Teaching the Whole Story
One School’s Struggle Toward Gay and Lesbian Inclusion
Last fall a teacher in my elementary school returned from a conference with information about the photo exhibit Love Makes a Family: Living in Gay and Lesbian Families. The colleague had been part of a team of four teachers at the school, including myself, involved the previous spring in the filming of the video It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School.
We were coming together again to make plans to display the photo exhibit at our school. We discussed organizing activities highlighting gay and lesbian inclusion during the two weeks of the display. I fully supported the plan. But at the same time, something inside me balked at the thought of presenting it to the school district administration. I didn’t want to relive all the controversy we had encountered the previous spring, when we did the filming for It’s Elementary.
But a conversation with the lesbian parents of Paul, one of the students in my second/third grade classroom, renewed my energy. We were discussing a protest to be held at a nearby church, which had invited an inflammatory anti-gay minister to speak. They said that they supported the actions of the protesters but that they were too tired to go themselves.
“I’ve gone to so many marches, so many rallies,” said Jane. “There isn’t a day in my life when I’m not confronted with homophobia. I’m just tired of it. I’ll let the younger people do it for me. More power to them!”
I knew I wasn’t any younger and was also tired of controversy. But I realized that the photo exhibit was an opportunity for me to assist in some of the struggles they faced every day.
Although I first became aware of gay and lesbian issues through my involvement with the feminist movement in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I began to make the connection between multicultural education, gender equity, and teaching gay and lesbian inclusion. Under our district’s Human Relations Program, I had been working for several years on curriculum for Women’s History Month, which included not only learning about women in history, but also challenging traditional gender roles. I began to realize that gay and lesbian inclusion should be a major part of this work, and that it also should be contained in the discourse on sexism, racism, and other types of discrimination and stereotyping that fell under the district’s multicultural umbrella. “Respecting diversity” were words that frequently occurred in the district’s mission statements, a commitment that I was to find out later did not fully extend to differences of sexual preference.
Addressing homophobic name calling, gay and lesbian stereotypes, and hetero-sexism became even more of a priority when I found myself teaching children with gay or lesbian parents. During the 1995-96 school year my classroom of 22 children was representative of the school’s low-income and working-class urban population, with six African-American, four biracial (African-American/European-American), two Asian-American (Hmong), one Mexican-American and nine European-American children. And, as in the last several years, one of my students, Paul, had two lesbian moms.
Although I was continuing with 15 of the students from my first/second grade classroom the year before, this school year had started out tense, with students challenging each other with teasing and name calling. After several days of more minor incidents, this culminated in a fight on the playground. I read a poem with the class (Coke-Bottle Brown, by Niki Grimes) and facilitated a discussion about name calling. We talked about the words that had sparked the conflict and discussed how they fell into certain categories, like racism and sexism. Kendra said, “I know a word. It’s homophobia.” I wrote it on the board and talked about what it meant and how it’s related to words that they had mentioned, such as “faggot” and “gay bitch.”
There were some negative reactions (among kids new to my class) to the word “gay.” Tony said, “I hate gay people.” After school he met one of Paul’s moms, Anne. Paul went up to Tony and said, “Well, do you like my mom?” He said, “Yeah.” Paul said, “Well, my mom’s gay, so I guess you don’t hate gay people.” Later, I shared with Anne what had happened. She said that she was proud of Paul’s efforts to prove Tony wrong. I shared in her wonder at her child’s strength and perseverance. Yet I felt uneasy. It shouldn’t be up to 7-year-old kids, I thought, to defend themselves and their families against irrational fears and hatred. I felt that I needed to do a more adequate job of shouldering Paul’s burden, of helping the students in my classroom to unlearn negative feelings and stereotypes about gay and lesbian people.
