Tag Archives: school

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.


The Incident

A few months back, I wrote that my son had never been bullied at his Texas public school. Perhaps it was inevitable, given that Waylon is in third grade now, but a week or two later there was an incident.

The story unfolded over dinner at our favorite neighborhood Texmex restaurant. Waylon was well into his second bean and cheese taco when he broached the subject. “Mom, B– said that being gay is bad.”

B– is a familiar character in our dinner table conversations. He’s an older kid who attends Waylon’s after-school program. He has a prime position in the elementary school social hierarchy because his parents allow him to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Every day after school, B– captivates the children of our hippy dippy neighborhood with his encyclopedic knowledge of military weaponry.

“What did you do when he said that?” I was trying to keep my voice calm. I was thinking do not freak out, do not freak out, do not let him see that you are kind of freaking out.

“I said, ‘My parents are gay.’”

Oh my god, he’s like a LAMB to the SLAUGHTER!! What CALLOUS IDIOTS taught our son to be so trusting and forthright?

“What did he say?” my wife, Katy, asked. She was using her professional therapist voice.

“He said that must be why I look like his dog when I smile.”

I’m not going to lie; I wanted to track B– down and shake him ’til his eyes rattled. Then I wanted to drag Katy in the next room and chew her out for convincing me to have a kid in the first place.

Instead, I said, “How did that make you feel?”

Which sounds like a stupid thing to say. But somewhere, in the little part of my mind that wasn’t indulging in violent retributive fantasies or wallowing in guilt, I felt a tiny glimmer of hope that Waylon was willing to confide in his parents. I knew this wouldn’t be the last incident, and I needed to convince him that I could handle the truth.

“I don’t know,” Waylon said, looking kind of vague. “Bad, I guess…”

“Well, I feel really mad,” I said. My voice was calibrated to convey approximately 10% of my actual rage. “It’s not okay for him to say that.” I felt I was walking a tightrope, trying to help him identify his feelings without turning the whole conversation into the Seething Mom Show.

“Do I need to kick his ass?” Katy asked.

Waylon looked shocked. “I’m just kidding,” she said. “Sort of.” He smiled. I could tell he was glad that his mom had his back against a bully, even though he knew it was a fantasy.

Katy is a former bully herself, a gender nonconforming kid who kept people from messing with her by being the meanest, toughest kid on the playground. I emerged from a momentary reverie to hear her explaining about bullies, how they lash out because they’re scared, how B– was probably parroting his parents, repeating some version of the messages he’d received about himself.

Waylon was absolutely clear that he did not want us to intervene directly with B–. He wanted to see if he could handle the situation on his own before he risked antagonizing a powerful older kid.

The next morning, I was on the phone with the director of the after-school program. I didn’t violate Waylon’s trust; I didn’t tell her the name of the kid or any identifying characteristics, but I did let her know what had been said.

The director promised to respond with a generic lesson about name-calling and respect. I suggested that a unit on family diversity might be more effective, and she made some vague placating noises. I sent her a link to a research-tested curriculum about different kinds of families. I’m sure she and her colleagues had a good laugh about that one.

This is, after all, Texas public school. No one, not even the most progressive teacher, seems quite sure what they are allowed to say to public school children about the gays. Last year, I asked if our school could print the district’s nondiscrimination clause – which includes sexual orientation – in the school handbook. The principal deftly suggested that the school might run a statement in support of the nondiscrimination policy without actually printing the inflammatory words.

The next evening, when I picked Waylon up from aftercare, the head teacher approached me. He’d heard the details of the incident from his supervisor, and he wanted to assure me that they had a plan to respond.

“Yeah, we’ve got a whole bunch of worksheets for them. You’re probably going to hear Waylon complain about how boring it is for the next couple of days.”

Apparently, that’s our response to bias in Texas – bore the victim.

I was angry all over again. I coldly suggested that there might be a problem if he could predict in advance that his lesson would be mind-numbingly dull. It’s not, I explained, inherently boring material. Difference is actually pretty juicy.

But I knew I was barking up the wrong tree. The aftercare program is staffed by college students, and it takes training to facilitate the kind of conversation that these kids needed to have. It requires the freedom to acknowledge and describe all kinds of differences and the intense feelings they engender. I didn’t have much hope that kind of freedom was going to blossom from a worksheet.

