Tag Archives: sexism

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


Boys and Buddy Time

Yesterday I spent the morning perched on a tiny plastic chair, observing my son Waylon’s yoga class. Although I have studied yoga for years, kindergarten yoga was most enlightening. For instance, I learned that the lotus position can also be called “criss-cross applesauce.” And kindergarten apparently presents an exception to the ancient injunction that yoga must be performed barefoot. (I suspect that convincing a group of five-year-olds to put their shoes back on would challenge the inner calm of even the most accomplished yogi.)

But the most fascinating lesson occurred when the class paired up for “buddy time.”

The girls ran to their girlfriends with wide eyes and huge smiles. They hugged and swayed and held hands while they waited for the teacher to call out the next pose.

And the boys?

Same exact story. From the looks of joy on their faces, buddy time might have been Christmas morning. I watched as Waylon and his friend Charlie wrapped their arms around each other’s waists. Between poses, Charlie rested his head on Waylon’s shoulder.

I checked the other pairs of boys and found that they, too, were beaming and clinging to one another. Their happiness was infectious, but it also made my heart hurt. I took a deep breath and tried to stay in the moment, but I found myself already anticipating a future when this easy intimacy between boys would disappear.

Waylon is my first child, so I can’t say exactly when it might happen–second grade? fourth? middle school?–but I fear that, far too soon, the majority of these boys will have internalized the implicit and explicit rules of our culture’s version of masculinity. No more lounging with their head on their buddy’s shoulder, no more looking deeply and directly into his eyes.

Watching their little bodies lean against each other in supported bridge pose, I grieved for all that they might lose: the sense of trust and openness, the comfort of a friend’s touch. Girls have their own real and harrowing challenges in our culture, but I don’t think they are expected to eschew intimacy with same-sex friends as a rite of passage.

As adults, we sometimes defend against the awfulness of this loss by telling ourselves that these gender differences are inevitable, natural, even biological. But I defy any observer of kindergarten yoga to tell me that boys do not have the capacity to develop close, nurturing friendships with other boys. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that it is cultural forces–namely sexism and heterosexism–that threaten to impoverish the emotional lives of our sons.

At the end of class, the instructor asked the kids if they remembered the intention that they had set at the beginning. “To be happy!” they called in chaotic harmony.

As I walked out the door, I wanted to collar every parent in that class and plead with them:

Don’t teach your sons that boys can only touch when they are fighting or playing sports.

Don’t teach them to hold themselves stiffly and keep their eyes to themselves.

Don’t teach them by teasing and example.

Don’t do it for their future friends and lovers.

Don’t do it because you want them to be happy and because it diminishes the sources of comfort and support that are available to them in this hard and crazy world.


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