From this initial discussion of name calling until the last weeks of the school year anti-bias education was to become a continuous thread woven throughout our curriculum. The photo exhibit opportunity seemed to be a natural conclusion to our year-long efforts. What was clear to me and to most other teachers, however, as well as to many of our students and parents, was problematic for the district administration. As i turned out, the administration’s conflicting messages and muddled tactics, along with full coverage by the local press (our school was in the front page headlines for a week and featured on television news and radio talk shows), succeeded in creating even more of a controversy out of the photo exhibit than I had originally feared.
At an initial meeting about the exhibit with the principal, the assistant superintendent, and a parent, we encountered little opposition. The assistant superintendent assured us, “I have no problems with this.” However, after consulting with the deputy superintendent and the superintendent, she sent us a letter that implied otherwise. Along with flowery language extolling our “wonderful work” teaching acceptance of diversity and prejudice reduction was this statement: “Having a picture exhibition that highlights all the many different kinds of families would support your SIP (School Improvement Plan) goal, the larger issue of creating an inclusive school, as well as the philosophy of (our) School District. Selecting one family structure only would exclude and not be appropriate given our inclusive goals … .” The letter concluded with a suggestion that we meet with interested parents and staff if we intended to proceed with an exhibit within those parameters.
At a hastily called meeting of 17 staff members and seven parents, it was decided that we needed to preserve the integrity of the photo exhibit by keeping it intact. People agreed that mixing in photos of heterosexual families would dilute the message: that gay and lesbian families need to be recognized and celebrated. It was felt that the exhibit would be an opportunity for gays and lesbians to be highlighted, as has traditionally been done with other groups excluded from the mainstream of school curriculum. But despite the decision of this group and letters sent to the administration from the PTO and local clergy, gay and lesbian groups, university professors, and many parents, the district maintained its stance.
A week later, however, the administrators changed tactics and delegated the decision to the school community. They set up a meeting which, according to a local newspaper, The Capital Times, they decided was “not one appropriate for (district) higher-ups to attend.” The meeting, which was announced on television and in the newspapers as a “public hearing,” was called for May 1.
Some of the photos from the exhibit, black-and-white images of racially diverse gay or lesbian families in every imaginable family configuration (extended families, two moms or two dads, single parent families, families with stepparents, etc.), were set up in the school library for parents and other community members to preview. Discussion, however, was limited to two dozen parents who had either volunteered or been recruited by the principal to present different points of view.
The meeting, minimally facilitated by the principal and a district resource person, was described by The Capital Times as a “chaotic process.” The story began: “A punch was thrown, a moderator lost his cool, and parents were left in an uproar … .” Eventually a second meeting had to be scheduled to resolve the issues left unresolved.
Feelings at those meetings were indeed intense. People yelled, cried, interrupted, accused, and sometimes tried to compromise. Having an exhibit of gay and lesbian families was likened by some of the speakers to exhibiting photos of drug dealers or sado-masochists. While many cited religious reasons (“My religion says it’s a sin”), a few others gave cultural concerns (“Gays and lesbians are despised in our culture”). One of Paul’s moms, Jane, who said later that she was the only gay parent who took part in both meetings, related how difficult it was for her to sit through all the insults and attacks on her family.
At the beginning of the first meeting, our home/school coordinator read a letter signed by 37 staff members supporting the exhibit. The letter said:
“Dear (school) community,
“If we need to be diverse in our thinking and teaching, then we need to teach and talk about gay and lesbian families. … This is not about sexuality. This is about family structure. … Additionally, this exhibit addresses a pertinent safety issue. Children are often harassed or intimidated by other children using homophobic terms.
“We, as teachers or parents, always challenge a student who is making racist comments or insults. Yet homophobic name-calling — ‘You’re gay!’ etc. — is sometimes left unaddressed. … If we are to eliminate discrimination, we need to confront it in all forms.
“We, the undersigned (school) staff, are strongly supportive of having the Love Makes a Family exhibit at our school. We believe it is educationally sound and supports our SIP [School Improvement Plan] goals of prejudice reduction and inclusion.”