As we walked to the car, I was feeling pretty low. I was ashamed of myself for snapping at the teacher. I felt guilty for being a self-employed writer who sends her son to low-cost after-school care. I felt like a self-indulgent jerk who had saddled her child with the burden of a weird family.

There’s nothing like parenthood for bringing out internalized homophobia.

Luckily, Waylon was in a talkative mood. “Did you see B–?” he asked. “I can’t believe he said I look like his dog!”

“I know,” I said. I stopped and looked him right in the eye. “I’m so sorry that that happened to you. I feel terrible.”

“Wait,” Waylon asked. “Why do you feel terrible?”

“I just think you’re so great, and I feel awful that someone would say something that made you feel bad about yourself.”

“Oh I don’t feel bad about myself,” Waylon said in a Mom-you-are-weird kind of voice. He opened the car door and tossed his backpack inside.

I’ve reviewed this moment many times. Was he feeling pressure to reassure me? Was he repeating something we’d said? Or could he really separate the slur from his own self-image?

When I was a kid, if people picked on me or called me names, I felt shame. I was afraid to tell my parents, because I didn’t want them to know that something was wrong with me. I thought it was my job to keep everyone happy with me at all times, which is probably why I didn’t come out until I was almost 30.

I’d like to believe that Waylon’s experience has been completely different. I hope he knows that the problem isn’t him – or even B–. It’s about whole systems of power and inequality, privilege and oppression, which we try to discuss in everyday words on everyday occasions.

In any case, we’ve lived through the incident, and I’m sure we’ll weather many more.

Mostly, I just hope Waylon keeps talking.


Dumbledore is Gaaaay

The trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has arrived. In order to convey the excitement that this news generated at our house, I have to confirm one of fundamentalist Christianity’s most apoplectic fantasies: the Harry Potter series is like the Bible in our queer home.

Dumbledore-s-Got-Style-albus-dumbledore-2477503-600-653.jpgI wish you could have seen my son’s face when we told him that J.K. Rowling had outed the series’ eccentric éminence grise, Albus Dumbledore. Waylon paused for an uncharacteristically long time, his little eyes blank with surprise. Then a slow grin crept across his face, until he was positively beaming.

For all of his short life, we’d been trying to help Waylon feel good about his family by telling him about famous queers who made a difference: Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Eleanor Roosevelt. But here was someone who was actually famous in Waylon’s world. Here was a gay who made a difference to five-year-olds.

Which was why it was so painful that Dumbledore should be the subject of the first anti-gay taunts that Waylon ever heard.

It was a few months into kindergarten. We were sitting around our battered rattan dinette, discussing Waylon’s hectic social schedule of afternoon playdates. Suddenly he looked down at his lap and frowned.

“I don’t want to play with V,” he mumbled.

“Why not?” I asked. “Did you have a fight?”

“No,” Waylon shook his downturned head. “It’s just that, I told him Dumbledore is gay, and he was making fun of Dumbledore.”

“What did he say?” Katy asked. I could tell she was straining to sound casual.

“He was running around the playground saying ‘Dumbledore is gaaay, Dumbledore is gaaay,’” said Waylon, mimicking his friend’s jeering singsong.

“Are you sure he meant it in a mean way?” I asked, hoping against hope that there had been some misunderstanding.

“Yes,” Waylon replied, shaking his head with certainty.

At this point, gentle reader, you might imagine a number of raw emotional responses that were wrestling inside my motherly bosom: wishing I could throttle this kid for crushing Waylon’s joy, wanting to call his parents and give them a ration of shit, vowing to devote my life to homeschooling my son and protecting him from haters.

In actuality, I felt shocked, unprepared. I know V’s mom. She’s a friend and one of the most ardent straight allies I’ve ever known. During our first tentative weeks in the kindergarten community, she was the one who made my tattooed genderqueer freak of a wife feel welcome in the circle of fieldtrip chaperones and classroom helpers. Wherever V had learned that gay was weird or wrong, it certainly wasn’t from her.

Moreover, V had spent tons of time at our house. He knew we were gay, and he liked and trusted us. Despite the hurtful impact of his words, I doubted that it had been his intention to wound.

