)

Information about developmental stages (hopefully) speaks to elementary educators in the language of their professional education. Our next step was to introduce them to the words and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming elementary students. (Again, our overarching concern at the outset of our presentation was to convince listeners that “this really happens at the elementary level.”)

To this end, our training included excerpts from Queer Youth Advice for Educators, which is based on interviews with LGBT youth from across the nation and includes several personal stories about elementary school experiences. This book is available as a PDF download from What Kids Can Do, and hard copies are available for $9.95. I give copies to school counselors and administrators whenever I can.

Establishing the costs of inaction

Once we had established that gender identity is within the purview of elementary education, we wanted to briefly highlight the social and emotional costs of unprepared schools. The personal narratives from Queer Youth Advice for Educators continued to be helpful on this point, especially when paired with GLSEN’s Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. Based on the 2007 National School Climate survey, this report speaks to educators in their language, linking harassment and lack of safety to poor educational outcomes.

In our case, we felt it prudent to follow the carrot of educational outcomes with the big stick of federal antidiscrimination law. Presumably most educators are already familiar with Title IX, the section of the Education Code that prohibits gender discrimination. We were excited to learn about a 2010 letter from the Department of Education that interprets Title IX as applying to gender-based discrimination that targets transgender students.

Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser—i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex. It also prohibits gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping. Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and gender-based harassment of all students, regardless of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the harasser or target.

Special thanks to the National Center for Transgender Equality for making this letter available as a PDF on their blog.

Outlining best practices

At this point, we felt it was important to move into practical, proactive policy recommendations. For this particular educational context, our recommendations included the following:

  • Honoring preferred name and pronouns
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Restroom accessibility
  • Staff and faculty training
  • Addressing gender inclusion in the curriculum

Our recommendations were based on personal experience as well as three excellent resources:

Curriculum for teachers and students

Initially, making suggestions for gender-inclusive curriculum seemed like the tallest order. After all, we live in Texas, a state that’s not exactly known for its progressive curriculum. Luckily, my friend Abe Louise Young alerted me to Gender Doesn’t Limit You: A Research-Based Anti-Bullying Program for the Early Grades, which was developed by the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at the University of Texas and distributed through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program. While not explicitly designed to speak to transgender issues, these detailed lesson plans include case studies and rhyming scripts to help young children learn to analyze and respond to gender-based bullying, and many of the examples involve behaviors that don’t conform to rigid gender norms. As an added bonus, the rhyming scripts can be useful for teachers who need words to respond to gender bias and bullying on the spot in everyday classroom contexts.

Future presentations

We learned a great deal from our first training with elementary educators, and we hope to continue to work with more schools and to share resources with other people engaged in similar projects. Personally, I’d like to write some case studies based on experiences of elementary students who have transitioned at school. Do you have other suggestions for other resources or ideas to help us improve?

Paige Schilt has taught college students for 18 years and served as Interim Assistant Dean of Student Multicultural Affairs at Southwestern University in 2011-2012. Katy Koonce is a former school social worker and a psychotherapist in private practice.


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