With the exception of the letter, teachers followed the advice of the union to assert our contractual right of academic freedom by refraining from debate. We joined the observers from the school and the community, who had been instructed by the principal and facilitator to remain silent. About half the parents in the discussion group expressed views similar to those presented by the teachers. They affirmed the need to be inclusive of gay and lesbian families in support of the school’s and district’s multicultural, anti-bias goals. Several stated that they wanted their children to grow up in a world in which they would be safe from discrimination, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Some parents refuted the parallels to the African-American civil rights movement that had been brought up in the teachers’ letter, but other African-American parents supported the comparison. Kendra’s mother, for one, said that she had encountered discrimination many times in her life and knew it well. “I can feel it now, again, in this room,” she said in an impassioned statement which received resounding applause.
Several alternative proposals were raised: They included leaving out the words Gay and Lesbian in the title of the exhibit, mixing in photos of heterosexual families, and moving the exhibit to the Reach room (a small classroom out of the main stream of traffic). Gigi Kaeser, the photographer who created the exhibit, and several parents deemed these suggestions unacceptable. “This is another case of forcing gays and lesbians back into the closet,” Kaeser said.
Toward the end of the second meeting, it appeared that little progress had been made. The 20 parent representatives had not succeeded in narrowing the gap between their widely divergent viewpoints. Suddenly, however, during the last 15 minutes, they reached a consensus. The compromise was very similar to the teachers’ original proposal: to display the photo exhibit in the school library; to provide alternatives to children whose parents requested them; and to communicate with parents. This compromise appeared to be more the result of time pressure, exhaustion, and resignation than of genuine conflict resolution. The meeting was adjourned, but the tension continued — in the stuffy and crowded library, in the halls, in the parking lot, and on the sidewalks surrounding the school.
REACTIONS FROM THE STUDENTS
Meanwhile, the students in my classroom were trying to make sense of the conflict. Some children were aware of their parents’ support for the exhibit; many of their parents had spoken out publicly. Cassie’s dad expressed his opinions in the local newspaper: “Why don’t they (the school administration) just say they don’t want this in here because it is about gay people?” Jodi’s dad was featured in the press as well, because he’d been involved in a scuffle with members of the “Christian Right” who were demonstrating outside the school during the first meeting. Paul’s moms lent us their rainbow flag, which we displayed until the end of the school year.
Emily wrote a letter to the local newspaper, which was published.
“Dear Mr. and Ms. Editor,
“Hi. My name is (Emily). I am 9 years old and go to … the school that’s fighting about gay and lesbian family posters being up in the library.
“Lots of teachers and parents think it’s a good idea because it shows another kind of family than we usually see. Some school bosses that don’t go to (this school) think it’s not OK.
“There’s some kids that live with two moms. I bet they feel pretty bad about this adult fight and I bet they want the posters up too, cuz it’s like their families.
“Kids don’t really know if they are gay or lesbian until they are maybe in high school. I don’t think you can tell yet.
“What the people are doing when they say ‘no’ about the photo essay is called total homophobia. I hope kids don’t learn to be homophobic by listening to the adults fight about this.
“Here’s a little something I can add, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia’s got to go!”
After Emily read her letter to the class, the dialogue that followed was far more rational and calm than that of the parents.
Anitra: I didn’t know your parents were married.
Lena: What posters are up?
(The student teacher explained the contents of the photo exhibit.)
Cassie: I wanted to stay at the meeting, but my parents wouldn’t let me. I think they should go up so people would know that being gay or lesbian isn’t bad and then they wouldn’t hate them.
Ian: You should fax your letter to all the schools in (our city)!
Samantha: I think two things. I do think they should go up. People can learn that they’re not bad, but just the same as us. But I think that there shouldn’t only be one kind of family. Just showing them gay and lesbian families looks like they’re different and they’re different because they’re bad.