Which somehow made the whole thing worse. It would have been easier to write the whole thing off as the ignorance of some redneck outliers.

In the moment, however, there was little time to think about the origin of the situation. Our son was looking despairingly into his mac-n-cheese. As with so many other parenting challenges, this one required a delicate balance between thoroughly responding to Waylon’s feelings and making the incident into a big, traumatic deal.

“Whoa,” Katy said. “That sounds disappointing. You were excited to tell V about Dumbledore, and then he made fun.” Waylon nodded. He looked like he was going to cry.

“How did that make you feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” he said. “Sad for Dumbledore.”

Sad for Dumbledore. The powerful parental figure whom he had idolized was suddenly vulnerable. It was hard not to see Dumbledore as a symbol for Mommy and Mama. Although we had talked with Waylon about homophobia, this was the first time he’d actually experienced the kinds of negative reactions that people might have toward his parents–albeit in an indirect form.

It felt like a lot for a five-year-old to have to deal with. Before Waylon was born, I knew there would be moments when he was teased or excluded because his family was different. I knew he’d have to discover that his parents’ identities were stigmatized, devalued. But knowing something and experiencing it are two different things. And he was so young! My head was a swirl of guilt, anger, and fear. It took every ounce of restraint to stay present with Waylon’s feelings instead of retreating into my own. In my turmoil, I reached for the most basic explanation that I know, the one we’ve used since Waylon was a toddler.

ToddParr.jpgTodd Parr’s It’s Okay to Be Different is as different from the rococo excesses of Harry Potter as a children’s book can be. The drawings are colorful stick figures. A few simple sentences fill each page. But its core message, so baldly announced in the title, has served as an explanatory rubric and family value ever since we first read it when Waylon was two.

“You know how we believe that it’s okay to be different?” I asked Waylon. He shook his head yes. “Well, some people don’t believe it’s okay to be different. Sometimes people are really, really afraid of any kind of difference. And because they’re afraid, they freak out if kids show even a little sign of being different. They might tease them or even punish for being different. And that makes kids scared and teaches them to tease and punish people who are different.”

Waylon looked like he was tracking, so I kept going. “And that’s sad for them,” I said, because they ‘re scared and acting out of fear.”

“Yeah, that’s sad for them,” Waylon concurred, sounding slightly cheerier.

“But we know it’s okay to be different, and we like Dumbledore for being different,” I concluded.

“Yeah,” Katy chimed in. “We like his purple suit.”

“And his long beard,” I added.

“And that he’s the greatest wizard of all time,” Waylon concluded, before turning back to his dinner.

The conversation was far from over. In the year and a half since the teasing happened, Waylon has continued to bring it up every few months. Each time, we help him re-tell the story, hoping that he’s making sense of it in a way that feels healing.

Right now, we’re about to finish reading the seventh Harry Potter book aloud. It’s the end of a family project that began when Waylon was four. Traditionally, each time we finish a book, we have a Potter Feast, which, for some reason, means eating chicken legs and drinking cream soda (AKA butter beer). Potter Feast number seven will happen some time in the next week.

We were planning our upcoming celebration after dinner the other night. Waylon was perched precariously in his chair, eating an ice cream bar while his parents cleared the table. “Remember when V made fun of Dumbledore?” he asked.

There’s a part of me that cringes every time he brings it up, because it confirms that the incident made such a big impact on his little mind. And there’s a part of me that’s actually glad when he brings it up, because at least he’s talking about it. At least he knows that his parents are not too fragile to help him deal with the emotional injuries of the playground. I hope that confidence will serve him later, when kids say meaner things that really are intended to hurt or shame.

Last night, Katy was telling Waylon about another silver-haired gay icon: Lady Gaga. “Waylon, between almost every song she said something about how much she loves the gays!”

Waylon, who has been known to shout “pa-pa-paparazzi” like a magical incantation, was listening avidly to Katy’s account of the concert. Then he broke into a chant of his own devising: “Gay is good! Gay is good! Gay is good!” It was irresistible; we had to start chanting along. And then somehow, I can’t quite remember how, the words shifted into a hearty and affirmative “Dumbledore is gay! Dumbledore is gay!”

And then we went upstairs to read.
Image credit for Dumbledore’s Got Style: tomscribble on fanpop


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