Emily: If it were Hispanic families or any other kind, they’d say it was okay. They’re saying no just because they’re gay or lesbian.
Cassie: I know why some people are homophobic. It says that in the Bible that gay and lesbian people are bad.
Samantha: It should have been in our school first. A lot of kids tease about being gay or lesbian. Ellen came and reached over me to get something from her cubby and a kindergarten kid who was walking by our room said, “Oh, they’re gay!”
Lena: Those kids probably didn’t know what lesbians are. Lesbians are girls who love each other and gay means boys. Gay also means happy.
Ian: Oh, I get it. They’re together so they’re happy. That’s why you call them gay.
Cassie: Rob and Tom (a gay couple who are friends with her family) could come and talk to our class about gay rights.
Only two families had expressed opposition to the exhibit. Joel’s mom and dad wrote a letter requesting that their child not participate in the viewing of the exhibit. Ellen’s mom and stepdad came into the classroom after school one day, arguing that homosexuality was against their religion and family values. I reiterated the importance of respecting everyone in the school community, regardless of whether we agreed with them or not. They left the room with assurances that their child would not be ostracized for her family’s beliefs, and that alternative activities would be available for her.
THE BIG DAY
On the Monday morning following the second parent meeting, we went as a class to view the photo exhibit. After all the discord and tension of the proceeding weeks, the actual event felt almost anti-climactic to me.
I had assigned partners and asked the students to go around the library in pairs to look at the photographs and read the dialogues that went with them. I told them to pick a favorite photo to present to the group and, if they chose, to read parts of the accompanying scripts. Gigi Kaeser, the photographer, joined us for the discussion that followed.
During the discussion, I was somewhat distracted, first by the presence of a parent from another classroom who had been very vehement about his opposing views, and second by the uneasy scrutiny of the principal. But I remember how accepting and matter-of-fact the children’s reactions were. Far from seeing something exotic or sinister about the exhibit, the students were interpreting the photos and dialogues as what they were: portraits of families. When we had reconvened in a circle, I let each pair of students show the class the photo of their choice and explain why they had picked it. A typical response was, “Because it looks like a very loving, happy family.”
Many members of the class chose families with a racial and/or structural resemblance to their own families. Kendra, who has had a struggle accepting her dad’s second marriage to a white woman, picked a family composed of an African-American mom, her two children and her white partner. “I like how the kids didn’t like their new mom at first,” she said, “but then they changed their minds because she made such good cheeseburgers!”
Emily, on the other hand, laughed when she read from the dialogue accompanying her favorite photo, in which a girl said: “Teachers don’t teach the whole story about families in their classrooms. Teachers need to say that most families don’t have a mom, a dad, a puppy dog, and a boy and a girl.” “That’s exactly what I have!” Emily exclaimed. “A mom, a dad, a brother and a dog.”
Emily also said she liked the girl’s story of how she had dealt with her friends’ reactions to her lesbian family. In the exhibit text the girl said: “All of my friends have known about it. Anybody important to me has known about it and is cool about it … . If you can’t accept my mom, you can’t accept me.”
Lena, who has never seen her birth father, was attracted to a photo of a woman alone with a baby. She wanted to know how she got the baby and why she didn’t have any partner, male or female. “That’s just like me and my mom,” said Samantha, whose mom also has been her only parent since birth.
After about a half hour of discussion, the next scheduled class, a group of kindergartners, came into the library. I invited them to join our class until we finished, and they squeezed into our circle, some sitting on the laps of siblings or neighborhood friends. Interrupted only by the squeaks of the library book racks and the voices of children from other classes checking out books, the two classes listened attentively to the remaining presentations by my students.
AFTER THE EXHIBIT
After viewing the photo exhibit, interest was high, so I decided to ask the class to brainstorm related activities. Someone suggested reading a class book we had compiled during the filming of the It’s Elementary video the previous year, which was full of stories and pictures about gay and lesbian rights. “That’s not fair,” Tonisha protested. “We should write stories for a new book!” Other ideas included making pink triangle pins and designing posters for the hallway.
Such activities continued on for several weeks. During their free-choice time, kids made buttons, which they proudly offered to teachers. They started out by copying a pin I had brought in which had a rainbow background and the words “Celebrate Diversity,” but soon came up with their own variations in designs and slogans. They used colorful markers to make rainbows overlaid with pink and black triangles and peace symbols. Phrases like “Love one another,” “It’s OK to be gay,” and “Homophobia gots to go!” embellished the pins.
I also read several books about gay or lesbian families to the class. A favorite was a daily “read aloud” called Living in Secret by Christine Salat. Since the book had been suggested by a fourth/fifth grade teacher, I had wondered at first if it might be too advanced. The story, about an 11-year-old girl who runs away to live with her lesbian moms, turned out to be very popular. Students were relating on many levels to the story — to the element of suspense, certainly, but also to the family recombinations, loyalties, and friction that were familiar to many of them. “Read another chapter!” came to be the refrain, as our read-aloud time began to cut into recess and free time.
Adam composed a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. “I think gay and lesbian people aren’t respected enough,” he wrote. “It’s not like they aren’t allowed to go to the movies, or restaurants, but it’s all most like legal disrespect. I don’t know why people have disrespect for gay and lesbian people, because they aren’t gay or lesbian so why do they care. I have some advice for you homophobic people out there, don’t go out of your homes! There could be a gay or lesbian person anywhere.”
On the last day of the two-week exhibit, we went as a class to have another look at the photos. Ian was fascinated by a photo of a gay family with a dog. “They have a Corgi, just like I do!” was his comment. Afterward, we had a quiet writing time to reflect on issues related to the exhibit. As usual, the students chose a variety of ways to approach the topic.
Ian wrote: “I think people should all get along together. I think they should not be homophobic, because it makes gays and lesbian people feel sad. I think our school should have gay and lesbian photos in our school because lots of kids call other kids names and to educate the kids.”
Jeremy related the issues of gay and lesbian rights to racist name calling. “One time I got called a nigger and I didn’t like it so I went and told the teacher because I don’t like being Called that NAME because it is bad,” he wrote. “That’s why NAME calling is bad to say (even) when you are just playing AROUND.”
Emily wrote a science fiction story about alien lesbians who encountered homophobia for the first time when they visited Earth. “When they got to Earth they went to an A&W restaurant and a teenager called them ‘faggot.’ That was the first time that had ever happened, so they said back: ‘*@#$%^&*!@#$ %^&*!’ which means, ‘We are proud to be who we are.’”
When they had finished their stories, the students worked on drawings to go with them. A crowd started to gather around Paul’s table. He was drawing a picture of the Capitol building in our city surrounded by little circles that represented the 1,000 people he and his moms had joined for a gay pride march. As he drew he was counting: “…99, 100, 101… .”
As I watched the children cheering Paul for trying to represent all the people who supported his moms, I thought about the progress we had made. In our classroom, gays and lesbians had moved a long way from the “other” status that they frequently occupy in school and society. Gay and lesbian families and individuals had become integral parts of our classroom dialogues and stories. Homophobia, a word now known to all, had become as serious a charge as any other form of discrimination.
On one of the last days of school, Adam and Ian came rushing in from recess, flushed and agitated. “One of the fifth-graders is homophobic!” they said indignantly. “He was teasing us and calling us ‘gay.’” I assured them that his teacher would want to hear about it, and, without the trepidation usually shown by members of our class when they approach the 4/5 grade teachers, they confidently marched into the classroom down the hall to report the incident.
I thought back to the name calling incidents and discussions at the beginning of the year, and all the stress and conflict surrounding the photo exhibit. Although as a class and as a school we had felt the divisions and pain, we had come through. The rainbow flag that was flying at our classroom door was a daily reminder of our struggle and testimony to our commitment.